HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray: The Final Battle
The battle for the next high-definition disc format is all but over. Over the past month and a half, HD-DVD has received a series of crushing blows. Actually, its more like HD-DVD was murdered, the corpse was pissed on, buried, dug back up and then forced to perform unnatural acts with a donkey in a Tijuana sex show before being fed to a pack of rabid dingos.
It’s been that kind of month for HD-DVD.
First the studios started leaving en masse. Then retailers started to balk. Netflix announces they were going Blu-ray exclusive. The Pope made renting HD-DVDs a venial sin. etc., etc.
So Blu-ray has won the battle. But was it the best technology? That debate still continues. In an effort to settle the question once and for all, a team of technicians here at the Badmouth Labs have compared Blu-ray to HD-DVD in eight categories:
Cost, Capacity, Picture Quality, Audio Quality, Region Coding, DRM, Interactive Features and Future Proofing
We are purposely excluding sales and studio support. We already know the answer to those questions, and they do not necessarily indicate quality or value. If sales equated to quality, we’d have to admit that McDonald’s is the tastiest restaurant in the world and Wal-Mart has the most fashionable clothes. That’s not going to happen.
So take one last look at how HD-DVD stacked up against the newly-minted champion, Blu-ray.
HD-DVDs and Blu-ray movies retail for nearly identical prices. But since the inception of the format, Blu-ray players have been notably more expensive than equivalent HD-DVD players. Currently, an entry-level Blu-ray player has an MSRP of $400, while an entry-level HD-DVD player has a suggested retail of $150 . This is somewhat of a misleading comparison, since Toshiba has drastically slashed prices in a last-ditch effort to increase its user base. But it was not long ago that HD-DVD players were $250, and Blu-ray players were $500. Before that HD-DVD players cost $500 and a Blu-ray player was a $1000. At every turn, HD-DVD players have been less expensive than their equivalent Blu-ray counterparts — often by half or more.
Blu-ray discs generally can hold more information than HD-DVD. A single-layer Blu-ray disc holds 25GB of data while a single-layer HD-DVD disc holds 15GB of data. Dual-layer versions of both are also available in 30GB/50GB flavors. Prototypes have been made of triple layer HD-DVDs that store 51GB of data and Blu-ray discs that store up to 200GB of data, but those have not made it into production and it is not clear that even if they could be mass produced, that they would be compatible with current players. (Toshiba claims the triple-layer HD-DVD will work on current players, but this is so far unconfirmed.)
In practice, both formats have more than enough storage to store a full 1080p movie plus extras. (A single-layer HD-DVD can store more than three hours of HD content.) Warner Brothers, which released titles in both formats for a time, used the exact same digital encoding for both Blu-ray and HD-DVD. Still, there is an advantage for Blu-ray for longer works, such as television series or placing multiple movies on a single disc.
As mentioned earlier, in many cases, the studios will use the exact same digital encoding for both players. So their picture qualities would understandably be identical. Because its data is more tightly packed, Blu-ray does have a higher potential bit-rate for video+audio (48.0 Mbit/s v. 30.24 Mbit/s), but it is unclear that this extra bandwidth has any affect on picture quality, although it certainly would have some advantages for computer use. It appears that both formats have all the bandwidth they need to produce a perfect HD picture.
At the moment, picture quality is a tie. But that certainly wasn’t always the case. Due to rushing their product out the door to compete with HD-DVD (more on this later), Blu-ray’s first batch of movies were all encoded as space- and bandwidth-hungry MPEG2 files — the same technology used to encode standard DVDs. With only single-layer technology perfected, there was not enough space on a Blu-ray disc for a high-quality transfer of the movies. So all of the initial Blu-ray movies were of poor quality — many barely better than the standard DVD versions of the same film. At the time Sony insisted that MPEG-2 was the future of movies. But once they were able to implement better compression schemes, they quickly abandoned the codec for greener pastures.
Both HD-DVD and Blu-ray support a wide array of both lossy and lossless audio formats. HD-DVD provides higher bit-rates for Dolby Digital Plus, while Blu-ray offers higher bit-rates for Dolby Digital and DTS-HD High Resolution. Both formats also support DTS, Linear PCM, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. In practice, some have noted that many Blu-ray titles have a small edge in audio because the studios have encoded the soundtrack in standard Dolby Digital, where Blu-ray has an advantage. But HD-DVD titles in Dolby TrueHD have been released, offering perfect, lossless audio fidelity. Since both formats have shown that they are capable of perfect audio fidelity, and the differences in sound quality to date have been hard to detect, even for audiophiles, we’ll call this one as even.
Like DVDs, Blu-ray has a region-encoding scheme that prevents you from purchasing a movie abroad and watching it in your home country. Region coding hurts film enthusiasts who may want rare films from other countries. The only people who benefit from the practice are the movie studios who can then play games by charging different prices for the same material based on what part of the world you live in. HD-DVD does not have any region coding at all. This means that if an HD-DVD movie is unavailable in the U.S., but on the shelf in Europe, you can just buy the European version and it will play perfectly. For instance, The Prestige is a Blu-ray exclusive…in the U.S. A European import of the title will play perfectly well on any American HD-DVD player.
Digital Rights Management is industry-speak for copy-protection. Generally speaking the more of it a product has, the happier the corporations are and the worse off the consumer becomes. In the modern age it’s pretty much impossible to completely avoid DRM. The best you can do is minimize it. Both Blu-ray and HD-DVD use 128-bit AACS content encryption that tries to prevent you from decrypting the movie you own (except on an “authorized” player) and HDPC protected output that seeks to prevent you from copying the decrypted movie as it leaves the player destined for your TV.
