To HD, Or Not To HD, That Is The Question

(This article first appeared in the January 8, 2007 issue of Jon Peddie’s TechWatch)

I guess I qualify as someone on the bleeding edge of technology – I am a geeky consumer with a decent disposable income, and I buy many of the latest tech toys available to me (partly because Jon gets all the freebies, thus I have to pay for my toys).

Case in point, my latest acquisitions include two Sony PS3 consoles, two Nintendo Wii consoles (one each for the living room and the bedroom, of course), a new 1080p 61-inch DLP display from Samsung, a Yahama receiver with three HDMI inputs and 1080p upscaling, an HP Media Entertainment Center, and also two HD-DVD add-on drives for two of the three Xbox 360s I have (living room, bedroom, and office).

Poor old Jake - Not enough toys
Poor Me – I Suffer So

I have also invested in a handful of both HD-DVD and Blu-ray disk movies.

And I have watched movies of both types. I am now a true believer. Not a true believer of HD-DVD over Blu-ray, nor the other way around, but instead a believer in high-definition media playback. I have issued an edict in my household that we should no longer purchase any standard DVDs unless we really want the movies or shows right then and there and they are not yet available in either HD-DVD or Blu-ray formats. I will happily pay the $5-$15 premium for the phenomenal increase in image clarity (see my Blog at blog.richterscale.org for my HD epiphany with the Xbox 360 with King Kong: The Movie on HD-DVD).

What, oh what, to choose? Nothing?

There’s no question that I am among the fortunate few who has the ability to not have to choose between HD-DVD and Blu-ray. I have set things up so that I can play in either of the two primary places I watch movies – my living room and my bedroom. However, for most folks it will ultimately come down to four options:

1. Go with HD-DVD

2. Go with Blu-ray

3. Do nothing until things make more sense

4. Buy a dual HD-DVD/Blu-ray player when/if they become available

Industry reports indicate that option #3 is the most widely adopted at this point. Initial projections by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) for sales of stand-alone next-generation DVD players in 2006 were 750,000 units, but the CEA recently downgraded that estimate to a mere 250,000. That number does not include the estimated 1 million Sony PS3 systems (which each include a Blu-ray player by default), nor the number of HD-DVD add-on drives for the Xbox 360 sold in 2006 (a number Microsoft was not ready to provide at press time, although it should be noted that the HD-DVD add-on drive can also be used with a PC and HD-DVD player software such as PowerDVD for HD-DVD from CyberLink).

Consumer angst, confusion, and dissatisfaction have been the key reasons cited for why the high-definition DVD market has been slow to take off. I would add to that the high cost of hardware and the limited supply of decent movie titles.

The dissatisfaction stems from the purchase of HD-capable televisions by consumers who wrongly believe they just plug them in and everything will automatically be shown in high definition.

Sorry buddy, but it just doesn’t work that way. You need a high-definition input signal of some sort, whether it is an over-the-air signal (for which you need an HD tuner) or high-definition content via your set-top box, or high-definition input from your DVD player. And then things get worse (this is where the consumer confusion steps in) in that not all HD televisions are equal. You have to pick resolution (480p, 720p, 1080i, and/or 1080p), connector types (DVI, HDMI, component video, and soon DisplayPort), and now even HDCP (High Definition Copy Protection – required by certain players and even by Windows Vista in particular forms of use when playing back movies). And then consumers have to choose among CRT, LCD, DLP, Plasma, LED, and probably several other types of display technologies in the coming year, plus, of course, rear projection or front projection when applicable. And then there is the plethora of sizes along with relative merits of screen space in the context of the space the screen will be used, never mind aspect ratios. The combinations, variations, and possibilities – never mind the price tags – for new televisions are staggering. Hence the consumer angst – consumers don’t want to accidentally make the wrong decision, which may damn them all to obsolete television hell.

Angst enough to go around

Even as a more educated consumer I find myself frustrated by all this. For example, I wanted to upgrade both the 61-inch DLP TV in my living room and the smaller 32-inch LCD TV in my bedroom to support the latest 1080p and HDCP standards with HDMI input. I managed that just fine for my living room, but I have been told several times by salespeople in electronics store (including most recently at the Samsung showroom at the Columbus Circle Shopping Center in New York City) that 1080p won’t happen on anything less than a 40-inch display. Why the heck not? My soon-to-arrive Dell 24-inch computer display will do 1080p, so why can’t my 32-inch LCD TV? I don’t care that television makers have deemed that a dead zone, sufficient only for 720p/1080i resolution – I am willing to plunk down hard cash to get a 32-inch 1080p/HDCP-capable LCD television so that my PS3 and Xbox 360 will be usable at their upper limits. But even with the dizzying array of options out there, I don’t have this particular option, so I am stuck with a maximum of 1080i output for my PS3, and some doesn’t support HDMI output, but does have a PC VGA output connector and supports VESA mode standards). Sheer madness if you ask me.

