HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray Update
Dick De Jong
November 28, 2007
With the predicted drop in prices for high definition DVD players occurring as I type, I thought I should revisit the ongoing format battle between Blu-ray and HD-DVD.
I am working on a more comprehensive HDTV Buying Guide that will cover all of the primary factors in choosing a new HDTV. But as I keep harping on, if you are not supplying high definition content to your HDTV, you are not reaping its full potential. And one of the best sources of HD programming is high definition DVDs.
Before I jump into a discussion about HD-DVD versus Blu-ray, let me say a word about upconverting DVD players. These machines take SD movies and through video processing magic, output an HD signal, up to 1080p. You can find numerous upconverting players in the marketplace, like the fine series from OPPO.
The best of these upconverting players do a very good job of knitting standard definition yarn into high definition sweaters. For many HDTV owners, the quality is good enough.
I believe that in theory, you can only pump so much image quality out of an SD signal and it's never going to be as good as an HD source. But I decided to test the theory with my own two eyes.
I have both the SD and the HD-DVD versions of What Dreams May Come, which won an Academy Award for the exquisite visual effects depicting Heaven and Hell. The painterly scenes provide wonderful reference materials. I will admit that when viewing both sources on the Sony KDL-46XBR4 46" BRAVIA LCD we have in for review, the image quality was close.
I saw less noise in the HD-DVD. But what pushed me over the edge was a feeling of more dimensionality with the HD-DVD caused in part by the greater detail in the image.
If you like to squeeze the most visually out of your movies, then I would definitely say that you should be watching HD-DVD or Blu-ray content on HD-DVD or Blu-ray players. Luckily, as a bonus to those who already own a library of SD movies, both high definition players do upconvert all SD material. Unfortunately, you cannot playback HD-DVDs on a Blu-ray machine and vice-versa.
There is no doubt that the companies that are backing the competing formats are engaged in a pitched battle for our hearts and dollars. But for you as a consumer, this is much less a war and more of a purchasing decision.
I know from browsing the forums that people have strong opinions about which format they prefer. Though sometimes I wonder if they have ever had a chance to compare the two. Allegiances to brands are formed in fascinating ways that I can appreciate. And I'm sure that what ever I say in the next few paragraphs will ruffle a few feathers in one camp or another.
Minding Your Ps and Qs
Let's look at a number of factors that may or may not be important to you. First, picture quality. Right now, I have a Pioneer BDP-94HD Blu-ray player and a Toshiba HD-A3 HD-DVD machine in our facility.
|Pioneer BDP-94HD Blu-ray Player|
I'm a big believer that the ultimate testing instrument are the two orbs on either side of your nose. And as far as my eyes are concerned, the picture quality of both formats is excellent. And you would be seriously nitpicking to see a difference between the two.
Often what is more important to the image quality is the CODEC used to compress the movie and how lovingly the studio handled the transfer from film to disc, which is not necessarily a format issue.
Audio quality is a whole 'nother can of worms. If you want to confuse your ears, ask them to pick between Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital TrueHD, and DTS HD.
I will grant that if you have a $5000 audio system in your home theater and if you possess a particularly attuned ear, these technologies may be significant. But if you are listening through your HDTV's speakers, good luck. More often, the audio formats provided on the disc have less to do with quality and more to do with compatibility with your audio system.
Let's talk about another form of compatibility for a minute. Generally, HDTVs don't care which format of player is plugged into it. But if you are interested in having your HDTV communicate directly with your player through your remote, then I have seen that some of the newest HDTVs like the Sony I have here can identify a Blu-ray player connected to it through an HDMI cable. In the TV's menu, you can program the player to turn on and off with the TV. It's not a deal maker for me since I like to control my machines separately.
