Friday, July 01, 2005

HDTV ... on DVD Real Soon Now?

The picture we get from DVDs can look pretty darn good. But its resolution is limited to 700+ pixels across a 16:9 screen, and 480 in the vertical direction. It would be nice to have truly hi-def DVDs, with resolutions up to 1,920 x 1,08o, no?

Well, maybe it would.

Such DVDs are in fact coming, probably very soon. Problem is, they're coming in two mutually incompatible formats.

It looks as if the first of these formats, HD DVD, will debut in time for Christmas 2005. The second, Blu-ray, could premiere by spring 2006. HD DVD is being backed by one roster of movie studios, consumer electronics companies, and computer makers, Blu-ray by another. If you want to be able to play every movie released on high-definition DVD, you'll need two players.

Details of the format war that is shaping up between the backers of HD DVD and those of Blu-ray appear in this article from the Los Angeles Times website.

HD DVD and Blu-ray squeeze three to five times the customary amount of information on a disc that looks about like a DVD. Where standard DVDs holds a "measly" 4.7 gigabytes, HD DVD holds a minimum of 15 GB, Blu-ray a minimum of 25 GB. Those are figures for single-layer discs. Adding semi-transparent extra layers can double the disc capacities.

Of course, you need more data capacity for hi-def, lots more. Plus, the powers that be expect consumers to demand yet more special features on hi-def DVD titles. Those take up space.

The secret to all the extra data space is switching from reading the discs with a conventional red laser to a blue one with smaller wavelength. The shorter the wavelength, the more narrowly focused the laser beam can be. Hence, ultra-tiny digital specks on the reflective surface of the disc can be squeezed more tightly together than ever before.

Both formats' players will also play conventional DVDs, never fear. The sticking point is that neither will play the other's discs. The main reason is that HD DVD places the main reflective layer 0.6 millimeters below the clear outer surface of the disc, the distance used for conventional DVDs.

Blu-ray achieves its higher single-layer data capacity by raising the reflective layer to just 0.1 mm below the surface. The downside there is that today's DVD manufacturing plants would need a near-total makeover to handle the change to Blu-ray.

It is, moreover, apparently either too costly or downright impossible to build a player which can shift between the two focus depths and decode both HD DVD and Blu-ray discs. Or, if that's not the real stumbling block, then including all the decoding logic for the other guys' technology is. It involves paying patent royalties no self-respecting consumer electronics firm wants to pay.

Is this economics, or is it politics?

Possibly some of both. The point, again, is that two players will be needed to play all the blue-laser discs that will soon be coming out.

The two sides in the emerging format war each carry a lot of clout. The hardware manufacturers backing HD DVD include Toshiba, NEC, Thomson/RCA, and Sanyo ... plus, implicitly, all 230 members of the DVD Forum, the industry group which "officially" sanctions DVD formats and which has given its blessing to HD DVD. Microsoft is another HD DVD proponent, having announced that Longhorn, its next Windows operating system, will support the format.

And Microsoft is, by the way, the originator of one of the two advanced digital video compression methods available for use with both HD DVD and Blu-ray, Microsoft Windows Media 9 compression. The other available choice is MPEG-4 AVC. Either of these to choices may be used on any given disc. (Standard DVDs use the increasingly obsolete MPEG-2 compression method.)

Equipment makers favoring Blu-ray include Sony, Philips, JVC, Pioneer, Panasonic, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Hitachi, Samsung, and TDK. The Blu-ray list, Blu-ray advocates point out, also includes many of the numerous DVD Forum members. In the computer world, Apple is in the Blu-ray camp.

First among equals in the HD DVD camp, technology-wise, is Toshiba, primarily responsible for defining the format. Blu-ray is basically a Sony creation. Sony, in fact, plans to roll out its PlayStation 3 console with Blu-ray play capability next spring. That cross-marketing with videogame freaks may tip the format war Sony's way. But stay tuned ... Microsoft may be planning to bring out an HD DVD-equipped Xbox 2 before the PS 3 arrives.

The format war's outcome may depend mostly on which studios line up behind which format, however. So far, New Line, Paramount, Universal, and Warner Bros. have said they'll be releasing only on HD DVD, while Disney, Sony-owned MGM, and Sony's Columbia TriStar will go exclusively with Blu-ray. 20th Century Fox has recently signaled it, too, will be in Blu-ray's camp. Still on the sidelines are DreamWorks and Lion's Gate.

Everyone seems to expect the new players, of whichever format, to be pricey at first ... in the neighborhood of $1,000. The discs themselves will probably cost in the $25-40 range, for both formats.

The Blu-ray Disc Association's official website is here. A centralized repository of information about HD DVD can be found here.

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