HDAWGA – the HD Artificial Weight Gain Syndrome

And, assuming a consumer builds up the courage to actually go out and commit to a particular HD TV, we have the new version of the blinking 12:00 problem that has plagued the average VCR owner for nearly three decades, namely HD Artificial Weight Gain Syndrome (HDAWGS). HDAWGS is exemplified by having standard-definition 4:3 programming displayed in HD 16:9 proportions, making even the most svelte and stunning actress look like she’s been sneaking a few too many Krispy Kremes on the side. The converse of HDAWGS is HDBAS (High Definition Bulimic Actor Syndrome), in which high definition 16:9 content is being displayed in standard-definition 4:3 display modes. HDAWGS and HDBAS are more insidious than flashing 12:00 in that many average consumers just assume various actors have put on or taken off weight for their roles, meaning they don’t know they can program the display output dimensions of their high-definition TVs. Fortunately, the number one reason in 2006 to get a high-definition television was HD sports programming, according to a story I read in a national newspaper recently, so at least the athletes looked to be the right proportion when shown in 16:9 mode. But I digress.

But, if I had to choose…

I may be fortunate in that I don’t need to worry about HD over air or even over set-top box, since on the small Caribbean island of Bonaire where I live (had to get that in here) there is an absolute dearth of high-definition content available from outside signals. So the only HD content I can play is off DVDs or from HD WMV files streamed from my PC to one of my Xbox 360s. That makes high-definition DVDs very important to me.

This brings me back to the topic at hand: namely, the next-generation high-definition DVD standards.

I’ll leave the technical and advanced market analysis of HD-DVD and Blu-ray disk to my fellow JPR analyst, Andy Marken, and instead look at things from a consumer and practicality perspective.

Let me start with my conclusion: I think Blu-ray will have a difficult time overcoming HD-DVD, and ultimately, both standards will continue to be perpetuated because neither can overcome the other.

Perhaps the biggest thing that HD-DVD has going for it, and the biggest thing Blu-ray has going against it, are those two little letters, “H” and “D”. Every new expensive television out there is being promoted as an “HD” TV. Even Sony’s own line of HD TVs are, well, HD TVs. There’s nary a “Blu-ray television” to be found out there. All technical merits of Blu-ray aside, it comes down to a perception issue.

The average consumer of televisions is no different. They see “HD” on a TV, and then “HD” on a DVD player, and poof, they draw a connection. Technologists can argue about the technical superiority of Blu-ray until they are blue in the face, and it won’t convince someone who “knows better” because it’s plain as day to them that HD-DVD goes with HD TV and Blu-ray, well, they don’t know what that goes with. After all, the 2004 U.S. presidential elections turned out not to be about real issues, but about gay marriage – it’s all a matter of perception, whether in politics or in technology standards battles.

What’s in the name?

Sony is in a bind just by virtue of the name they have chosen for their technology – it’s sexy, but elitist, and sounds incompatible. Furthermore, it’s a Blu-ray “disk,” not a Blu-ray “DVD,” so that removes it one step further away from perceived compatibility, and then some not so brilliant marketing person came up with the contraction “BD” to represent Blu-ray Disc, thus resulting in the sale of BD-ROMs, BD players, and other things BD, further confusing an already hopelessly befuddled consumer. And honestly, the average consumer is unlikely to care what color laser is used to read data off the media. They just want it to work and be widely supported.

Existing HD-DVD releases also differentiate from Blu-ray in that a number of HD-DVD titles offer both HD-DVD content on one side and a DVD version on the other side, meaning the same media can be played on both current generation DVD players (and DVD-enabled computers), as well as in HD-DVD players. I have not yet seen any Blu-ray titles that offer this flexibility and comfort from potential HD-DVD obsolescence.

And then there’s the fact that HD-DVD stand-alone players are cheaper than Blu-ray players at the moment. A couple hundred dollars does matter to the average consumer.

The biggest drawback I see to HD-DVD is that a number of film studios are not currently supporting HD-DVD. Most notable are Sony, MGM, 20th Century Fox, and Walt Disney. However, HD-DVD is supported by Warner Bros., Universal, and Paramount. And Warner Bros. and Paramount are actually supporting both formats. Disney, an early Blu-ray supporter, has been reported to consider HD-DVD as well, while 20th Century Fox is seen as the stalwart studio in the Blu-ray camp (in addition to Sony’s own MGM and Sony Pictures). On the flip side, Universal Studios is reported to be unlikely to ever support Blu-ray.

And further muddying the waters and helping ensure that both standards will continue to battle it out are the recent announcements from Warner Bros. and LG. This week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Warner Bros. Home Video unveiled a new disk format called Total High-Definition Disc (or THD), which contains both Blu-ray and HD-DVD-compatible content. In other words, it’s one disk that will work in both types of players, and an excellent way for movie studios to hedge their bets. And Warner Bros. allegedly also has a patent application filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a tri-standard disk, adding traditional DVD to the mix. And on the hardware side, LG Electronics announced the first triple-format HD-DVD/Blu-ray/DVD player at CES – the LG BH100 Super Multi Blue Player (a horrible name for a multi-format disk player), which ships at the beginning of February for $1,199 (see related articles below). That’s potentially a good way for consumers to hedge their bets.

