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How To Shop For A Next Generation Disc Player Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 October 2006
Article Index
How To Shop For A Next Generation Disc Player
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The Real Deal in High-Definition Video
We all know the adage “Be careful what you wish for.” Since the arrival of HDTV, early adopters have clamored for more content. Network, cable and satellite providers offer a lot more HDTV content than they used to, but you’re still at their mercy when it comes to programming choices and restricted bandwidth can limit signal quality. What we really want – what we’ve wanted all along – is a high-definition software format that will allow us to purchase gorgeous high-definition versions of our favorite movies for playback on our HDTVs. The good news is, we’ve got it. The bad news is, instead of one format, we’ve got two – HD DVD and Blu-ray – and they don’t play nicely with one another. Those of you who are old enough to remember VHS and Betamax know that two software formats equals one nasty format war, with hardware manufacturers, content producers and consumers forced to choose a side. Choose wrong, and you’ll find yourself a few years down the road with an obsolete player and useless software titles collecting dust in your basement.

My goal here isn’t to analyze which format is better; you can find that elsewhere on the site. My goal is let you know what your options are so that you can make an educated decision. As such, I’m not going to delve too deeply into the technical similarities and differences between the two formats, but I will highlight a few issues that will be most noticeable to the end user. Both HD DVD and Blu-ray are true high-definition formats: they allow for the playback and recording of video at a 1920 x 1080p resolution, the highest resolution currently possible. Both formats are capable of a much higher transfer rate or bit rate than DVD and even broadcast HDTV, which means the resulting high-definition images can look even better than what we see now on TV. Both formats are compatible with the current DVD format; HD DVD and Blu-ray players can upconvert existing DVDs in the manner I described above. The formats are not compatible with each other, however.

Both allow for greater storage capacity on a disc. Whereas a standard single-layer DVD disc holds 4.7 gigabytes of information, HD DVD can store 15 GB on a single-layer disc and 30 GB on a dual-layer disc. Blu-ray discs can hold the most content: 25 GB for a single-layer disc and 50 GB for a dual-layer disc. This means that content producers can put a lot more stuff on their packaged discs: more audio and video options, more bonus content and a greater level of interactivity (Internet functionality is part of both formats), with more advanced menu structures. Greater storage also means that, when HD DVD and Blu-ray recorders become available (either late this year or early next), you can archive recorded HDTV content to a permanent storage medium.

If your desire for HD content outweighs your fear of a format war – or if you’re financially able to purchase both types of player (we should all be so lucky) – here’s what’s available for purchase, now and in the immediate future. HD DVD models include Toshiba’s $500 HD-A1 and $800 HD-XA1, plus RCA’s $500 HDV5000, all of which are currently on sale. This first round of HD DVD players cannot output full 1080p resolution; they only do 1080i or 720p, which isn’t necessarily a huge deal since there aren’t a lot of 1080p-capable HDTVs on the market, either. Warner Brothers, Universal and Paramount Pictures have released the majority of HD DVD movies, about 65 titles ranging in price from $24.98 to $39.99 (MSRP).

As for Blu-ray, Samsung’s $1,000 BD-P1000 is currently the only player available; it’s capable of full 1080p resolution, but does not have Internet connectivity. Coming soon are the $999 Philips BDP9000 (September), the $1,300 Panasonic DMP-BD10 (September), the $1,500 Pioneer BDP-HD1 (Fall), the $1,000 Sony BDP-S1 (October) and the $600 Sony Playstation 3 (November; pricing and availability are still subject to change). Sony Pictures (which includes Columbia TriStar and MGM), Lionsgate and Warner Brothers are leading the software charge, with about 35 titles priced between $28.95 and $39.99 (MSRP). Buena Vista (Disney and Miramax) and 20th Century Fox have pledged allegiance to Blu-ray as well.

As you can see, in the ever-important price war, HD DVD has the clear advantage on the hardware side, at least until the Playstation 3 arrives later this year. Software pricing is comparable. Even though the first round of HD DVD players only does 1080i or 720p, the movies being released in both formats have a 1080p resolution; the studios have yet to exploit either format’s full interactive potential or Internet capability. It’s worth noting that both formats feature a copy-protection tool called the Image Constraint Token, which gives content producers the option to limit a disc’s high-definition output to the player’s digital connections. In other words, if you bought an early HDTV that only has analog component video inputs, you would not be able to view the high-definition image. So far, no studio has opted to use the Image Constraint Token but, if piracy becomes an issue, you can bet they will.


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