This holiday season Toshiba has tried to gain market share by offering discounts on their recently released third generation HD-DVD players. If you look, you should be able to find their HD-A3 for around $200, (down from the MSRP of $299). The top resolution output of the HD-A3 is 1080i. (I'll be posting a review of the HD-A3 soon. For now, let me say that, for the price, this 1080i player would make a great starter HD player.)
|Toshiba HD-A30 HD-DVD Player|
Their HD-A30 with 1080p output and 24p support is probably a better model to compare to the 1080p Blu-ray players. Today, I'm finding the HD-A30 for around $280 (MSRP of $399). The Blu-ray camp is fighting back. For example, I've located the Samsung BD-P1400 1080p Blu-ray player for $339 (MSRP of $499).
|Samsung BD-P1400 Blu-ray Player|
I remember last CES, less than a year ago, when you would be hard pressed to find a Blu-ray player for less than $1000. (Please be aware that these prices will fluctuate throughout the holiday season as special sales come and go.)
For the gamers among us, perhaps the most attractive entree into high definition DVDs is Sony's PlayStation 3, which has a Blu-ray player integrated into the system. I'm seeing the 40GB PS3 version at $399. On the HD-DVD front, if you already own an Xbox 360, then you can add Microsoft's HD-DVD player for around $180.
To prime the pump and jump-start your high definition DVD collection, almost all of these players come with a bonus of at least five free DVDs. And with the price tags of new releases hovering around $30 each, these are sweet deals.
When it comes to price, consumers are definitely benefitting from this format war. But you are a casualty of this fracas, if you are interested in acquiring the full catalog of high definition DVDs. With some studios aligning exclusively in one camp or the other, some movies are not available in both formats.
For example, Spider-Man 3 is only on Blu-ray, Transformers on HD-DVD. Shrek the Third on HD-DVD, Ratatouille on Blu-ray. The Pirates of the Caribbean series on Blu-ray, Monty Python's The Meaning of Life: Special Edition on HD-DVD.
What's a poor boy to do? LG is trying to bridge the gap with solutions like the LG BH200 HD DVD/Blu-ray player. Samsung has also announced their BD-UP5000 dual format machine. But at suggested retail prices of around $1000, you can do the math - one PS3 + one HD-A30.
Of course, if you are not a DVD collector, then Netflix rents both HD-DVDs and Blu-rays for no added costs to your monthly membership fee. Blockbuster, on the other hand, currently has opted to only carry Blu-ray DVDs.
By the end of the year, it's estimated that the total number of available titles in each format will be about 400. Most of them will be movies that were made in the last ten years.
If you are a classic movie buff, right now it's slim pickings for high definition DVDs. Though if you have an opportunity to enjoy the HD-DVD version of Casablanca, you will appreciate the possibilities of a collection of classic movies in HD.
One of the selling points for high definition players is their ability to offer interactive content. For example on the HD-DVD of I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, you can take a Friendship Test by answering questions while you are watching the movie.
Call me old fashioned, but I don't want my movie viewing peppered with pop-up questions like "Would I ever sleep with my best friend's ex?" Though if I loosen up a bit, I could imagine enjoyable interactive possibilities.
For both formats, interactivity is still a developing technology with growing pains. Supposedly, Blu-ray had to work out some kinks in their programming, which from the most recent reports, they have. For me, it's not if there's interactivity, but what the content is. Once again, that is not necessarily a format issue.
Picking a Winner
In a race, some of us favor the front runner, others pull for the underdog. But all of us want to back the winner. And in this contest, depending on who you are talking to, you can interchange HD-DVD and Blu-ray for any of those terms.
Each side points to signposts and sales figures to substantiate their combatants advantage. Some say the race is almost finished while others say it has just begun. I say, I honestly don't know.
What I can affirm is that if you have an HDTV and you watch DVDs, that you definitely should own at least an upconverting player.
Now, I don't want to be a cheerleader for consumerism, but I do notice better image quality in the high definition DVD world. And we are beginning to see more irresistible price points for the players, if not the discs themselves. Of course, if trends continue, prices will be lower next year.
But if you are ready to test the HD-DVD/Blu-ray waters, this holiday season is a good time with all the bonus DVDs thrown in to the deals. Pick a format and enjoy. Even if the war ended before Christmas 2008 and your side bit the dust, your player will still be working and think of all the great high definition DVD bargains you would find.
Don't worry, be HD happy.