Sunday, February 24, 2008

Dispatches from the Format War, #5

My last post in this ongoing Blu-ray/HD DVD series, Dispatches from the Format War, #4, was filed less than a month ago. It talked about the handwriting that was on the wall for Toshiba's HD DVD format, with Sony's Blu-ray looking like an almost certain winner in the format war between two mutually incompatible high-definition video discs. News came on February 19, 2008, that HD DVD is officially dead and that Sony's Blu-Ray high-def video disc format has indeed won the vaunted format war!

Click on the image below for more about the Toshiba cave-in:

Or, try this coverage:

For those who have been vacationing on Mars for the last two years, HD DVD and Blu-ray were rival formats of high-definition optical video discs. Both premiered in 2006 in a bid to replace the venerable standard-definition DVD, now long in the tooth. Both new formats' discs were capable of high-definition playback in the format's own players, but neither would work in the other's machines. (Both formats' players also played DVDs, thankfully.)

HD DVD was advanced by Toshiba and its cohorts as more of a logical successor to the aging, standard-definition DVD format, because it was cheaper for disc manufacturers to convert from making DVDs to making HD DVDs, which were similar in structure. Sony's Blu-ray discs, on the other hand, were different enough from DVDs that the conversion process would be more costly for manufacturers.

As things turned out, that didn't matter.

HD DVD players and discs hit the market in March 2006 — well before the first Blu-ray player arrived, in June 2006 — and, despite how slow and glitchy the original HD DVD players were in terms of their response time and user interface, critics loved the gorgeous, sharp, ultra-detailed pictures they produced. HD DVD player prices started out pretty steep by DVD-player standards, but not as steep as the price tag placed on the first Blu-ray player to (eventually) arrive. That player, moreover, was accidentally crippled by its manufacturer, Samsung, and could not deliver all the razor-sharp picture quality recorded on the disc.

As things turned out, HD DVD players' being first to market and less pricey than Blu-ray players, when the latter finally arrived, didn't matter.

Sony's first Blu-ray players finally hit the streets several months late and at super-high prices. They were able to deliver pictures as sharp as the HD DVD players always could ... yet there were a lot of complaints that the initial Blu-ray disc titles were all over the map in terms of their video quality. Some looked great, some did not.

Savants blamed two things: one, the Blu-ray camp had yet to be able to make a dual-layer, 50-gigabyte disc, meaning that the movie had to be squeezed into the 25-gigabyte space of a single-layer disc; two, the Blu-ray camp initially was unable to make use of the higher compression ratios of the new MPEG-4/H.264 and VC-1 video compression codecs and had to rely on the relatively space-wasting MPEG-2, held over from DVD. Those two limitations taken together supposedly made for less-than-optimal HD video quality on some of the first Blu-ray disc titles.

As things turned out, none of Blu-ray's startup woes would ultimately matter. Sony, Samsung, and the other Blu-ray honchos finally got dual-layer disc manufacturing going, and also switched to disc authoring using MPEG-4/H.264, also known as AVC — or, alternatively, to the other modern, ultra-efficient video codec, VC-1.

During the nearly two years of the high-def disc format war, the various Hollywood studios took different tacks toward the rival discs. Some lined up exclusively behind HD DVD, some exclusively with Blu-ray, and some, like Warner Bros., issued discs in both formats. There were shifts and defections along the way. Yet, as of late last year, Universal and Paramount were still not releasing on Blu-ray.

As it turned out, the original reluctance of two major studios to support Blu-ray didn't matter:

What mattered was what Warner Bros. did on January 4, 2008, when it announced that it would cease releasing new high-def titles on HD DVD, but only on Blu-ray. This was the reverse of what Paramount had done in August 2007, when it said it would henceforth release only on HD DVD. Warner has the largest market share for DVDs, so its move was determinative. The earlier Paramount move had little practical effect.

Sony PlayStation 3

$399.99 (40 GB)

1080p video via HDMI 1.3; no bitstream audio; now upconverts DVDs; awkward remote; plays video games, too

One thing that helped keep Blu-ray alive during the nearly two years of the format war was that you didn't have to buy a Blu-ray player to play Blu-ray discs. All you needed was a Sony PlayStation 3 video gaming console, which had Blu-ray playback built in and was relatively cheap compared with the early standalone Blu-ray players. Microsoft's competing Xbox couldn't play Blu-ray at all, and it supported HD DVD only as an extra-cost add-on. Big mistake. Had the Xbox, which has traditionally outsold the PS3, come with HD DVD standard at no extra cost, HD DVD might have caught on after all.

But that's not the way things turned out. Now the question for a lot of movie buffs becomes: do I buy a Blu-ray player now, or do I wait a while?

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