Blu-ray vs. HD DVD
An in-depth, unbiased battle royale.
by Patrick Kolan, IGN AU
Australia, March 7, 2007 - The next big thing. Everybody wants to create it. Retailers want to sell it, and in theory at least, consumers want to sweep it up in their arms. But what happens when two competing technologies claim to be the one true future? It's almost as fractured and chaotic as worldly religion; on one side you have the HD DVD devout, and on the other sit the Blu-ray believers. Both are convinced that they are destined to rule.
Today, IGN settles things.
As consumers as much as journalists, we're peeved that the market is fractured. But it was practically inevitable. Choice is a boon for buyers, but unlike DVD which showed a massive leap forward in technological capabilities from VHS, the lines are a little more blurred (or, a fair bit sharper if you think about it). For many, especially those with smaller HD displays, the leap to a high definition movie format simply won't provide such an obvious difference as there was between VHS and DVD. Is the world ready to replace a cheap and easy, mainstream-friendly format for something unproven and expensive - albeit very geek sexy?
Forcing format evolution is something that gamers tend to experience more than most technology adopters. Every four years or so, a new era of gaming is rung in and the old format draws to a close. It's how our industry works, and development cycles have more or less adjusted to this.
However, VHS, tapes, CDs and to a lesser extent DVDs have all been bettered by newer devices that do the same thing, only faster, more efficiently, more easily - and at a price. HDD recorders have replaced VCRs, MP3 players have made CDs almost irrelevant, and now DVD is about to be superseded. Where should your money lie?
We've taken the two formats and broken them down into categories. The first broad view of each platform can be divided into short and long term considerations that you should consider before dishing out the dollars.
Two competing formats, but only one will reign supreme.
Short Term Considerations:
Blu-ray: When Blu-ray launched in 2006, the first players were incredibly expensive and limited in features beyond Blu-ray playback. They cost roughly US$2000 and only a couple of different brands hit the market. With the advent of the PlayStation 3 in NTSC territories late last year, Sony reduced its standalone player prices in line with the PS3's US$599 price tag. In Australia, only a couple of brands, including Samsung and Panasonic, offer Blu-ray players. These are priced around the AU$1500 mark. When the PS3 is released on March 23 in Australia at a price of AU$999, expect to see competing units reduce their prices.
Blu-ray films cost, at least initially, more to produce than HD DVD. Though Sony has denied this, the proof is in the shelf price, which is clearly higher than HD DVD in territories where both formats have been released. Expect this price difference to be reduced as manufacturing techniques are refined and the cost of raw materials is reduced. In Australia, the retail price for a standard 25-gig BD release sits between AU$30-$49.
HD DVD: Launching after Blu-ray in America, HD DVD had an immediate price advantage. The players sold for several hundred dollars less than the most inexpensive Blu-ray player, and initial film releases were slightly cheaper. This gave the format a head start, sales-wise in the market. However, this lead was short-lived as prices have since begun to fall on both formats, and the install base of Blu-ray owners has increased dramatically with the introduction of the PS3.
Right now, Australians can pick up an HD DVD player for as little as AU$1000, which puts it in the same price bracket as the PS3. However, Microsoft will be introducing its HD DVD player add-on at the end of March for a price of AU$249.95 - which, when coupled with a 20gig Xbox 360 at $649.95, places it slightly under the outright cost of a PS3.
Our choice: HD DVD
Image and Sound Quality:
As both formats offer basically the same visual fidelity, we will compare them together. Both Blu-ray and HD DVD use a new laser that reads from the surface of the disc at a shorter distance. This allows for a higher amount of information to be stored over a shorter distance on the information surface, allowing for HD video, lossless audio and potentially a bit of room for extras. Both formats also allow for 5 and 7.1 surround sound setups. When run through a quality HDMI cable to a large 1080p display, the result is an impressive step forward from DVD, which runs at a maximum resolution of 576p. Notice we said the word large - if the display is fairly small, say 36" or so, you might not notice much of a difference from a DVD. As the display gets bigger, and the number of pixels making up the image becomes more important, HD begins to truly shine over DVD.
Our choice: Tie
Blu-ray: Blu-ray discs are capable of running Java technology specially integrated for special features, such as displaying a pop-up menu while playing a BD-Video disc, and activating a keyword search. When connected to an Internet source, it allows for interactivity with compatible sequences in the films. These can theoretically automatically update with the latest information available on the fly.
In the audio department, connecting a Blu-ray drive to an AV centre via HDMI allows multi-channel data transfer. This delivers high-quality 7.1-channel surround sound with each channel offering DVD-Audio quality in surround sound, on par with the quality of the original, master audio source.
