How To Shop For A Next Generation Disc Player 
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Written by Adrienne Maxwell   
Sunday, 01 October 2006

How To Shop For A Next Generation Disc Player
By Adrienne Maxwell
October 2006

If you’ve just purchased an HDTV or are contemplating doing so, here’s what you can expect to happen during the first few weeks with your new toy: you’ll connect it to your current cable or satellite box and be less than dazzled by the improvement the TV offers with standard-definition signals. You’ll either purchase an HDTV antenna to pull in over-the-air HD channels, or, more likely, you’ll call your provider and upgrade to an HDTV package. Upon seeing a true HD signal, you’ll be thrilled. You’ll spend every waking moment watching programs that never interested you before, just because they’re in high definition. After only a short time, you’ll find yourself chanting the same word the rest of us have been chanting for years: “More!”

HDTV enthusiasts have been waiting impatiently for a high-definition software format that gives them more content options, and it has finally arrived. That makes this an exciting time in the advancement of HDTV. Unfortunately, it also adds more confusion to an already confusing landscape. Peruse the DVD hardware aisle at your local retailer, and you’ll encounter several different types of players boasting high-definition quality. You’ll see labels like HD DVD, Blu-ray and HD upconversion. You might happen upon a knowledgeable salesperson who can help make sense of it all, but I wouldn’t count on it. So here’s a brief explanation of the different formats and what each one brings to the HD table.

If You Can’t Make It, Fake It
If you’re looking for a way to bring out the best in the DVDs you already own, and you’d like to do it without spending a fortune, then an upconverting DVD player is an excellent choice. This was essentially a stopgap product that began appearing on shelves a couple of years ago to allow HDTV owners to use the higher-quality digital connections on their sets and enjoy slightly improved picture quality. There are now plenty of upconverting players to choose from, many of which sell for around $100. This feature is described as “HD upconversion” or “video upconversion” on the product’s spec sheet. The packaging says that you can output video signals at 1080i or 720p to match your HDTV’s resolution. That’s true, which may cause you to ask, “If I can output HD resolution through this $100 DVD player, why should I spend $500 to $1,000 on one of these new HD DVD or Blu-ray players?” Good question. The answer is, just because an upconverting DVD player outputs video at a high-definition resolution doesn’t mean it is outputting high-definition video. Confused? If so, you aren’t alone.

To understand what an upconverting DVD player does, let’s begin with a short primer on resolution and digital television. Like standard broadcast television, DVD content is output at a 480i resolution. The picture is made up of 480 horizontal lines drawn across the screen. The “i” stands for interlaced, which means each video image is created by first drawing the 240 odd lines of the image, then drawing the 240 even lines. This happens so quickly that your brain sees the two as one complete image. With the arrival of pixel-based digital televisions came the “progressive” format, in which all 480 lines are shown at the same time. To do this, a digital TV deinterlaces the picture, or stitches the odd and even frames back together. The quality of the image is greatly affected by how well or how poorly the TV handles this task. Some early DTVs did it well, but many did not. So DVD manufacturers began incorporating the function into the player itself – in other words, the player deinterlaces the image and then sends it, at a 480p resolution, to the digital TV. This feature is called “progressive-scan” or “progressive scanning” on a DVD player’s spec sheet. Sadly, not all players do it well, either. The trick is to make sure either your DTV or your DVD player has a good deinterlacer; DTV manufacturers now put more value in using higher-quality deinterlacers, but it’s not a given.

Once the DVD image is stitched back together, the next step is to match it to the TV’s resolution. That’s where upconversion comes in. The TV must take a DVD signal that has roughly a 720 x 480 resolution and scale it up to its own resolution, which might be 1366 x 768, 1280 x 720, or 1920 x 1080, among others. Imagine a picture made up of tiny dots: the DVD image would have 720 columns of dots horizontally and 480 rows of dots vertically, for a total of 345,600 dots. Your HDTV has to figure out how to make that number of dots fill its screen – in the case of a 1366 x 768 flat panel, the screen can render 1,049,088 dots. If you simply enlarge the image, it would look extremely soft, as anyone who has ever tried to blow up a low-resolution digital photo can attest. The TV’s scaler attempts to fill in details based on the existing picture information; a better scaler does a better job of interpolating the information to help the picture look more detailed, but it still can’t create new information and will in no way produce a picture that is as sharp or detailed as an image that had 1,049,088 dots to begin with. Just as DVD manufacturers began to add deinterlacing to their players, they now add scaling to their players, so you can send a scaled or upconverted image, at a 720p or 1080i resolution, to the TV. This is beneficial if you’ve purchased an HDTV that doesn’t have a good internal scaler.

As I mentioned, a second benefit of the upconverting DVD player is that it can send the upconverted image over a digital connection like DVI or HDMI to your HDTV’s digital input (if the TV has one). This lets you bypass the digital-to-analog conversion process that must take place when you use an analog connection like component video, which can introduce artifacts to the picture. The combination of upconversion and an all-digital connection path can result in a higher-quality viewing experience – not a true high-definition viewing experience, but a better way to watch all of the DVDs already sitting on your shelves.

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.

Potential Value
Ultimately, the decision of which next-generation DVD player to purchase boils down to a single question: just how adventurous do you want to be? The new high-definition software formats are loaded with potential: the potential for a substantial improvement in picture quality, the potential for really cool interactive content, the potential to drop a ton of money on new software titles and the potential to someday own a completely useless piece of hardware. The upconverting DVD player is certainly the safer bet right now, for both monetary and compatibility reasons. If you have a large DVD collection and a smaller HDTV, you could live quite happily with upconversion for the next few years while HD DVD and Blu-ray duke it out. Just don’t expect miraculous improvements in picture quality. The less you venture, the less you gain.

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