Saturday, July 21, 2007

Blu-Ray and HD DVD Players and Prices (as of 7/21/07)

One of the easier ways to get a quick rundown on what Blu-ray and HD DVD players cost today is to visit this page at PriceGrabber.com.

Blu-ray and HD DVD are, of course, the two competing formats for high-definition video discs, one or both of which may someday supplant the familiar, not-so-high-def DVD.

Blu-ray discs (aka BD-ROMs) can't be played in HD DVD players, and HD DVDs don't work in Blu-ray players. Both hi-def formats' players usually accept regular DVDs as well (but some won't play CDs). There is at least one player which plays BD-ROMs, HD DVDs, and DVDs: the BH100 from LG Electronics.


HD DVD Players


According to PriceGrabber, Toshiba sells six HD DVD players:

  • HD-A1 - low price, new: $319
  • HD-D1 - low price, new: $324
  • HD-A2 - low price, new: $235
  • HD-A20 - low price, new: $318
  • HD-XA1 - low price, new: $394
  • HD-XA2 - low price, new: $595

The HD-A1 and HD-XA1 are no longer made. (Here and often in what follows, clicking on the model number takes you to a CNET review.) The HD-D1 was sold by WalMart and was essentially the same as the HD-A1, with minor cosmetic differences. These models are already obsolete, with performance and reliability issues that have largely been fixed in their follow-ons.

The HD-A2 and HD-XA2 are the respective second-generation, follow-on players to the HD-A1 and the HD-XA1. (There is also an HD-D2, the WalMart version of the HD-A2.) The HD-XA2 is Toshiba's current flagship HD DVD player, with nice features like HDMI 1.3 and 1080p output. HDMI 1.3 supports so-called Deep Color technology, meaning that each of the three primary video colors (red, green, and blue) are carried at 10 bits per color, not 8 bits. So if the HD-XA2 is used with a TV that also supports Deep Color/10-bit technology, the result can be subtler color gradations with no color "banding" apparent on the screen.

The HD-A2 only supports HDMI 1.2, with no Deep Color, and 1080i (though the HD-A20 adds 1080p; see below). The HD-A2 also lacks the 6-channel analog audio outputs of the HD-XA2 and many other high-def disc players.

The HD-A20 is basically the HD-A2 with 1080p output added (but not HDMI 1.3/Deep Color).


There is a single HD DVD player available from RCA. The RCA HDV-5000 (aka HSDV5000?) is, or was, the Toshiba HD-A1 rebranded by RCA.


Sony Blu-ray Players


While Toshiba was the original proponent of HD DVD players, Sony made the first announced Blu-ray players. PriceGrabber shows Sony has produced two models to date:

  • BDP-S1 - low price, new: $609
  • BDP-S300 - low price, new: $475

The BDP-S1 was Sony's original Blu-ray player. When it came out last year, it was the only player in either hi-def camp to output true 1080p. Since then the HD DVD camp has remedied that oversight, and it's hard to find a good reason to buy the relatively pricey BDP-S1 today.

To help narrow HD DVD players' significant price advantage, Sony recently came out with the BDP-S300 "budget" model. It can't decode high-resolution, lossless soundtrack formats like Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio. (The BDP-S1 apparently can decode Dolby TrueHD, with Sony's latest firmware update.)


Sony's PlayStation 3


Sony also makes the PlayStation 3 high-def video gaming console, which doubles as a standalone Blu-ray player. Its low price, in new condition, is currently $456, making it for many buyers an even better deal than the BDP-S300.

The PS3 produces 1080p video and utilizes HDMI 1.3. It apparently can pass next-gen surround-sound audio such as Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD to compatible A/V receivers via an HDMI cable.

The PS3 is unlike "real" standalone Blu-ray players in that it does not offer analog output connections, either multichannel or two-channel stereo. It outputs digital audio only, on any of three connectors: HDMI, optical, or SCART/AV MULTI. (The last is for European users.)

What form the PS3's digital audio output takes depends on the form of the digital audio track on the disc being played, on which digital audio connection is being used, and on selections made in the user menus. In general, the PS3 will output recognized audio codecs in one of two forms, linear PCM or bitstream. (See this PC World article for more on this and other aspects of using the PS3 as a standalone movie player.)


I'll go into more detail on the subject of digital audio output and the PS3 because what the PS3 does with digital audio output is much like what any other Blu-ray or HD DVD player can be expected to do.

• With bitstream output selected in the PS3, the audio bitstream from the disc will appear — as is, or in only slightly modified form — at the player's HDMI or optical digital output, whether that audio bitstream is linear PCM, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, or DTS-HD. The receiving component, usually an A/V receiver, is then expected to decode and use the digital audio.

