Saturday, August 04, 2007

Dispatches from the Format War, #2

The format war of high-definition video disc formats proceeds apace. An excellent website that provides in-depth reviews of discs on HD DVD and Blu-ray, without bias toward one side or the other, is High-Def Digest.

The site is the brainchild of publisher Jed Rosenzweig, editor/senior reviewer Peter M. Bracke, reviewer Kenneth Brown, and engineer Zachary Holt. Also featured at the site are news reports on upcoming Blu-ray and HD DVD releases, plus an easy-to-access list of past, present, and future release dates for both formats.

The Digital Bits has long been a must-visit website for me and other DVD lovers. It does what High-Def Digest does, but for regular DVDs plus HD DVD and Blu-ray. Inexplicably, although it has adopted a pro-Blu-ray stance and predicts that the format will eventually win out over HD DVD, it has as of August 4, 2007, reviewed only six Blu-ray discs! The number of HD DVD discs it has reviewed totals 36.

TDB is useful for keeping up with the official stats as to how each format is doing in the marketplace. As of the end of July 2007, 60 percent of the high-definition discs that have been sold are Blu-ray, while only 40 percent are HD DVD. In the week ending July 22, the split was an even more lopsided 66/34.

Meanwhile, 274 Blu-ray titles have been released, to 259 for HD DVD. Blu-ray has announced 63 additional titles, HD DVD 47.

This is an impressive tilt in Blu-ray's favor, especially considering that HD DVD players and discs hit store shelves first. Then when Blu-ray debuted, it did so with a player, the Samsung BD-P1000, whose picture quality the manufacturer had inadvertently crippled. (A scaler chip had been told to do unnecessary noise reduction, softening the supposedly razor-sharp high-def image. That's now been fixed with a firmware update.)

Add to that the fact that the first Blu-ray releases did not take advantage of the next-gen video codecs the HD DVD side was already chortling about, VC-1 and MPEG-4 AVC. Using the same stodgy old codec used on regular DVDs — MPEG-2 — made for poorer video quality, said high-definition aficionados. To offset that complaint, MPEG-2 could yield tolerable results only by producing files that took up more space on the disc than the newer codecs would have needed. Since the Blu-ray camp was at that time not yet able to manufacture dual-layer, 50-gigabyte discs — it can now — there was little if any room left over on the discs for extras.

When the home theater fanboys started howling about all those complaints, I wouldn't have given you a plugged nickel for Blu-ray's chances to best HD DVD.

But how the mighty have fallen. Today it's HD DVD that looks like it's on the ropes.

Now, if only The Digital Bits would put its money where its mouth is and start reviewing Blu-ray releases by the boatload! If High-Def Digest can do it, so can TDB.

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