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Blu-ray & HD DVD - Who Has the Upper Hand?

by June 26, 2006

Where do we stand to date in the format war...

Now that Samsung's new Blu-ray player the BD-P1000 has been out, the reviews are out on the web-o-sphere for both first strikes in the latest format war. Toshiba fired the first salvo with the HD-A1 HD DVD player hitting the market at half the price of the first Blu-ray player. According to a market research firm called iSuppli Toshiba is taking a tactical loss on its player - to the tune of $200 per unit. Being first to market and being sold at a lower cost provides an obvious advantage, but is it the better unit?

 

BD-P1000 vs HD-A1

According to the first reviews the two players are far cry from the next generation DVD player bliss we'd been reading about in the months leading up to the format war. Neither can do Dolby True HD (or DTS HD), the upcoming lossless multi-channel audio formats. Neither player has an HDMI port that supports the new 1.3 specification. Overall most sources pointed to minor annoyances with the HD-A1 being slow to load a disk or and most reviews complained that fan was too noisy and the word on the street is that the image quality of the early Blu-ray movies isn't quite up to par with HD-DVD.

 

HD-A1

The most critical review I found was from Consumer Electronics Net where Charlie White absolutely hated the HD-A1 cursing its very name and the camel upon which the device rode into his presence. Charlie complains of everything from the salesman trying to sell him a $100 HDMI cable denying that one was included (an HDMI cable is included so save your $100). This review was also plagued with a hardware error "HDMI Error D".

Design is a subjective matter. The HD-A1 is big and bulky reminiscent of an old VHS player. But some might call it retro. One nearly unanimous observation about the HD-A1 is that it has a remarkable image quality. Most reviews really liked the quality of video, but then this is probably the first time they had seen a real high definition disk format.

 

BD-P1000

Overall the BD-P1000 is a sleek machine, not nearly as bulky, slow or loud as the HD-A1. Samsung's Blu-ray player has a couple of tricks the HD-A1 cannot do - like native 1080P output and a 10 in 1 memory card reader that can display a still image slideshow in HD.

"For costing twice as much as the HD-A1, Samsung's BD-P1000 isn't anywhere near twice the machine." - dvd.themanroom.com

The image quality of early BD disk releases have been beaten up badly, but it's difficult to place blame on the machine. Blu-ray is having problems perfecting dual layering so the largest commercial BD movie disk is only 25Gigs, which makes the new HD DVD movie disks larger at 30 Gigs. The Blu-ray format is suffering for it according to most reviews including this one at Projector Central the image quality is noticeably worse off than HD-DVD. But this is probably because of the MPEG-2 codec chosen for early Blu-ray movies. It's the same older, slower codec used on standard DVDs. When the action heats up in HD, MPEG-2 only has an upper limit of 19.4 Mb/sec to decompress all those pixels, and aliasing and macroblocking are inevitable.

"Early word on the initial wave of Blu-ray titles is the MPEG-2 codec chosen to fit the content on 25GB single layer disks has compromised video quality" - dvd.themanroom.com

HD DVD movies on the other hand are using VC-1 encoding Microsoft's next generation codec comparable to MPEG-4. It's is widely seen as the reason for HD DVD's apparently superior image quality. But it should be noted that this isn't the fault of the player itself, the Samsung BD-P1000 will be capable of playing back 50Gig BD disks when Sony finally overcomes current problems perfecting it. Sony anticipates dual layer BD by late summer or fall, if they can keep this schedule (if recent Sony timetables are any indication - don't hold your breath) they could be producing disks with at least as good image quality as HD DVD.

 

HD DVD v BD Media

Current HD DVDs are not only much larger than BD, but also larger than it seems Toshiba first anticipated. Weren't we told that a full HD movie feature would fit on a single layer HD DVD disk at 15 Gigs? Here is how some of the numbers shake out today:

" The Last Samurai (which topped out at 27.3GB), Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles (25.4GB), The Phantom of the Opera (24.8GB), Jarhead (24.7GB), The Bourne Identity (22.7GB), Serenity (19.6GB), The Fugitive (18.2GB), and Doom (16.5GB)."

The size of many of the current films almost requires the entire dual layer disk. This means features like Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy are going to require multiple disks . This might be a consideration if you're planning on going with the first HD-DVD player.

Another concern is the old proprietary standard trick and tools issued to studios to author their own disks in one or the other format. One would assume that Sony has learned a lesson from Beta and will be absolutely forthcoming with the proprietary standards. John Biggs of Gizmodo recently interviewed Kathee (no last name? how surprising!) from an "adult film" production studio that didn't have such good things to say about Sony and Blu-ray:

Gizmodo: Well, they're saying that where the adult industry goes, the tech industry follows. So let's discuss next gen DVDs. Have you gotten a chance to see them both?
Kathee: I have seen HD-DVD product. Blu-ray is a bit trickier for the adult industry, because Sony is proprietary about it. There are a couple of products emerging that allow HD-DVD authoring, though
Gizmodo: Huh? So you're saying that Sony is going to shoot itself in the foot by being closed? Is that accurate? Or is it a "wait and see" sort of thing?
Kathee: Apparently so on the shooting in the foot thing

History it seems, will teach Sony nothing.

Considering both formats and players, the smart money is on wait-and-see. I would personally not buy a next gen disk player for a technology whose media still uses MPEG-2. If you trust the promises of Sony you're truly bold.

Nor would I buy the first machine that looks like it has a few bug ridden issues, no matter what they can do with firmware to patch up any problems. I'm waiting for the one machine that can playback the big trilogy of trilogies including - Star Wars, Terminator and Lord of the Rings. The player that can pull that off gets my vote.

Special Thanks to HomeTheaterFocus Blog

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About the author:

Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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