Tuesday, July 18, 2006

HD DVD vs. Blu-ray (Pt. VII)

In HD DVD vs. Blu-ray (Pt. VI) I commented on this article on the early HD DVD/Blu-ray experience at the Forbes.com website. Now comes this review of the first Blu-ray player, the $1,000 Samsung BD-P1000, by Melissa J. Perenson of PC World. The review is accessible at Ecoustics.com.

Ms. Perenson states, "[Blu-ray] players from Pioneer and Sony that were originally due out around the same time [as the BD-P1000] have slipped off schedule to September and October, respectively." Those would be the Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1 and the Sony BDP-S1, the latter of which I erroneously assumed, in my earlier posts, had already shipped. So the Samsung player is the only Blu-ray machine in town, just now.

(I should also mention that another HD DVD player has joined the Toshiba HD-A1 and HD-XA1 players on the early market: the $499 RCA HDV5000, which is among those players reviewed in the Forbes.com review. The reviewer, Stephen Manes, didn't say much about it that didn't apply equally to the Toshibas, except to mention that "RCA's remote looked cheap but worked fine." Ms. Perenson notes that the RCA shipped in June.)

Ms. Perenson's review of the Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player is not done in great depth, unfortunately. Pluses were the player's styling, ergonomics, and low fan noise. She liked the "circular, pressure-based front navigation panel; ... comfortable, lightweight remote control; ... clearly readable front LCD screen; and ... ten-in-two card reader for loading photos or MP3s."

"Inside," she says, "the [Samsung] player uses a proprietary Samsung processor and what the company describes as 64MB of system memory." She goes on to give her mostly favorable impressions of the two Toshiba HD DVD players, as well. She then says that the Samsung player operates and accesses hi-def discs and chapters somewhat faster than the Toshibas (hers admittedly lacked the most recent firmware update) but still not all that swiftly — though no such slowness problem occurred with standard DVDs.

The acid test, though, is how well these players render hi-def video, about which Ms. Perenson says:

Among the Sony and Lionsgate Blu-ray movies I watched, I observed a distinct trend toward images with more noise than I might have expected from a high-definition image; however, other titles, such as Ultraviolet, were sharp and eye-catching. (My experience with HD DVD was similarly mixed, with an opposite tilt.) Nonetheless, compared with their standard-definition versions, these high-def films generally showed a marked improvement.

I'd say the jury is still out here. After all, as her review states:

Both formats use the same video codecs (MPEG-2, VC1, and MPEG-4 AVC), and both are capable of producing stunning images. However, a slew of variables that have nothing to do with the format per se can affect how a movie displays in high definition, including the condition of the original film negative, the codec used to encode the video, the quality of the encoding process, the bit rate of the encoding, and, on the player itself, what chip set is being used to decode the video. Another critical factor: What were the intentions of the director and cinematographer? Some films are purposely shot soft, others are shot dark and grainy, and still more are shot oversharp and vibrant.

As I mentioned in a previous post in this series, the Blu-ray camp has ill-advisedly limited its first disc releases to old-fashioned, inefficient MPEG-2 video compressions on single-layer discs. I'd say the "distinct trend toward images with more noise" which Ms. Perenson laments might well be the expected result ... and it could go away with future disc releases.

Ms. Perenson also complains that the Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player lacks the USB ports (for future gaming use) and Ethernet port (for downloading additional content and firmware fixes) that the Toshiba HD DVD players have. Thus, this player "will not support many of the advanced interactive features that supporters of the Blu-ray disc format plan to incorporate in movie discs over the next few years." Well noted.

Ms. Perenson observes that, looking to the future, Blu-ray has a seeming edge over HD DVD because it will at some point be able to fit more content on one dual-layer disc. But the format war with standard DVDs will be won not as much on that score as on (per the Blu-ray Disc Association's Andy Parsons) "how many new titles are coming out on a regular basis, and how much we can convince people that this stuff is better than standard DVD."

To that I would add: most people won't buy either new format until one of them issues a "killer app." It could come in the form of a make-all-your-friends-jealous movie such as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, whose Curse of the Black Pearl predecessor has already been named by Buena Vista (Disney) as an upcoming Blu-ray-only title.

Or it could come in the form of a dynamite convergence of home theater, Internet, and video gaming. Both camps, HD DVD and Blu-ray, tout the possibilities here. The first Toshiba HD DVD players have the requisite Ethernet port for Internet connectivity and even allow the user to configure an IP (Internet Protocol) connection, just as with a computer. In the future, hi-def content from a disc could be dovetailed with content from the Web for a highly interactive, movie-plus gaming experience.

Microsoft is backing HD DVD (see this article) and "plans to deliver a new Xbox 360 external HD DVD drive [this year]. The new drive will offer millions of Xbox 360 owners the ability to easily enjoy HD DVD movies and will provide consumers with even more choices for experiencing high-definition content, in either physical or digital form." Xbox 360 is, for those who don't know, a gaming console that will compete head on with Sony's Blu-ray-capable PlayStation 3 when the latter arrives in fall 2006.

But as noted, the Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player lacks network connectivity. Until more Blu-ray machines get here, it is HD DVD players that are in the better position to converge disc content, gaming, and Internet access into one bodacious killer app.

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