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Blue-ray and HD-DVD: wave of the future, or already washed up?

Dean's World contributor Aziz P discusses the "fanatical bickering" ... of competitive DVD formats.

His final graf focuses content protection, and how it protects consumers:

I think [the debate between Blue-ray and HD-DVD is] important and affects us in a potentially greater way than did the VHS vs BetaMax standards battle of a few decades ago. Ultimately, content on these next-generation discs will have to tread a fine line between consumers' rights and content producers' need to protect their intellectual property. It is good that the debate is playing out in public, because the transparency will ensure that we consumers have a window into the process. After all, it's our hard-eaned cash that both consortiums plan to suck in the hope that we will replace our DVD collections for our personal home theater libraries. Stay tuned.

Some thoughts:

Let's recall that what people want is backwards compatibility, as commenter Jerry Kindall pointed out.

Not only that, there's a more than a few DVD players out there these days, and not very many people spring for bleeding-edge, state of the art hardware. Especially if it's expensive.

Let's recall that previous generations of media technology included significant improvements over and above an increase in capacity.

Vinyl (33-1/3 rpm) LPs were so-called because they were long-playing compared to 78s; but LPs also displayed a significant increase in sound quality over the older 78 rpm records as well. 45 rpm singles were popular during the 50s and 60s, but eventually died out. One may consider iTunes their (modern) spiritual successor.

The original compact discs were -ironically- of lower sound quality than LPs, especially in the context of audiophiles who carefully maintained their collections. In fact, some of the first remasters to CD format were pretty bad, such as some of Jethro Tull's early catalog.

What CDs did offer was -in effect- entropy-free playing; how many of us remember playing a favorite album so many times we literally wore the grooves out? Doesn't happen with CDs*. Also the physical size of the media was much, much smaller than an LP.

After that we had the VHS-HQ vs. DVD format; you won't see the difference between a professionally-recorded tape and a DVD unless you have a high-end TV, or a low-end tape player. And (believe it or not) it's hard to beat sound quality on VHS-HQ. Just about any high-quality stereo Hi-Fi videotape player is as good as the older reel-to-reel players. In fact, I've had one audiophile tell me he considered a high-quality stereo Hi-Fi videotape player to provide better sound than anything outside of a studio deck; even a Nakamichi Dragon.

But (again) the digital format allowed nearly unlimited replays without loss of quality. Tapes will, eventually, wear out.

Both CDs and DVDs also included the flexibility of random access, compared to tapes. You could (to a degree) randomly play LP tracks, but only with a great deal of manual queueing, and/or flipping the record over.

Point being that these improvements included much more than mere higher capacity; they included higher quality and/or greater convenience than before, and (in the case of DVDs) more options such as the documentaries about the movie, commentary tracks, and other extras such as (my personal favorite {g}) "blooper" reels.

Something else to consider is that CDs and DVDs replaced fairly mature technologies; LPs date from the 50s, and videotape from the early 70s.

One may consider standard CDs to be fairly mature, now, but are (once you factor fast modern burners) still nearly unrivaled for convenience. It's too easy to make your own mixes for the car player, parties, and so on.

With all of this in mind, just what do Blue-ray and HD-DVD offer consumers, aside from higher capacity? We know Blue-ray, at least, offers features to vendors, but who buys what's good for vendors? I'm sure the RIAA hates CD/DVD burners, and even videotape recorders. Let's not bring up the heinous court decision which allowed peon consumers to tape movies for their own use!! The bastards.

Do the new formats offer significantly superior video or sound performance? Do they offer new features (eg extras on current DVDs) or greater convenience? Stephen den Best points out that the new formats will support HDTV resolutions. For those of us with HDTVs....

Will the new players play my old DVDs? Recall that all DVD players also play CDs as well. Consumers have become accustomed to a single "all in one" player. Will this backwards compatibility continue?

And (critical question, I think) will most people be able to tell the difference? Aside from the greater capacity, that is.

Recall above when I alluded to the fact that a vinyl LP in good condition gives better sound than a CD? That's true, under most circumstances. The trick is that you have to have a system good enough to hear the difference. Most home audio/home theatre systems won't highlight that difference. You need at least a low-end Harmon-Kardon, or Onkyo amp, with Bose, Polk, or (maybe) Boston Acoustic speakers to notice. The $400 "home theatre" system at Circuit City or Media Play won't cut it.

But then, most folks are willing to settle for that. Hell, .MP3s are of even lower audio quality than CDs, but that's not stopping Apple from selling iPods hand over fist.

Let's not forget SuperAudio CDs (SACDs): many musicians and audiophiles have lauded the incredible quality of this format, but it's never really caught on. SACDs have faced a legacy problem similar to what the new DVD formats will. from the Sony website:

You'll have a choice of four types of Super Audio CD, including multi-channel and "hybrid" discs.

Hybrid discs will play back beautifully in any home, car or portable CD player made since 1982. These discs contain two signal layers: one for CD, the other for Super Audio CD.

[Single-layer stereo] - Discs with this emblem will only play in Super Audio CD players.
[Hybrid stereo] - These discs play in all standard CD players, as well as Super Audio CD players.

The extraordinary experience of Super Audio CD doesn't stop at stereo. Multi-channel discs deliver the full warmth and resolution of Super Audio CD on up to 5.1 channels. And each multi-channel disc also includes a separate two-channel version of the music, for complete compatibility with two-channel Super Audio CD players.

[Single-layer multichannel] These discs will only play in Super Audio CD players, providing stereo sound on two-channel players and multi-channel sound on multi-channel players.
[Hybrid multichannel]Discs with this graphic will play in all CD players, as well as Super Audio CD players.

Any of that sound familiar? It should, if you've read up on the issues facing Blue-ray/HD-DVD backwards compatibility.

Let us include the datapoint that -while providing massively superior sound- SACDs have never caught on. Perhaps the format issues referenced above contributed that lack of success.

So should you buy a Blue-ray, and hope the studios release your favorite movies on it, or gamble on HD-DVD, with equal uncertainty? Recall that the studios' public commitments to the new formats are as hazy and contradictory as the rest of the debate.

And -all hype aside- no one has released a new-format player which will play older DVDs as well. Oh, the consortiums have said they will, but right now it's all vaporware.

I promise you that my money is going to stay in my pocket until (at the very least) a real high-def DVD player, with full support for the current DVD format exists. And even then they'll have to provide features which are so far beyond the current DVD format that I'll just have to upgrade.

And I bet I'll have a lot of company, too...

*Ok, you can scratch or damage the surface of a CD, but not by playing it over and over again.


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