Tuesday, August 1, 2006

HD-DVD Looks Better Than BluRay

I was in Circuit City the other day and they had a beautiful Sony SXRD television set up playing some BluRay content.  I thought I was going to be blown away.  I wasn't.  The disc playing was a demo disc featuring snippets of lots of movies.  Each one was somewhat washed out.  The edges weren't crisp.  It just wasn't that great a picture.

Now, we have the first head-to-head reviews of HD-DVD and BluRay.  Three titles are now available for both formats.  The results are in.  The winner:  HD-DVD.  HD-DVD had better quality video, better audio, and better interactivity.

Part of this comes from the BluRay camp's choice to use MPEG2 as its format of choice.  Each of the formats has three required video codecs:  VC1 (standardized Windows Media Video 9), H.264 (also known as MPEG4 AVC), and MPEG2.  H.264 appears to be too complex for anything to decode well at this time and neither are using it.  The HD-DVD camp is going with VC1 and the BluRay camp with MPEG2.  VC1 is a much better codec than MPEG2.  It was invented many years after the aging MPEG2 standard.  It can store the same data in roughly half of the space.  This means that HD-DVD can store a better picture in less space.  Also, despite the promises that BluRay would be the higher-capacity format, it presently is not.  BluRay is shipping 25-GB single layer discs whereas HD-DVD movies are shipping on double-layer 30-GB discs.  Between the codec and the capacity, HD-DVD has space for content that is twice as good or twice as much content that is equal.


  1. The question is whether it makes sense to pay Microsoft a license for WMV9 codecs or to play along with Sony. Neither is especially tempting.

    But if I follow your logic, that BluRay is technically capable of holding larger amounts of data per disc and that it is hampered primarily by codec choice, then as video chips gain H.264 support HD-DVD will show itself to be not quite as good as BluRay. So this is a temporary situation which is subject to change pending the release of hardware support for the next generation video codec.

    I have no horse in this race. I just want to see the outcome and pray that by the time the dust has cleared that either one format is dead or that both have been fit into a single device, thus eliminating the need to worry about the media format.

  2. Lauren,

    The problem is that once you ship BluRay players with MPEG2, you cannot break compatibility in future. And even firmware updates wouldn't give you H.264, since the older hardware will not have the oomph to run them. Using MPEG2 was a short sighted decision.

    The only place where Bluray will look better will be as a data storage medium in PCs, or in game consoles where MPEG2 wouldn't matter.

  3. Good points.  VC-1 is required to be on every BluRay player so you are "pay[ing] Microsoft a license" in either case.  You are correct that the situation I describe is temporary.  In fact, BluRay movies could be shipped in VC1 today.  This temporary situation, however, may have some lasting impact.  Consumers only get one first kiss with any technology.  Think about how Java is still considered slow even though it hasn't really been for years.  Right now, HD-DVD is looking better and that may be affecting the long-term opinion.

    From the interview with Amir (see the HD-DVD podcast post), I gather that HD-DVD has at least these long-term advantages:

    1)  All HD-DVD players have persistent storage.

    2)  All HD-DVD players have a network connection.

    3)  All HD-DVD players have TrueHD audio codecs.

    4)  HD-DVD supports dual-stream decoding.

    The first 3 are optional on BluRay players and so cannot really be taken advantage of by authors.  The 4th is, I believe, not available on BluRay and can allow for some interesting effects.  How important these will turn out to be in the long-term, I don't know.

  4. jeswin,

    I think you are incorrectly assuming that backwards compatibility at the hardware level is important. I think that assumption is incorrect because only the current lineup of players is unable to play H.264. The players that people will be buying in the future will support it in hardware. The majority of players will be sold in the future, so it doesn't make any sense to think that future titles will not be formatted for future players. Current titles will of course be stuck with whatever format is supported currently.

    I don't see the current lineup of players as indicative of what we will have 1 or 2 years from now. These are merely stopgap releases, IMO, until the hardware catches up to the specs. Until the market penetration of HDTVs reaches some critical mass, normal DVD players (in whatever Standalone/PVR combination they are available in) will still rule.

    I think it's still too early to claim missteps on either side. Remember, both sides have some of the best marketing departments behind them.


    I went back and saw that I had originally misread your post. You're right about the codecs being available on both platforms.

    If the WMV9 format is available on BluRay, wouldn't it be just as well to release media in that format? It gains all the benefits of WMV9 and is supported right now. Or is there something else going on?

    I just want a box that supports both formats in addition to legacy formats like all the DVD formats and CD formats. I want it to be bundled into one box with an HDD and can simultaneously record live TV and play media off the media drive. Basically I want it all and not have to think about the silly format wars.

  5. "It can store the same data in roughly half of the space. "

    No, it can't.  If VC1 can get away with half the bit-rate it is because it can throw away 50% more data whilst still achieving the same results.

    Video compression is lossy.


  6. Don't hold your breath on the prospect of a combo player.  Licensing agreements surrounding the technologies explicitly prohibit creating a device that plays both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD.

    <a href=http://news.com.com/A+DVD+combo+Dont+hold+your+breath/2100-1041_3-6024875.html>CNet article</a>

  7. One thing that several people posting in here are missing is that VC-1 is in Bluray already and has been in the specification for some time. The current Bluray players should all support it. Why didn't they use it in the current line of Bluray discs? Because the mastering kit is still pre-production. The Samsung player is more of a tech preview than a real release of Bluray and the kits sent to the studios are similarly pre-production and only support 1 of the 3 standard Bluray codecs. I suspect they only let Samsung release theirs early to make it look like they were near the same stage in production and not 3-4 months behind.

    I suspect by the time Sony's BluRay players are released, they will have the full kit released to the studios and they will start shipping the discs with whichever codec is the best fit and best quality for the video being encoded.

    Those 3 requirements you mentioned in HDDVD, that seems awfully policywonkish. Required network connections? Required persistant storage? What if the user doesn't want to have his player networked up? What about the eventual low end DVD players? By requiring these two things you may be precluding the sub-$70 players in the future, as well as portable and car players. Making it part of the spec and making it optional seems like a much more logical course. The BDRoms can run in slightly degraded mode if they're used in a system that lacks those features. Requiring network connectivity also leaves openings for many more insidious invasions.

    As for the first preview, I doubt even many of the purists would have noticed the differences between the two if it weren't for the article last month pointing them out in side by side comparisons. There's still plenty of time and several other cards left for both sides to play. I doubt the early mpeg2 releases will really present a problem for Bluray in the long term. I'm still curious as to if they are going to be able to commercialize quad-layer Bluray discs and if they will be workable on current generation hardware.

  8. After reading these notes I really think we are just seeing the early adopter issues played out. Reading a winner or loser here from the tea leaves is risky business.

    First of all, whether HD-DVD or BluRay has currently the best video quality probably won't answer the longer term issue of market viability.

    Future versions of both players will have H.264 functioning - it is a non vendor specific, open source compression technology. We work with both VC-1 and 264, and currently provide HD content in both. H.264 does require some healthy computing performance, but it looks good, and it is highly scalable. Expect the issue to be solved shortly - upgradeable firmware for new imaging chips capable of all the above formats. This will not be a telling issue in 12 months.

    Major studios are split on the formats currently, but I'd have to give the long term success odds to BluRay here. We all know the story of Beta vs. VHS and how the war was won. However in this case, BluRay looks like the technical long term winner, regardless of backward compatiability. The potential of greater storage volume combined with the likes of Sony, Panasonic and Philips will force the long term direction toward Blu-Ray.

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