While Blu-ray drives are able to read DVDs without issue, some launch-era models could not read standard CDs. Unbelievably but understandably, the need for a laser that reads both the Blu-ray and CD formats would've further increased the price of the model, so was apparently deemed unnecessary for inclusion. Less forgivably, the Blu-ray drive in the PS3 doesn't currently upscale the quality of standard definition DVDs - this is something that the Xbox 360 is capable of, after the latest firmware update, and when connected with high-definition component cables.
HD DVD: Microsoft's decision to stick with HD DVD came down to features and abilities the format offered. Of these, 'managed copy' allows users to copy a movie to a PC hard drive so it can be beamed around the house. The iHD software has been touted as allowing a smaller video to be overlaid onto the main video screen - which is perfect for extra features. The format is also compatible with 'hybrid discs, meaning that owners of a DVD player will be able to buy a dual-format disk that can be played on an HD DVD player.
Something that, at least initially, HD DVD had going for it was ease of production. Creating an HD DVD is not markedly different from manufacturing a standard DVD. This means that for companies who wish to manufacture HD DVDs, there is no need to do a costly upgrade of their facilities. As it stands, it would appear from the number of studios backing Blu-ray, this upgrade hasn't deterred major support.
Our choice: Blu-Ray
Regions and Range:
Blu-ray: Unlike HD DVD, Blu-ray films are still bound by regions. This has been toned down from DVD's 9-or-so regions that divided the world and complicated purchases. Now, Blu-ray asks consumers to contend with just 3 - but it's still three more than HD DVD demands.
Region encoding for Blu-ray, as indicated by the image, is a step forwards from DVD, but behind HD DVD's region-free arrangement.
We consider this a cruddy move on the parts of the Hollywood film companies, and it is worth considering if you're the kind of person who loves importing superior releases from The States, or hard to get flicks from Japan. Where Blu-ray kicks into high gear is with their backing from those same Hollywood film companies. Read all about that in the 'Long-term' section.
A quick search of Amazon yields interesting results: 249 Results, with 171 currently available. March releases in the US are:
* Casino Royale (Sony)
* The Holiday (2006) (Sony)
* Hoosiers (MGM)
* Layer Cake (Sony)
* Mr. & Mrs. Smith (Fox)
* Big Fish (Sony)
* Chicken Little (Buena Vista)
* Eragon (Fox)
* Finding Neverland (Buena Vista)
* Rocky Balboa (Sony)
* Happy Feet (Warner)
* Incubus: Alive at Red Rocks (Sony Music)
* March of the Penguins (Warner)
* National Geographic: Relentless Enemies (Warner)
* The Pursuit of Happyness (Sony)
HD DVD: First off the bat, this format has the clear advantage of being entirely region-free. If you buy an HD DVD from America, Japan, England, Portugal, wherever - it will play on your system. This is a major plus for the format and a boon for consumers since, theoretically, the time it takes for films to be distributed to retail in all territories should be noticeably shorter.
According to Amazon, searching for HD DVD titles yielded 234 Results, with 156 currently available. March releases, based off the US release date:
* Children of Men (Universal)
* Digital Video Essentials (DVD International)
* Happy Feet (Warner)
* March of the Penguins (Warner)
* National Geographic: Relentless Enemies
It should be noted, in the case of HD DVD, March is a light month compared to April, which sees an increased number of releases coming, more in line with Blu-ray's numbers.
An interesting statistic that we saw at the recent Blu-ray launch showed a list of the top 20 DVDs sold in America over 2006. Of those, 18 also came to Blu-ray, while a meagre 4 or 5 made it to HD DVD. This is arguably one of the biggest strengths that Blu-ray has - studio support. The number of releases might be similar between the two formats, but delve deeper into the "quality" of the films on offer, and it's a different story. HD DVD seems to have an abundance of documentaries and similar content, while Blu-ray is focused more on feature films. Which would you prefer to watch?
Our choice: Blu-ray
Blu-ray: Right now, the following companies are currently, or have optioned the rights to, produce Blu-ray-capable devices:
This is purely a numbers-based issue; however, having more companies backing your format means your product will be more widely available. It's a simple enough equation, but it can make a huge difference to the number of products on store shelves - and therefore in the mind of shop-smart consumers.
HD DVD: Looking scant by comparison, for HD DVD, supporting manufacturers include:
This is a telling figure for HD DVD. Although many PC-component manufacturers have supported HD DVD, the consumer electronics and entertainment hardware companies are clearly siding with Blu-ray. Again, if the hardware isn't available to consumers, they won't be buying it. With the Xbox 360 positioning its drive as an optional add-on, adoption numbers haven't spiked in the same way Blu-ray adopters have. Having said that, the number of buyers who use their PS3 as a Blu-ray player is open to debate.
Microsoft's HD DVD drive add-on for the Xbox 360.
