Sunday, October 23, 2005

Looking Forward to High-Def DVD?

One of the hot topics these days in HDTV land is the imminent arrival of high-definition DVDs. There's a format war a-brewin', with two mutually incompatible versions on tap: Blu-ray and HD DVD.

These two camps have apparently stopped negotiating for a compromise solution to the forthcoming so-called "blue laser" DVD rollout which will allow DVD discs to hold far more programming than they do today. The smaller wavelength lets the laser zoom in on smaller, more densely packed specks on the disc's surface. Since high-def content uses up a lot more data, changing the laser from red to blue can enable DVDs to go high-definition.

You can get the full scoop in the just-published "Winter 2006 Buyer's Guide to Home Theater" from The Perfect Vision magazine. The article "High-Definition DVD is Coming" gives a rundown on the two technologies and lists the first titles that will be available when HD DVD launches next spring. (The launch is now expected to come in March '06, followed in April by the Blu-ray premiere.)

Meanwhile, the the Nov. 2005 Sound & Vision (p. 17) says, "So HD DVD and Blu-ray [with negotiations shelved] remain headed for a showdown. But wait, soap fans, there's a new cliffhanger: Samsung has just announced that sometime next year, it will market a machine that can play both formats."

(Note that both kinds of machines will play all standard-def DVDs, new and legacy, just fine. Standard-def DVDs will continue to come out in droves into the foreseeable future, no matter what happens in the blue-laser format wars.)

If there is indeed a dual-format, combo player in the works, that will soften the blow of a format war considerably. And it will concomitantly undercut the Nov. '05 Widescreen Review effort to boost the High-Definition Disc Consumer Advocacy Alliance. That loose confluence of movers and shakers in the world of DVD and HDTV consumers would like to burden video equipment manufacturers and Hollywood studios with a greater sense of resposibility than heretofore shown. Not only is the looming format war over blue-laser DVD a travesty, but other choices the two camps may be making might wind up "punishing the innocent for the sins of the guilty."

The "High-Definition Disc Consumer Advocacy Alliance FAQ" piece (pp. 80ff.) informs us that the analog component video outputs of the new DVD players may down-rez HD discs to 480p, the resolution now obtained with most so-called "progressive scan" DVD players. Blocking HD on analog would be done — if it is done — to foil piracy, since analog output signals are not copy-protected the way digital signals are.

The new players can also "revoke" their own ability to play the new discs. If the powers-that-be learn that a certain player (or is it player model?) has been modified to thwart digital copy protection, it will be identifed as beyond the pale by having its "encryption key ... placed on a revoked list and transmitted to players on newly released discs."

The article is unclear about this. On the one hand, "that player would then be unable to play all high-definition discs." On the other hand, "every single player of that manufacture and model number could find itself on the revoked list."

The article also mentions other ways in which the actual implementation of blue-laser DVD may punish early adopters of HDTV technology, whose gear might not work optimally with the new players and discs.

But future buyers of HDTV sets are probably fine, be it noted. As long as their sets support either a DVI or, preferably, an HDMI digital video input connection with so-called HDCP copy protection — assuming their DVD players don't get "revoked" — no problem. (All the same, it probably behooves one to have at least two such inputs: one for DVD and one for, say, an HD cable or satellite box.)

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