Bitstream output mode is not a simple pass-along of the audio track exactly as it is found on the disc. DTS-HD with 7.1 channels is output by the PS3 on HDMI with only 5.1 channels, for example. Presumably the extra two channels are downmixed into the 5.1-channel output.

This confirms that bitstream output mode on the PS3, and presumably on other high-def players as well, requires the player to be able to read and decode the bitstream on the disc — not just blindly pass it through.

For an example of another player's bitstream output logic, the Sony BDP-S1 apparently demotes Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio to Dolby Digital 5.1 (tossing aside the extra data required for the "Plus" designation). In similar fashion, the BDP-S1 outputs DTS-HD, in bitstream output mode, as plain old "core" DTS.

It's not clear whether both DTS-HD formats, "High Resolution" and "Master Audio," qualify for bitstream output on the PS3. "Master Audio" bitstream output is definitely supported — it's the more data-intensive of the two DTS-HD formats, since it's compression is totally lossless. If MA can be output as a bitstream from the PS3, presumably HR can, too.

Nor is it clear whether bitstreams whose bitrate in bits per second are very high can be successfully passed to the PS3's optical digital output, specifically, which is slower than HDMI.

The SCART/AV MULTI connection on the PS3 is apparently ineligible for bitstream output entirely. It can output only 2.0-channel linear PCM.

• With linear PCM output selected, the PS3 will convert the audio track (unless it's already PCM) to multichannel linear PCM. It may downmix 7.1 audio channels, if present, to 5.1 channels, or it may downmix 7.1-channel or 5.1-channel multichannel audio all the way down to 2.0-channel stereo — it all depends on your connection type and on other variables.

  • 7.1 digital audio output channels of linear PCM is possible only with an HDMI connection, and then only when the receiving device can handle 7.1-channel LPCM input. Also, DTS-HD 7.1 audio tracks (whether lossless "Master Audio" or merely lossy "High Resolution," I presume) are always downmixed to 5.1 when converted by the PS3 to LPCM.
  • 5.1 digital audio output channels of linear PCM can be output on an HDMI connection, in linear PCM mode, just about anytime there is a multichannel audio track being played on the disc. The same is true for the PS3's optical digital out connector. Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, or DTS-HD — all these compressed codecs can be transcoded to uncompressed 5.1-channel LPCM by the PS3.
  • 2.0 digital audio channels of linear PCM can always be chosen for output on the HDMI connection, the optical digital out connection, or the SCART/AV MULTI connection, for receiving devices (particularly TVs) that can't use the extra channels.
  • Anytime the output linear PCM has fewer channels than the input audio track originally had, it is downmixed by the PS3 to the requisite number of channels. The extra channels are never just "thrown away."

The basic purpose of the linear PCM output mode would accordingly seem to be to force the PS3 to provide its digital audio output in a form that any receiver or TV can handle — i.e., PCM — rather than require the receiver or TV to decode Dolby- or DTS-compressed audio. Linear PCM output is the default choice on the PS3, if the user doesn't manually change the output to bitstream.


The PS3 originally did not upscale standard DVDs to HD resolutions, a feature that's standard on other Blu-ray and HD-DVD players, including Sony's BDP-S300. Instead, they default to 480p. But if the TV to which the PS3 is connected scales 480p to (say) 1080p nicely enough, that wouldn't be a problem.

(Note: since this report was first posted, it has received a comment from Kari, who says the PS3's latest firmware upgrade — system software update 1.82 — allows it to upscale regular DVDs after all.)


Other Blu-ray Players


Samsung was the second kid on the block with Blu-ray players. Their models include:

  • BD-P1000 - low price, new: $489
  • BD-P1200 - low price, new: $485

The BD-P1000 was actually the first Blu-ray player to become available, owing to delays in the arrival of the much-publicized Sony BDP-S1, which had originally been expected to ship before the Samsung player. It's now obsolete.

The BD-P1200 is Samsung's second-generation follow-on to the BDP-1000. Unlike its predecessor, the BDP-1200 can play audio CDs, and has an HDMI 1.3 port for Deep Color support and also for compatibility with the new high-bitrate audio codecs. Yet (as was also true with the BDP-1000) it can't decode Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD-Master, the two new lossless sound codecs. Even Toshiba's entry-level HD-A2, in the HD DVD camp, can handle Dolby TrueHD.

The BD-P1200 is one of the second-generation Blu-Ray players, however, that can output 1080p at 24 frames per second (24 fps), just as recorded on Blu-ray movie discs. That mode, which is sometimes called Source Direct, obviates an unnecessary conversion to 60 fps, which can introduce visible artifacts on the TV screen. But the TV at the other end of the HDMI cable has to be able to accept 1080p/24 input, or 1080p/60 output conversion must indeed be chosen in the player instead.