Long Term Considerations:
Blu-ray: What's the point of owning a particular format if your favourite films won't see the light of day on it? Since Sony own a number of film companies, these are already on board. Additionally, the following companies and their smaller arms have given their backing to the format:
* Sony Pictures
* Columbia TriStar
* Lions Gate
* Roadshow (for Australian releases)
HD DVD: studio support includes:
* Studio Canal
* The Weinstein Company
However, many of the studios backing HD DVD are doing so very carefully; ensuring their releases are across both formats and, due to the format's ability to be printed with standard DVD on one side, shipping with two viewing options for those without HD DVD players. This bet-hedging is indicative of how unsure these studios are of the viability of both formats, but there is a clear tendency towards supporting Blu-ray first and HD DVD as a fall-back.
Our choice: Blu-ray
Storage Size and Implications:
Blu-ray: Currently, Blu-ray discs come in two flavours - 25GB single layer and 50GB dual layer. The larger size is around 70% larger than a dual layer, 30GB HD DVD. However, the dual layer size comes at a cost to both the consumer and the company. This will eventually be offset by cost-reduction techniques - cheaper material, more efficient production and greater numbers actually being produced and sold to the end-consumer.
HD DVD: Right now, HD DVDs are available in both 15GB single layer and 30GB dual layer discs. This is a smaller capacity compared with Blu-ray, and when storing space-intensive, 1080p resolution visuals and lossless audio, it doesn't leave a lot of room for extra materials at the same level of quality. That said, being able to be printed on both sides means that two markets can be sold to with one item, making it a very flexible, if crowded, disc.
Our choice: Blu-ray
The PS3 plays Blu-ray discs out of the box, but is priced considerably higher than competing game platforms without this feature.
Blu-ray: With the extra storage that Blu-ray discs offer, there is no question that the format allows for more HD content to be stored on the disc. By incorporating the technology into PS3s, Sony has ensured that the technology will make its way into homes regardless of whether there is demand at this moment in time.
HD DVD: Although the size of HD DVD discs taps out at 30GB, that's 5GB more than the minimum Blu-ray size - which is what the vast majority of Blu-ray titles are shipping on. At the same time, being so closely associated with DVD may be holding back the long-term viability of the format. Bundling standard definition content on one side of a disk, and HD on the other, while guaranteeing some sales, also prevents companies from putting large amounts of HD features on the disc. It might also affect HD DVD player adoption rates in the short term, as few people see the need to fork out extra for a disc that can be played by either technology.
Our choice: Tie
We have clearly tended to side with Blu-ray - at least for the foreseeable, vaguely predictable future for one very good reason - the format has a not-so-secret ace up its sleeve - Sony' PS3. If this console can break out of the launch-year rut that it is currently stuck in, it will unquestionably shift Blu-ray movies off shelves. They are definitely heading in the right direction - according to Nielsen US figures (see chart below), they are outselling HD DVD titles by almost 2:1.
Every potential buyer of a PS3 will become an instant Blu-ray player owner - which has been Sony's strategy since day-one. More than that, however; this has been Sony's greatest achievement with the original PS2 - making DVD the standard format by integrating it into the gaming field, demonstrating its advantages and then eventually lowering the price of the hardware to the point where it was broadly competitive and attractive to Joe Consumer.
This is a risky strategy that could explain Microsoft's hesitation to integrate HD DVD drives into their 360 console - why put all your eggs in one basket, after all? Microsoft has instead opted to keep the format at arm's-length until time has proven it successful. This, ironically, may also spell the format's long-term downfall since, under the guise of consumer-choice and flexibility, they are actually inadvertently crushing consumer confidence. If it isn't a standard feature, then why is it worth a dime at all? And if all manufacturers take the same wait-and-see attitude with HD DVD hardware that Microsoft has, then who's creating the drives? And who would bother to create publish for a format with no install base? Our concerns are clear.
This chart, courtesy of Neilsens, displays exactly how well Sony's new format is doing in compared to HD DVD.
Including a Blu-ray drive in every PS3 is a gutsy move by Sony, but it may be correct in the long-term. On the other hand, Sony is notorious for introducing formats that never quite make the distance. Let's take a little stroll down the lane of the format-damned:
* VHS vs. Betamax
* CDs vs. Mini-discs
* MP3s ATRAC
* DVDs vs. UMDs
And on the hardware front, there is no question that the PSP is getting trounced hands-down by the Nintendo DS. Each time Sony has introduced or adopted a format, they push it very hard internally, but consumers have ultimately made other choices at point-of-sale.
So what is our ultimate decision? Well, if you have a spare thousand dollars, a large 720p or 1080p display and a 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound setup, then it may be worth your time and money to step into HD film territory. We'd put our money, long-term, behind Blu-ray - for all of the above reasons taken into consideration, especially the studio support it's garnering. As a guess, we would say that the format that goes into Christmas 2007 with the lowest price tag and widest range of movie titles behind it will become the format standard. As it stands right now, with Sony's PS3 about to enter PAL markets, and HD DVD drives not receiving the lion's share of shelf space, promotion or releases, we tend to think Sony may have gotten it right this time.