The High-Def Format War

I believe it is about time for me to weigh in on the High-Def DVD format war. I am fortunate enough to have access to both HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc technology and this editorial will discuss not only my experiences with the two formats, but also the fanatical supporters on both sides and the unmitigated propaganda they have been throwing at the public, caught in the middle.I do not claim to be an expert when it comes to high-definition video, nor have I fully chosen a side, though I will admit that I am leaning towards a specific format, for reasons to be outlined as we move along.

Toshiba, the pioneers of DVD and now HD DVD, and Sony, the pioneers of the Blu-ray Disc, are no strangers to each other. When the Digital Video Disc technology was in the developmental stage, these two behemoths stood toe-to-toe to fight it out over who had the better technology. Toshiba won that head-to-head match up and DVD, as we know it, was born. Now, a decade later, a rematch is nigh.Both companies jumped into the high definition arena without hesitation, despite the overwhelming call from the masses that a single format be decided on, tested and perfected, before a product rollout. Now Toshiba and Sony are locked in a product war that does not benefit consumers and is causing mass confusion. Both companies have their industry supporters, of course, with Sony scoring the backing of a majority of the major movie studios while Toshiba has software giant Microsoft in their corner. Toshiba sent me their first generation flagship model, the Toshiba HD-XA1, for review. I was blown away by the picture and sound quality of hi-def. The video and audio were phenomenal in comparison to standard DVD, which was already light years ahead of the VHS that ruled the market less than 10 years ago.A short time later I was sent the Samsung BD-P1000 for review, which unfortunately I wasn’t able to spend nearly as much time with as I had the HD DVD unit, but Blu-ray did seem to be a major step up from standard definition DVD, but still appeared a touch grainy during my experience with it, which I later discovered was due to the MPEG-2 codec that was used on the film I previewed.After the initial taste I was hooked and subsequently purchased a HD DVD player as well as a Blu-ray player and have been reviewing titles on each since last November. I still feel HD DVD is the better quality format and is being handled in a better way.First off, as a consumer, I feel that Blu-ray is being forced down my throat. Everywhere I look Blu-ray is there, despite the lack of sales numbers to justify that kind of market push. I was also disheartened by the way Sony has handled the Blu-ray player in conjunction with their Playstation 3 gaming system. This is probably the most ridiculous ploy to force people to adopt new technology – straight out of the Microsoft playbook. Let’s put it inside the Playstation – one of the most prominent names in gaming – then, because we’ve sold one million players, we can claim Victory in the HD wars. It doesn’t matter that the titles aren’t selling to match. Let’s hold off on releasing games so people who want to use their PS3 will be forced to purchase Blu-ray movies! This is how Sony is forcing their way ahead in the format war and currently maintaining a steady lead.And why shouldn’t they be?On paper, Blu-ray is the technology to beat. There’s no doubt about it. The format boasts 50GB of storage, supports all video and audio codecs, has a protective coating, and is a lovely shade of periwinkle blue.That having been said, Blu-ray is still not meeting expectations. Sony is being stubbornly slow in adopting the newer video codecs, their players are much higher priced, and the BD-Java support is where? The majority of the studios are using only MPEG-2 video codecs, which may have less compression, but still suffers from more flaws than the newer codecs AVC and VC1. Also, video files in MPEG-2 require nearly double the space that the same file would require using the VC1 codec. What does that really mean? It means that Blu-ray’s 50GB storage space, their #1 boasting point, is rendered useless by the fact that it is used up on a sub-par video transfer. By comparing a Paramount title on HD DVD, which uses VC-1, versus its Blu-ray counterpart, which in most cases is MPEG-2, there is a visible difference between the two codecs. Most review sites, including this one, where the reviewer is able to review the same titles on both formats will tell you the VC-1 version usually looks much better.Each of these new formats has their own version of high-def software that will give consumers the ultimate as far as extras, on disc games, and functionality. For HD DVD it’s HDi, which has been fully supported from day 1 in all their players and for Blu-ray it’s BD-Java, which has little to no support and has just recently announced that all new players after, I believe, October 1st must have full support.What the hell is with that? Seriously? Who offers something, but then no players will support it? That means if I’m crazy enough to put out $1200 on a player it’s going to be useless in a few months. It also means no PIP for bonus features such as Warner’s In-Movie Experience. Some of you might be thinking back to The Descent saying it had PIP. You’re right it did, but they cheated in order to get it to work. There was actually two versions of the movie on the BD in order to give viewers the appearance of PIP. Good thing they