But the Blu-ray team added in two more layers of DRM: “BD+,” an embedded virtual machine that can run specialized anti-copying code, and “BD-ROM mark” yet another layer of DRM protection. If any one of these DRM schemes fail for any reason, your Blu-ray movie becomes as useful as a drink coaster.
Both Blu-ray and HD-DVD promised to move past the boring, static menus that we are used to from DVDs, ushering in a new era of interactivity. But only one format really delivered on that promise out of the gate. In its initial specification, HD-DVD required that all players have Internet connectivity, a second video decoder, a second audio controller and at least 128MB of persistent storage built in. Blu-ray rushed out the door without any of those features implemented. that translated to more and better special features for HD-DVD.
Take the movie 300 for example. It was released by Warner Bros. on both formats. Here’s a list of the special features for each film:
Now this comparison only compares the features in HD-DVD to the features found in Blu-ray “Profile 1,” the “Grace Period” profile. On November 27, 2007, Profile 1 was superseded by Profile 1.1, the “Bonus View” profile. New players introduced after that date will have at least 256MB of local storage space as well as mandatory secondary video and audio decoders. But wait, there’s more. Sometime in late 2008, the “Bonus View” profile will be supplanted by Profile 2.0, “BD-Live.” BD-Live will up the ante with a full gigabyte of local storage and full Internet connectivity.
But even as they rolled out Profile 1.1, Sony released four new players in November 2007 — all of which were Profile 1.0. The truth is almost all of the players on the market today are Profile 1.0 — with the exception of the PlayStation 3, which we’ll talk about next.
As mentioned a few times in the article, Blu-ray was rushed out the door a little early in order to compete with the already released HD-DVD format. This resulted in some problems with the format. Some are easily fixed. Some are not. Picture quality was abysmal (for HD content) because of a poor codec choice. That was fixed rather easily as Blu-ray transitioned to better codecs that were already supported in the Profile 1.0 standard. But current migration from Profile 1 to Profile 1.1 to Profile 2.0 will show the real repercussions of buying half-baked technology.
Simply put, everyone who bought a Blu-ray player released before November 27, 2007, will never get any of the Bonus View or BD-Live profile features. This is not a simple firmware hack. If your player doesn’t have a secondary video decoder, gigabyte of storage and Ethernet port — no firmware update is going to provide one. Even if you buy a current player that adheres to the newly developed Profile 1.1 standard, it will be obsolete in less than a year when BD-Live becomes the new, “new standard.”
This situation creates multiple problems. Owners of Profile 1.0 players will never be able to get features such as picture-in-picture or interactive applications. Owners of Profile 1.1 players will never be able to take advantage of Web features developed by the studios, or applications that require more than 256MB of storage. And the movie studios will need to decide if they want to invest in making those cool new features available on their Blu-ray releases when they know a large chunk of their audience will not be able to take advantage of them.
The only exception to this rule is Sony’s PlayStation 3, which already had an Ethernet port, massive amounts of storage and impressive video and audio hardware built in. A simple firmware upgrade allowed it to move to Profile 1.1, and it is suspected the same will work to upgrade it to Profile 2.0. Every other current and future Blu-ray owner will be getting a raw deal until consumers are able to buy a Profile 2.0-enabled player later this year.
Blu-ray: 1 HD-DVD: 5
So there you have it. A brief comparison. I know some people will want to give me crap for not giving Blu-ray the edge in audio, since many movies do sound a tad better on Blu-ray due to the studio’s audio codec choice. But since both formats can provide lossless HD-audio, I still call it a tie. And if we started picking at it like that, we could just as easily give picture quality to HD-DVD due to the atrocious first batch of Blu-ray films.
It appears as though, eventually, Blu-ray will be able to do everything that HD-DVD was able to do out of the box — and perhaps more. But this is truly a case of a costlier, buggier, consumer-unfriendly, less-feature rich technology winning. There are many reasons for this. Blu-ray was ability to claim an early lead by Sony bundling a Blu-ray player in with every PlayStation 3. Some studios preferred for Blu-ray’s region coding and DRM so they could carefully control and limit where consumers can buy their movies and what they can do with them.
The HD format wars were really just getting underway. Other than a few early adopters and a small number of PlayStation 3 owners, the market was wide open. With their low-price players and winning features, Toshiba looked as if they were going to make some serious inroads into Blu-ray’s early lead. But when the studios all began to move to Blu-ray exclusively, HD-DVD lost its opportunity to make a case with consumers. It doesn’t matter how good your technology is if none of the studios will release movies in your format.
R.I.P. HD-DVD, you will be missed.
When talking about movies. It’s always important to get the opinion of noted filmmaker Michael Bay, director of such classics as Bad Boys II, and Playboy Video Centerfold: Kerri Kendall. Bay pitched a very public hissy fit when he found out that his film Transformers would be an HD-DVD exclusive, even claiming he would not direct Transformers 2 because of it. But, Bay soon remembered that directing crappy movies like Transformers 2 is how he affords his hookers and blow, so he backed down and said that HD-DVD rocked!
That lasted until recent announcements made it clear that HD-DVD was dead again. Now Bay is telling everyone that will listen that “Blu-ray’s better, and I told everyone. I was very vocal about it. I knew HD [DVD] was not going to make it.”
Two things are clear from this exchange: 1. Michael Bay really supported Blu-ray the entire time. 2. Michael Bay is a giant douchebag.