Another big-name maker of Blu-ray players is Panasonic. Its models include:

  • DMP-BD10 - low price, new: $599
  • DMP-BD10A - low price, new: $598

The DMP-BD10 was Panasonic's original Blu-ray player.

The DMP-BD10A (aka DMP-BD10AK?) is basically the same unit with a lower suggested price and with five free Blu-ray movies bundled with it. It features 1080p video output and decodes Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD High Resolution audio. The former is a lossless multichannel codec, the latter lossy; DTS-HD Master Audio, which is lossless, is not supported.

Philips makes one Blu-ray player:

  • BDP9000 - low price, new: $709

The BDP9000 outputs 1080p video but does not pass through or internally decode either of the two major new multichannel audio codecs, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD (in either its lossy High Definition or its lossless Master Audio form). It does pass through (but not decode) lossy Dolby Digital Plus, also a new codec, and it decodes familiar Dolby Digital (without the Plus) and DTS (without the HD).


Pioneer's Blu-ray player, the Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1, doesn't show up in PriceGrabber. It doesn't seem to be widely available online. There are a few sources that turn up in a Google Products search, however, and Google shows the unit's low price to be about $900.

The BDP-HD1 supports 1080p video output, but lacks HDMI 1.3 and cannot play audio CDs. Its ability to upconvert DVD video to simulate high-def quality is not as good as some other players'. It supports 1080p/24 output as well as 1080p/60.

"Combo" Players


Only one player exists which can play both HD DVDs and Blu-ray discs. It is from LG Electronics:

  • BH100 - low price, new: $799.

The BH100 is, as I say, the only "combo" high-def player currently marketed. But it won't play CDs. Nor is it a fully compliant HD DVD player, since it does not support HDi interactive features: technology that enables features such as customized menus and picture-in-picture video commentary over a movie. That means you're stuck with a bare-bones user interface on HD DVDs.

The BH100 also has significant audio limitations. Per CNET, "DTS-HD and Dolby Digital Plus are dialed down just standard DTS and Dolby Digital when output over the HDMI connection. If uncompressed linear PCM is encoded on the disc, output over HDMI is limited to two channels. And although you can get five channel DTS-HD, Dolby Digital Plus, and linear PCM to pass via the BH100's analog multichannel outputs, they cannot pass Dolby TrueHD in surround sound at all — all Dolby TrueHD soundtracks are output in stereo over analog and digital connections."

Furthermore, the BH100 lacks HDMI version 1.3, and the 1080p video output it is capable of delivering is locked in at a 24-fps frame rate. No 1080p/60 option is present, meaning the TV will have to accept 1080p/24 — and few TVs that input 1080p at all do it at 24 fps yet. Otherwise, high-def BH100 video output must be restricted to 1080i or 720p.


It is perhaps worth noting that you could buy a Sony PlayStation 3 for roughly $470 and a Toshiba HD-A20 for roughly $330, for a total outlay of about $800 — the street price of LG Electronics' BH100 "combo" player. You would then have the ability to play Blu-ray discs and HD DVDs at 1080p/60 resolution, as well as the ability to upscale regular DVDs and to play audio CDs. You could also play PS3 games, which the BH100 won't do. Nor would HD DVD playback be crippled by a lack of support for HDi interactive features.

True, you would be missing HDMI 1.3 support on the HD DVD player, with its ability to utilize Deep Color technology and pass along all the latest audio codecs and/or transmit maximum-definition multichannel PCM. (The PS3 supports HDMI 1.3.) But the BH100 lacks HDMI 1.3 as well, and furthermore won't decode multichannel Dolby TrueHD as anything but two-channel stereo.

It is also true that neither member of the PS3/HD-A20 tandem supports 1080p output at the film-native frame rate of 24 fps. If your TV supports 1080p/24 input, the BH100 might be a better deal for you. But most TVs today don't accept 1080p/24 — just 1080p/60.

It accordingly seems to this observer as if "combo" high-def players like the BH100 aren't quite ready for prime time yet.


Buying Strategy


All in all, it looks as if the smartest thing to do, if you want to buy a high-def disc player, is wait.

According to this considered opinion by the folks who create the TheDigitalBits website, HD DVD is apt to start playing second fiddle to Blu-ray in terms of industry support and consumer acceptance over the next year or less.

Already, there is only one major movie studio not releasing on Blu-ray: Universal alone is HD-pure. Meanwhile, Blu-ray has five exclusive studios: Disney, Fox, MGM, Lionsgate and Sony. Three remaining majors — Warner, Paramount, and DreamWorks — support both formats, and New Line has indicated it will likely do the same. TheDigitalBits thinks Universal will cave and go "format neutral" — i.e., release discs in both Blu-Ray and HD DVD — by next January at the latest.

