I have had enough, and I am setting the record straight!
Recently I stopped at several retailers to compare the two new HD disc technologies: HD-DVD and Blu-ray. Right in front of the place was a demo of a new Blu-ray player. It was connected to the best display in the store. The video was shot live with a high-def 1080p video camera, and it looked very good!
When asked about a HD-DVD demo, the salesman took me to a corner of the store where Toshiba's HD-A1 HD-DVD player was driving a mediocre, tiny monitor. A HD-DVD movie was playing, and on this monitor it looked like standard DVD, because the monitor was incapable of displaying the full resolution of the HD-DVD format. If his objective was to make Blu-ray look as good as possible and HD-DVD as bad as possible, he could not have done a better job.
In addition to the favorable Blu-ray staging on the retail floors, most of the zombie sales reps are pre-programmed with a set of talking points. When asked about the differences between Blu-ray and HD-DVD I got the following formulated answers:
1. Blu-ray is higher resolution 1080p, whereas HD-DVD is only 1080i.
2. Blu-ray has more storage capacity, so they can put more video on the disc.
3. Blu-ray is faster, so it can deliver a better picture.
4. Blu-ray has more Hollywood studio support, so you'll see more HD movies in Blu-ray than with HD-DVD.
Is it True? Lets take a look at the facts!
1080i vs. 1080p
The zombies keep repeating, 'The whole world is going 1080p; why would you lock yourself into something that was only 1080i?' Sure, since the newly emerging, cutting-edge video displays, both projectors and flat panels are 1080p, with a physical pixel matrix of 1920x1080, and they are progressively scanned displays.
However two things are not being understood:
First, unfortunately many people are confusing 1080i acquisition with 1080i transmission. The primary reason we get interlacing artifacts in a 480i, 576i, or 1080i signal is that the frame was originally captured in interlaced format, with the odd scan lines and even scan lines being recorded at two different moments in time. When you reassemble two fields that are offset in time, you get jaggies, moiré patterns, barber pole effects, and line twitter. That is not true of either HD-DVD or Blu-ray film transfers since the image is scanned (captured) progressively from a film frame that represents a single moment in time.
Therefore you wouldn’t expect to see any of the common de-interlacing artifacts when watching HD-DVD or Blu-ray movies that are being transmitted via 1080i. My first look at HD-DVD in 1080i confirmed this expectation. There is no visible defect in the image that would be eliminated by switching to 1080p transmission.
Second, contrary to popular misconceptions, HD-DVD and Blu-ray DISCS are both 1080p sources! As far as movies are concerned, both disc formats are scanned and encoded in 1080p from the original film. So why the confusion? It comes from the fact that the first HD-DVD player, the Toshiba HD-A1, outputs 1080i, while the first Blu-ray player, the Samsung BD-P1000, outputs both 1080i and 1080p/60. That sounds like a big deal, but in reality this is more of a marketing/perception issue for the Toshiba player and not a technical limitation.
Both HD-DVD and Blu-ray have all of the progressively scanned 1080-lines per frame of information on the disc, and this information is not lost or compromised in 1080i transmission. Once again, it’s an issue of 1080i acquisition versus 1080i transmission. The transmission interface is simply a matter of the order in which the scan-lines are read and transmitted to the video display. If they are transmitted in 1080p, they are sent sequentially. If they are transmitted in 1080i, they are sent in two fields, with one containing the odd numbered lines and another the even numbered lines. These two fields are then reassembled into sequential frames by the video processor in the TV or projector. Either way you end up with the full 1080p frame being used to create the picture, so there is no difference in the end result.
What is not obvious to the consumer is that the Samsung player first converts the 1080p/24 information on the disc to 1080i/60. Once it is in that format, it can output it in either 1080i/60 if that is what the projector or TV takes, or it can convert it to 1080p/60 for output. The Toshiba HD-DVD player converts the 1080p/24 information on the disc to 1080i/60 and simply outputs it in this format. (It is then converted to 1080p/60 inside the video display if needed). With either player, the signal passes through an interlaced state on its way from the disc to the screen.
Therefore, the 1080p output as implemented on the Samsung BD-P1000 is of no real value in terms of better picture quality. In fact the extra conversion stage can be a detriment to a good picture. The extra cost to add 1080p output onto the Samsung BD-P1000 pays good returns, because it inspires retail sales zombies to say to their customers, 'The reason you pay extra for Blu-ray is that it is 1080p, while HD-DVD is only 1080i' Or, 'The story is simple: Blu-ray is double the cost and double the resolution.' Not!
Note that we are talking about the common form of 1080p in the NTSC world, which is 1080p/60. But another way to output the information is to simply transfer the data on the disc in its native 1080p/24 format without doing any conversion to 1080i/60 or 1080p/60. The absolute preferred method!
