Monday, February 18, 2008

HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray

All of the news on this front, since the beginning of the year, have been relentlessly bleak for HD-DVD in this format war. It all started when Blu-Ray managed to tip Warner Bros. from "neutral" to Blu-Ray-Only. HD-DVD began to lose retailer support and it would appear the loss of Wal-Mart -- the same people who got a bunch of people in on HD-DVD just 2 months ago -- over the weekend might be the last straw for HD-DVD.

Like in "regular" war, this outcome was not foreordained. In fact, when this whole thing started, it looked as if HD-DVD's to lose. HD-DVD had a six month head start...an unbelievable advantage. Which they promptly squandered. Rather than go for maximum market penetration, thereby strangling Blu-Ray in the crib, it dicked around trying to squeeze early adopters with $800 players. For which there was no software.

This approach immediately failed to light up the general population.

Blu-Ray followed suit a half year later, and similarly failed to get the population worked up, but the point was that HD-DVD had frittered away its lead. Blu-Ray should have been dead with tire marks upon its carcass and instead it was no worse than even with HD-DVD. The perception was that HD-DVD was losing.

At that point, HD-DVD was on its heels the rest of the way. Given some of the details of the formats, HD-DVD needed to win (and easily could have) with an early knockout. The studios which were noncommittal to either format noticed that Blu-Ray was a lot more studio-friendly (and, it must be said, far less viewer-friendly) in terms of regional coding (HD-DVD has none) and other "protection" schemes which the suits (the same ones who brought us the WGA strike) fetishize so dearly.

By Christmas 2007, somebody with an MBA over at Toshiba (HD-DVD's main hardware proponent) managed to get someone to listen and Toshiba started blowing out HD-DVD players at $99, with free discs thrown in. But as is likely turns out, it was too little. Had Toshiba done something similar for Christmas 2006, or better yet, started off selling an HD-DVD player that topped out at, say, $250 instead of $800 they would be in an infinitely better position, instead of about to write off hundreds of millions of dollars. The "loss" of a few million upfront in saturating the market would have been recouped many times over by January 2009. Microsoft didn't help by not making HD-DVD a standard part of the XBox, like Sony did with the PS3.

It also didn't help that HD-DVD advertising was nonexistent. Those blowout prices on HD-DVD players were strictly conveyed by the grapevine.

Another part of the blame goes to the studios on the HD-DVD side, who could have really committed themselves and tipped the balance. Had the Harry Potter series been released, or had Dreamworks produced a box set (all the Shrek films, say) at the same time as those Christmas blowouts, it could well have made a huge difference. You'll notice that neither side has produced gobs of "must have" content.

You'll note I haven't bothered with the technical specs of one format vs. the other. Frankly, these don't matter and are strictly the province of fanboys. Normal people don't really care. Seeing films available in both formats in an A-B comparison way on my equipment didn't really reveal much of anything. Whatever the specifications the results were not noticeable with even high end-ish gear like mine. In usability, HD-DVD beat Blu-Ray, with features like PIP menus and so forth.

But here's the dirty little secret that neither camp would have wanted you to know: Most movies don't look that much better in HD-DVD or Blu-Ray vs. an upconverted DVD. I compared Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in HD-DVD, Blu-Ray and upconverted DVD and the HD formats looked s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y better. Slightly, with a Capital Slight. It really was nothing to write home about. The only times when the two HD formats looked better than upconverted DVDs were either shot-to-HD stuff (lots of Travel and Nature stuff, mostly) or CGI animated films like Ratatouille or Shrek the Third. Those films have visual qualities worth each and every superlative Roget stuck in his thesaurus.

Music & Lyrics or 300? Not so much.

The inherent limitations of the source (i.e. shot-on-film) really are not transcended by the HD formats. The upconverted DVDs are a tiny bit softer with a trace more artifacts. But that's it. Unless my math is flawed, the number of those CGI films currently out on HD formats is maybe 4 or 5, hardly a clarion call. Seeing how a grand total of two million players (combined!) of both HD-DVD & Blu-Ray have been sold in comparison to eleventy gazillion DVD players, the question is becoming not so much whether the winner will succeed DVD, but rather whether the winner will succeed LaserDisc.

What this format war reminds me of is two men fighting to the death for the love of a woman who, when all is said and done, decides she doesn't like men after all. Soon to follow will be HD downloads or some combination of PPV/record thing in HD. And, with the number of hackers running around, just wait until someone figures out a way to convert Blu-Ray or HD-DVD to a HD-WMV file for easy downloading/uploading.

-J.

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