As of right now, HD-DVD has 207 titles released, plus 54 more announced. Blu-ray has 241 titles released, with 40 more announced.

Sony's Blu-ray players could drop to as low as $299 by the holidays this year, according to this online story. Pioneer, Panasonic, Philips and Samsung say they will have cheaper players available by the end of the year as well, some of them in the $399 price range.

That's not as cheap as some HD DVD players already go for, as noted above ... apparently because Toshiba is selling players at a loss to lock in consumer support for its pet disc format, since it gets royalties on every disc sold. That keeps other manufacturers, who get no royalties, from joining the HD DVD bandwagon; they just aren't interested in negative profits. But Toshiba can't eat losses on player sales forever.

TheDigitalBits thinks Microsoft may be subsidizing those losses because it (temporarily) favors HD DVD over Blu-ray. After all, HD DVD discs typically use Microsoft's VC-1 video compression codec, putting money in Microsoft's coffers. (Blu-ray discs increasingly use the same codec, however.) Microsoft's Xbox 360 video gaming console has an HD DVD option, but not one for Blu-ray — but one for Blu-ray could easily become a future add-on.

But Microsoft ultimately wants to kayo disc-based home video entirely, in favor of online downloads à la Xbox Live. TheDigitalBits says:

Microsoft doesn't give a rip about HD-DVD, or movies on disc at all for that matter, except to the extent that backing HD-DVD for a while now both undermines Sony's efforts and leverages Microsoft's success in achieving their ultimate goal of dominating the future of online distribution of digital entertainment. And hey... if fueling a format war in the meantime creates consumer confusion that hastens the demise of discs and the advent of mainstream downloading, so much the better for Microsoft. That's how we see it.

TheDigitalBits thinks Blu-ray will triumph anyway, Microsoft be damned. HD DVD may hang on for quite some time as a second consumer format, the way Sony's own Betamax did even after VHS had come to dominate the VCR market. But it looks like consumers no longer need to fear adopting Blu-ray, if they so desire.

Still, I think it best to wait until lower-priced, fuller-featured Blu-ray players appear, before I buy. In addition to being more affordable, they're likely to support 1080p output at 24 fps or 60 fps, at the user's option; HDMI 1.3 with Deep Color and full support for advanced multichannel audio codecs; internal decoding (and also pass-along) of lossless audio codecs such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, with no quality compromises; audio CD play; and uniformly excellent upscaling of regular DVDs to 1080p.


Another reason to wait to buy Blu-ray is that current players support only a crippled, introductory version of Blu-ray's slated repertoire of interactive audio and video capabilities. These extra capabilities above and beyond the standard ability to just play a movie are lumped together under the designation BD-Video.

The version of BD-Video in current Blu-ray players, profile 1.0, lacks the ability to play the various interactive features of Blu-ray discs that are said to be coming in the near future: picture-in-picture filmmakers' commentaries, secondary audio mixing of voiceover commentaries with movie soundtracks, and persistent snapshots of video frames to be stored in flash memory.

BD-Video profile 1.1 is due to arrive in player models introduced after the end of October 2007, along with new disc releases that have interactive features.

Theoretically, profile-1.0 players could gain some of profile 1.1's interactive ability with firmware updates alone, but without the necessary extra memory and other hardware upgrades, their compatibility with BD-Video/BD-Live would be limited at best.

Another future version of Blu-ray interactivity is called BD-Live. Also called BD-Video profile 2.0, it adds yet more memory and the ability for the player to go online to the Internet to get extra content to go with what's already on the disc. With BD-Live content implemented, movie studios can incorporate the capabilities to download new trailers, additional behind the scenes footage or even a whole website that can be pulled up when you insert the disc in the player. There is no firm date for BD-Live's arrival in Blu-ray players.

BD-Java (a.k.a. BD-J) is a computer language that is built into all Blu-ray players, even current models. Future BD-J "extras" will allow players yet to come to play all of that profile 1.1/2.0 interactive content ... given that the necessary BD-Video/BD-Live profile is also fully implemented in the player's hardware and firmware.

The HD DVD camp has had what it calls "advanced content" — its implementation of interactive disc content — right from the start. HD DVD interactivity uses the HDi Interactive Format. This area of disc interactivity is clearly one in which Blu-ray is playing catchup.

2 comments:

Kari said...

Great report. To correct one note though, with the latest firmware update (1.82), the PS3 can upscale regular DVDs.

http://www.us.playstation.com/ps3/network/updates

Anonymous said...

There has been many changes with each firmware update. A full compatibility chart is available at http://www.edepot.com/playstation3.html