have 50GB discs huh?Why is a $1200 price tag appealing when I could get an HD DVD player for $499? Yes, I realize the PS3 is $700, but I’m referring to stand alones, and yes, I’m aware the Samsung player has dropped significantly in price, but it’s still not worth even the reduced price.What’s wrong with HD DVD you might be asking yourself after reading some of my complaints against Blu-ray? Well, the list isn’t nearly as harsh or critical, but more so on how they seem to be handling things.The HD DVD group has done well considering it only has one exclusive studio backer versus the 5 that Blu-ray has. Although, HD DVD’s biggest support will be that of the porn industry, which has been known to turn the tide and define winners. What HD DVD really needs right now is to turn a few more studios format neutral to help stay afloat as it seems to be drifting further behind Blu-ray’s “in your face” marketing.Also, HD DVD’s advertising. Where is it? I’ve barely seen anything until recently where a few website and magazines have had some ads. Toshiba hasn’t nearly put out the same amount of dollars that Sony has to market their product. There has been no Buy One Get One Free. There have been no 50% off sales on HD titles… nothing. Yet, the attach rate, last I heard, was roughly 5 titles per player, that’s pretty impressive in itself.Of course the biggest gripe anyone had, which I could care less about, is the slow load times. Is this really that big of a deal? Are we so spoiled that we can’t wait an extras 45 seconds for a machine to warm up? We all wait that long for our PCs to boot and essentially that’s what all these new players are… simple computers with no operating systems.Let’s talk propaganda. Sony sits atop of this hill as king. Everything from “We have won the format war because we shipped 1 million PS3’s” to “100 thousand units of Casino Royale sold/shipped in the first week” (it actually sold only 59k for the entire month of March) is complete BS and for everyone that believes any of it – call me, I have a great deal on some antique civil war wooden nickels for you… Probably the worst part of the propaganda is the ‘fanboys’, those brain-scrubbed little weasels hiding off in dark corners of their mothers’ basements, looking for something to fill the creeping void of becoming a real 40 year-old virgin. These people, for no apparent reason aside from immediately buying into any kind of PR hype, will trumpet the virtues of any highly hyped new product and defend flaws and inconsistencies until they have no breath left in their bodies. Fanboys are by far the worst thing about any format or media war. They seem to have emerged in droves on the net since the Xbox was launched as a rival platform against the Playstation 2 but, in reality, they have been around since before the ball met the wheel.I’ve spent countless hours reading threads at the AVS Forum, High Def Digest, and the Home Theater Forum where the fanboys run rampant (and the most ignorantly vocal and obnoxiously judgemental are, once again, the Blu-ray supporters). Everything essentially goes back to two arguments… 50GB and we have more support. You can’t have a logical conversation with BD supporters as they instantly start ripping apart Toshiba and HD DVD based on fudged sales numbers and Sony marketing catchphrases, not facts. I will be the first to admit that my preferred format is not winning this war and is now waging an uphill battle, but if you want to talk about how much better you think Blu-ray is, state facts with a level of intelligence instead of being a typing, trash-talking, Sony brainwashed monkey.Looking at what is available, workable and serviceable now, HD DVD has things locked in pretty tight. Meanwhile the Blu-ray group is still trying to sort out the bugs and find their way. Their complete disregard for the satisfaction of their customers astounds me. Blu-ray is the “wait for it” media. Wait for us to make players that work properly, but buy one of these faulty ones anyway… Wait for the BD-Java to be supported … wait for our second gen-players… wait for extras… wait… wait… wait… Am I willing to put money on who’s going to win? Definitely not, because either of these formats could come out on top (or another one could appear out of left field and destroy both). With the confusion surrounding both of these mediums, and people refusing to jump on either bandwagon, it could be a while before one side emerges victorious. Until the studios agree on a standard format, or all go universal and release titles on both and let the public decide, this war will rage on.You may have gotten the idea that I am against Blu-ray or Sony. Not necessarily true. I am against the way they are abusing the public with their product, a product that doesn’t work properly or meet the quality of their competitor. I am equally dumbfounded by the way that HD DVD has let Sony walk all over them in the marketplace. Neither is perfect and neither deserves to win… yet. The bottom line is this – HD DVD is the better format for Audio and Video quality. It is easier to use and has far fewer compatibility issues. Blu-ray has the potential to be a phenomenal archival tool and the world’s greatest storage media. In a perfect world, they would combine forces and formats and create the best format available, then share the inevitable windfall of a happy planet in love with their DVD players. But we all know that ain’t happenin’.Discuss it in the forums…

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