The vast majority of HD compatible TVs and projectors that have been installed and are being sold today do not have 1080p/24 capability. The advantage to 1080p/24 transmission is that it eliminates artifacts associated with the 2:3 pull-down conversions that are common in the NTSC 60 Hz format.
This is reason enough to make sure your DVD player outputs 1080p/24 AND your display inputs & processes 1080p/24 format without conversion of any kind before you buy any new technology. This is the minimal requirement for true High-Definition and the de-facto standard as of now!
Do Blu-ray discs have more storage capacity, and is it relevant?
The present myth is that Blu-ray discs hold 50 GB of data, and HD-DVDs hold 30 GB. Blu-ray stores more information in a single layer than does HD-DVD, the difference being 25 GB for Blu-ray vs. 15 GB on HD-DVD. However, at the moment, Blu-ray can only produce single-layer discs.
So the total storage capacity on all Blu-ray discs that have been brought to market thus far is 25 GB. Meanwhile, from the outset HD-DVD has been delivering dual-layer discs that hold a total of 30 GB on a single side of the disc. In addition, HD-DVD can presently encode dual-layer information on both sides of the disc, for a total of 60 GB per disc. Dual-sided encoding has been used so far in HD-DVD "combo" discs to put the HD version of a movie on one side, and the standard def version on the other. But both sides of the disc can be encoded in HD if the space is needed. So as of now, HD-DVD is capable of delivering 60 GB of storage on a two-sided disc compared to Blu-ray's 25 GB single-side, single-layer limit.
Beyond this, there are the futures being touted by both groups. The HD-DVD group has already developed but not yet released a triple-layer encoding capability that disc replicators have certified as good to go for mass production. This would boost HD-DVD capacity to 45 GB per side, for a total of 90 GB per disc.
If 30 GB of storage per side of the disc represented a practical limitation on quality, run time, or special features, I would be concerned too. But with the newer and much more efficient video codices VC-1 and MPEG-4, as well as the advanced HD audio codices, there is really no problem here. What we need is enough storage to hold a full-length movie in 1080p/24 resolution, and to deliver it to the screen without noticeable compression artifacts. Once that is achieved, we could double or quadruple the storage space available with no perceptible change in quality, because storage is no longer a limiting factor.
Currently Blu-ray is using the inefficient MPEG-2 video codec, which compared to the advanced codices takes up a lot of storage space. Blu-ray is also using uncompressed PCM audio on many of its discs. The audio quality is good, but uncompressed PCM chews up a lot of storage as well. Despite these inefficiencies Blu-ray is still delivering 1080p movies that run over two hours on 25 GB discs.
HD-DVD is currently shipping 30GB/side discs. But more importantly they are providing authoring tools for VC-1 and MPEG-4, and the HD audio codices Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD. With the incremental storage space and much better technical efficiency, one can achieve run times of four hours or more on a single-sided HD-DVD. In addition, since HD-DVDs can be encoded on both sides of the disc, studios can put a movie on one side and an extensive collection of HD special features on the other if the extra space was needed.
Is Blu-ray faster, and is it relevant?
On the retail tour, several of the sales zombies said that Blu-ray has a higher bit rate, and the ability to read and transfer data more rapidly makes it a better solution for high quality video. They are correct that maximum bit rates on Blu-ray are higher than HD-DVD. The maximum bit rate on HD-DVD is 36.55 million bits per second, whereas it is 54 Mbps for Blu-ray.
However, given the fixed limitations of other elements in the video system like film size, 1080p scans, and 24 frames per second film exposure rates, one cannot simply continue to increase bit rates and gain ever-increasing picture quality.
So how fast is fast enough? Transfer rates on standard DVD average about 6 Mbps and max out around 10-11 Mbps. Standard HDTV broadcast is almost 20 Mbps (data is compressed). Clearly in the range of performance defined by DVD and HDTV as encoded in MPEG-2, more data and higher bit rates produce better images. Today's HDTV broadcasts on high-resolution video displays look extremely good, and certainly they are head and shoulders above standard DVD.
Now, HD-DVD's maximum bit rate of 36.55 Mbps is almost double that of broadcast HDTV. That by itself is enough to enable it to deliver spectacular picture and sound, better than any previous medium. But on top of HD-DVD's virtual doubling of HDTV's bit rate, there is the huge kicker in performance that is derived from the advanced codices: HD-DVDs being made today are in VC-1 and MPEG-4, whereas HDTV is in MPEG-2, so with HD-DVD a lot less data needs to be read and transferred in order to deliver a magnificent HD picture. HD-DVD can run circles around HDTV even when loping along at bit rates far below those of HDTV's 19.4 Mbps.