Ignoring for the moment the theoretical technical advantage of being able to slap 50 GBytes of data onto a Blu-ray disk (versus a “mere” 30 GBytes for HD-DVD), Blu-ray’s major benefit is that Sony, MGM, 20th Century Fox, and Disney all back Blu-ray exclusively for the moment. And furthermore, and Sony has significant clout in consumer electronics. Witness the 700,000 or so PS3s sold in 2006 as a serious way of upping the ante. Plus, Sony’s distribution capabilities into non-traditional venues for movie sales, such as the chain of GameStop stores, also improve Blu-ray’s position. GameStop does not sell any HD-DVD titles as a counterpoint to the Blu-ray movies they do sell, and my informal inquiries show that is unlikely to change soon.

But let’s get back to the PS3 as a Blu-ray disk player. There’s no question it works, and works pretty well from a display quality perspective, even on a 1080i display. But it falls far short of a stand-alone player or even Microsoft’s HD-DVD add-on drive for one very simple reason – it lacks an intuitive remote control. You have to use a cryptic on-screen menu combined with the wireless PS3 game controllers to control movies. And at least in the PS3 box I bought, there was no documentation on how to do this. I had to go by trial and error to see which buttons did what (resetting the movie I was watching back to the movie’s very beginning several annoying times during the process).

No documentation on how to do this

Sure, a real DVD-style remote control is a foolishly simply thing, really. So why didn’t Sony include one with the PS3? Or even make one available for sale as an add-on? Microsoft packaged a remote with the HD-DVD add-on drive, and the remote can be used for more than just controlling HD-DVD playback – such as controlling the media center extender functions inherent in the Xbox 360, which is an extra bonus.

Porn and Betamax

It’s been often said that Sony’s Beta-max video tape format, which was technologically superior to VHS, died because the adult movie industry was barred from using Betamax as a distribution medium, and thus gravitated naturally to VHS.

It should also be mentioned that Blu-ray has been compared to Betamax, as well as Sony’s own ailing UMD format, too many times to count. And is Sony doomed to repeat one of the mistakes of the past? It seems like that may be the case, as at least two of the major publishers of adult video content – Wicked and Digital Playground – have said that they have been effectively barred from releasing their titles on Blu-ray disk because no Blu-ray-certified replicator will replicate adult entertainment on Blu-ray media. So, instead, both of these adult video powerhouses have just released their first HD-DVD titles. Ali Joone of Digital Playground told me that that HD-DVD was chosen for him by Sony, because all the replicators he spoke to told him that if they produced his titles on Blu-ray, they would lose their licenses from Sony to replicate Blu-ray media. So he had no choice but to choose HD-DVD as his media, even after being a vocal supporter of Blu-ray just last year. His company is releasing four HD-DVD titles now, and plans to continue to release another four titles every month, while Wicked is releasing one a month starting now.

Vivid, another major publisher of adult video titles, has announced it will ship its first true high-definition title in March, and plans to ship on both HD-DVD and Blu-ray, but I was unable to talk to Steven Hirsh before deadline to find out how his company is managing to publish Blu-ray titles based on the restrictions Wicked and Digital Playground faced.

Does that mean HD-DVD has won? I am not sure how true the Betamax myth is, but I remain firmly convinced that the adult entertainment industry does help drive adoption of new technology, and whither adult entertainment goes (technologically speaking), so do technology standardization and growth. So, perhaps Blu-ray will be another Betamax.

Incidentally, if you think it’s a shock to see the pimples and pores of your favorite actor or actress, just imagine the surprises that await you with high-definition porn. However, unlike the concern Hollywood starlets have exhibited about HD movies showing off all their facial blemishes, adult entertainment performers have no such issues of modesty.

In fact, when I interviewed up and comer Shay Jordan (who started performing just a year ago) about high-definition facial blemishes, her comment was that viewers “shouldn’t be looking at that in her movies, and if they are, and ignoring all the action, then there’s something really wrong with them.”

Where does that leave us?

It leaves us with two competing standards that will likely live a long time, both of which will see less than ideal sales unless they find a way to help consumers get over their angst, confusion, and dissatisfaction. The vendors of HD displays in particular are very aware of this, and are trying to take steps to help consumers – programs such as Panasonic’s Plasma Concierge service, as well as educational presentations by Sony, are examples of this outreach. But so far, it’s not been nearly enough.

The bright star for the future is that Warner Bros. and LG Electronics’s new offerings are only prolonging the pain of competing standards; ironically they will also likely contribute to markedly greater acceptance of high-definition media and media playback among consumers because they offer a “safer” choice. And that is a good thing for those of us who have seen the light of HD.