By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, December 10, 2006
What's a fair price to pay for video perfection, or even something that looks a lot like it?
In the case of high-definition movie discs, the answer may not just be "a boatload of money," but having to keep two incompatible players under the TV set.
Barely 25 years after the heyday of VHS versus Betamax, the movie and electronics industries have teamed up on a high-definition remake of that format war -- HD DVD versus Blu-ray.
HD DVD arrived first, with players and discs becoming available back in April. You can now choose from about 10 playback devices, such as a $200 add-on to Microsoft's Xbox 360 game console, a Samsung player that sells for $400 at retail and computers from Acer, Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba.
Many of the HD DVD releases that I viewed in May looked distinctly sharper and clearer than regular DVDs, and all offered convenient interactive features such as the ability to view the chapter list while still watching the movie.
Had the industry stopped there, videophiles would have had an easy judgment to make.
Instead, a month or so later, the first Blu-ray players debuted, although they've been hard to find in quantity until recently. Then Sony began selling its PlayStation 3 video-game machine, which includes a Blu-ray player. The PS3 may now be unavailable at any price, but other Blu-ray players can be had from Panasonic, Philips, Samsung and others, in some cases discounted to $600.
Just as HD DVD can provide a clear improvement upon DVD, Blu-ray can look distinctly sharper in practice. Switching from watching a movie on DVD to viewing the same title on Blu-ray was a little like putting on a pair of glasses with the right prescription -- in "Good Night, and Good Luck," the beads of sweat on Edward R. Murrow's forehead and the handwriting on reporters' notepads jumped into focus on the Blu-ray copy.
This held true even when playing the "Good Night, and Good Luck" DVD on a player that, like many new "up-converting" models, electronically enhances the disc's footage to a high-definition resolution. Up-converting can smooth over rough spots but it can't put in details that didn't show up on the original copy.
(Note: HD DVD, Blu-ray and up-converting DVD players all may require an encrypted digital connection called HDMI; many older HDTVs lack an HDMI connection.)
Also like HD DVD, Blu-ray discs allow for more and easier interactivity. You can summon a chapter list and use that to skip ahead to a favorite scene without having to stop playback first.
Blu-ray discs, like HD and regular DVDs, have the capacity to store extra features, but the three that I viewed made only minimal use of that space. "Lethal Weapon" and "Memento" offered only one real extra each, less than what comes on DVD editions of those movies. (For some reason, I could not get to any of the bonus content on "Good Night, and Good Luck" with the PS3's controller.)
Although HD DVD and Blu-ray movies may look the same on TV -- the discs are even the same size -- they do feature some important technical differences on the inside. The Blu-ray format can hold more data than HD DVD, although both "standards" easily outrank DVD in that aspect. HD DVD movies, meanwhile, can be produced in a combination format, where one side of the disc contains a standard-definition DVD copy that works in regular DVD players.
But the most important difference between the two formats has nothing to do with fine-print details like disc capacities or video compression formats -- it's which studios like which formats.
Here we have the worst of this whole mess: Some movie studios will only release high-definition movies in one format and not the other. Sony is only supporting Blu-ray, while Universal is opting solely for HD DVD. Other companies may release high-def discs in both formats, but not evenly so -- for instance, Warner Bros. offers far more titles on HD DVD than in Blu-ray.
Just over 100 Blu-ray titles are available now. About 150 HD DVD titles are on sale in the United States -- though only 20 or so of them are combo, DVD-compatible discs, which shows how much the movie industry is ignoring what may be HD DVD's most convenient feature. Prices in either format usually range from $20 to $30.
So if you want to upgrade your home movie viewing to high-definition, you can't just buy an expensive player and some expensive discs that may flop in the market -- you have to do that twice.
With all the money and corporate egos invested in either side, it's hard to imagine how this ends quickly or gracefully. But it's still harder to imagine how the market can possibly stomach two incompatible formats over time.
The depressing thing in all this is that neither side seems interested in winning by giving customers what they need most -- an easy, relatively affordable way to burn a copy of a high-definition program. The HD-capable digital video recorders offered by cable and satellite providers, as well as manufacturers like TiVo, might as well be prisons for your recordings; they offer no way to share a copy of a recording with a friend or family member or archive it for safekeeping.
Both HD DVD and Blu-ray discs come in recordable flavors -- unlike the DVD, the developers of these formats didn't forget to build in that feature. But that possibility remains meaningless until manufacturers start shipping players that can also record.
Meanwhile, there's always the option of getting an up-converting DVD player -- now available from just about any manufacturer around, at prices less than $100 -- and keeping your existing inventory of DVDs. It may bug you that you're missing out on something with this second-best solution. But what's the alternative?
Having to risk hundreds of dollars on what may be the Betamax of this decade should bother you a lot more.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro firstname.lastname@example.org.