Therefore, as with the storage issue, HD-DVD's maximum bit rate of 36.55 Mbps is not likely to be a limiting factor in the quality of the home theater experience, especially where 1080p/24 film transfers are concerned. Once HD-DVD and Blu-ray are delivering their maximum potential (and neither one is there yet), the consumer will notice no difference between the two in terms of image and sound quality.
Yet, rather than debating the merits of the technical specifications to determine whether Blu-ray or HD-DVD is the better value, we'd be a lot better off if consumers could simply be allowed to see these two technologies side by side on identical 1080p flat panel monitors with identical source material. This is ultimately where many retailers are failing the public. They have the opportunity to help consumers get a real feel for the differences (or lack thereof), between HD-DVD and Blu-ray. But instead, many of them are staging skewed demos to up-sell the customer to the higher priced product. It is downright criminal that consumers are not able to see the merits of these two impressive technologies in demos that show them both side by side on an equal footing.
But even that might not make a difference. Evan Powell of Projector Central reported last week that in one remarkable retail store he found both HD-DVD and Blu-ray being demo'd on equivalent 1080p flat panel monitors. The Blu-ray demo was playing a movie and the HD-DVD was running a loop from the DVD Forum demonstration disc that had been taken with a 1080p video camera. As anyone would guess, the HD-DVD picture was superior to the Blu-ray due to the higher quality source.
However, when he asked the zombie rep, 'Correct me if I am wrong, but the picture on this HD-DVD actually looks better than the Blu-ray, wouldn't you agree?' The zombie said, 'No it isn't. It can't be, because it is only 1080i. The other one is 1080p.' In the greedy world of video marketing, specs trump the proof before your eyes. Senseless idiots!
Blu-ray has more studio support!
The last pitch frequently heard is that we should buy Blu-ray because Blu-ray is supported by all of the major studios except one. While this is somewhat true, the statement is intended to give the impression that there won't be much to watch if you buy into HD-DVD, and that is false.
It is true that only one major studio has refused to support Blu-ray. But that one is Universal Studios, a company with an extensive film library that includes popular titles like King Kong, Gladiator, U-571, A Beautiful Mind, Jurassic Park, Jaws, and hundreds of others.
Now, there are several major studios that currently plan to release their titles exclusively in Blu-ray, including Sony Pictures, MGM, 20th Century Fox, and Lions Gate. Movies from these studios include the Rocky films, the James Bond films, the Star Wars films, The Patriot, The DaVinci Code, Spiderman, Sleepless in Seattle, Black Hawk Down, Men in Black, A Few Good Men, Basic Instinct, Jerry Maguire, The Terminator, The Fifth Element, Minority Report, and of course many hundreds more.
However, in addition to the movies that are exclusively in one format or the other, there are many that will be released in both formats. That is because HD-DVD and Blu-ray both have the support of the studio giants Paramount and Warner Bros, as well as the strategically important HBO Films and, notably, New Line Cinema, a studio widely recognized as a leader in the delivery of high quality DVD transfers.
Titles from these studios that we can expect to be released in both HD-DVD and Blu-ray include the Batman films, the Matrix films, the Star Trek films, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Austin Powers films, Mission: Impossible series, Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart, Forrest Gump, Ocean's Eleven, The NeverEnding Story, Goodfellas, the Lethal Weapon films, Driving Miss Daisy, Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment, Ferris Bueller's Day off, Trading Places, Wedding Crashers, Rush Hour, and many more.
The consumer need not be worried about having enough to see in HD-DVD. At the moment, there are more HD-DVD titles than Blu-ray, either available or about to become available. Therefore, when someone tells you that you need to buy the more expensive Blu-ray player because all of the major Hollywood studios support it except one, be on your guard. You are being told the truth, but not the whole truth.
The bottom line?
This format war is not about image quality or the best technology. It is a struggle for money, power, and market share among the Hollywood studios and major consumer electronics firms. It is based on greed!
The facts speak for themselves. Most of the reviews of the Blu-ray discs so far have been found to be flawed in a big way due to the inferior compression used. I have seen the same movies on both formats and the HD-DVD version looks (& sounds) much better than Blu-ray; even though the theoretical specs for Blu-ray is superior!
In my analysis it appears that the VC-1 codec used in HD-DVD is superior to the inefficient MPEG-2 video codec being used to encode the data steam in the Blue-ray discs. VC-1 is a newer advanced algorithm better suited for HD material. I also noticed that conventional (non-HD) DVDs played on the $400 Toshiba HD-DVD player looks better than a $3000 conventional (non-HD) DVD player. It appears that the HD circuits up-converting the regular DVD data will work magic on your existing collection of standard DVDs!
I have also noticed that Blu-ray players are at least twice as expensive than competing HD-DVD players. This off course is the primary reason for the zombies pushing the Blu-ray players. Since the majority of the audio/video sales zombies make their money on commissions (a percentage of the sales amount), it is obvious to see the benefit of selling an item twice as expensive.