Why Next-Gen Formats Have an Uphill Battle

Blu-ray and HD DVD are among the greatest things to happen to my little subculture, the audio/video community, since the debut of HDTV. They’re also among the most disappointing.   Though most format wars originate in a scramble for licensing revenue, every one has its own trajectory. The one between SACD and DVD-Audio ended up killing both formats while leaving the obsolete CD format still standing—much to the disgust of high-end audiophiles hungry for something as good as vinyl.   On the other hand, consumers were the true victors in the war between Beta and VHS. Sure, a lot of Betamax owners were left holding the bag. But the fierce competition steadily drove down VCR prices, and the mass-market success of the videocassette spurred on technologies like big-screen television and surround sound, driving the birth of home theater.   Now home theater is a maturing category that needs to reinvent itself to stay fresh. Either Blu-ray or HD DVD could help by improving the quality of HDTV and surround sound, the two key elements of home theater. But only if they succeed. And so far, thanks to bad implementation and strategic mistakes, that hasn’t happened.   Let’s Get Ready to Rumble   (10) HDTV message not getting through. According to a recent study by the Consumer Electronics Association, 30 percent of U.S. households have an HDTV, but only 44 percent of those HDTV owners receive HD programming from various sources. These are the usual suspects: cable (66 percent), satellite (37 percent), off the air (8 percent), fiber-optic service (3 percent), and internet (3 percent). The quality of cable-delivered HDTV varies depending on how local operators deploy their limited bandwidth. Satellite-delivered HDTV is usually somewhat bit-starved, and Internet TV even more so. Antennas and fiber optics offer the best picture, but together they serve only 11 percent of HD-supplied viewers. So the vast majority of HDTV owners are either getting compromised HD signals or none at all. That should leave quite a large audience hankering for the true 1080p goodness of Blu-ray and HD DVD, wouldn’t you say? Yet these formats are still cryin’ in the rain. Clearly the message about their single biggest selling point isn’t getting through.   (9) New surround codecs halfheartedly supported. Besides uncompromised HDTV, the other big advantage of these formats is their support for the new surround codecs. These include the lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, and the lossy but improved Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. You can’t even get these next-generation codecs from cable, satellite, off the air, or any other source, at least for the time being. Yet despite having a de facto exclusive on them, many BD and HD DVD players support them haphazardly, if at all. So even if you buy a new receiver or pre-pro that supports next-gen surround, the player won’t necessarily pass the bitstream to the receiver. Some transcode to high-quality PCM. Others transcode to lower-quality legacy Dolby Digital or DTS. This is just scandalous.   (8) Slow-to-boot and balky hardware. DVD player owners are used to nearly instant gratification. In contrast, my Pioneer BDP-HD1 Blu-ray and Toshiba HD-A2 HD DVD players take about 50 and 35 seconds to boot up respectively. Believe it or not, they’re speed demons relative to some older product. Toshiba’s first-generation players reportedly took a solid minute. This may be the inevitable result of cramming a lot of sophisticated video processing into products representing new formats that are fighting cost-competitively for their survival. But the initial user experience is distinctly irksome. What are you supposed to do, go off and make a cup of tea while your player boots up? Heaven forbid you don’t remember to hit the power button long before guests sit down for a movie. Oh, and neither of my new players can fast-scan a DVD in forward or reverse nearly as speedily and responsively as any DVD player I’ve ever used.   (7) DVD is not as bad as VHS was. The picture-quality differential between VHS and DVD was huge. You could see it on an HDTV, an SDTV, or an analog TV. Of any size. With one eye shut and dirty eyeglasses. In contrast, the performance gap between standard-definition DVD and the two high-def formats is not as great. DVD doesn’t have nearly as much resolution as BD and HD DVD, of course, and this becomes obvious on the largest screens, but it’s not as painful to watch as VHS. A DVD player that upconverts to HD, or even one that outputs 480p with really good video processing, can produce quite a convincing picture. You could probably tell your neighbors it’s HD and fool two out of three of them.   (6) DVD is not as clumsy as VHS was. Consumers couldn’t wait to get rid of their clunky VHS tapes. Videocassettes hogged shelf space, needed rewinding, and broke hearts when a favorite tape got eaten by a rogue VCR. Replacing them with five-inch discs that last forever (with proper handling) was a no-brainer, especially since the change in form factor recalled the LP-to-CD transition. But, reasons the hardheaded consumer, why should I replace one five-inch disc with another? Sure, you might answer that the picture and sound are better. But if you try to explain why using knotty alphanumeric descriptions (1080p/24fps) and marketing monikers (Dolby TrueHD—“what, another Dolby?”) these folks remain unconvinced. Form factor is a powerful persuader. That’s why so many near-technophobes have bought flat-panel TVs. But Blu-ray and HD DVD have absolutely nothing new to offer in this category. To the uninitiated, they’re just two more five-inch disc formats.   (5) Blu-ray’s interactivity blunder. I’ll aim one item of abuse specifically at each format. Blu-ray’s glass jaw is interactivity. The BD Java standard was adopted just recently and applies only to players marketed after October 31, 2007. Older players lack the requisite network connection and onboard memory. As a result, interactive features on Blu-ray discs won’t play on older hardware. Some manufacturers added insult to injury by rush-releasing players before deadline to avoid compliance with the new standard. HD DVD avoided this blunder by adopting Microsoft’s HDi standard, and requiring its implementation, early in the game.   (4) HD DVD’s software drought. Though neither format is as well-distributed as it should be, Blu-ray has a slight advantage in software. My number-one source for disc programming is the local Blockbuster. I can walk there in 10 minutes. So it was a little disheartening to learn that Blockbuster would support only Blu-ray in 1450 additional stores, leaving HD DVD and Blu-ray together only in the original 250 test-market stores. When I go to my local B’buster, the BD selection looks paltry, but the HD DVD selection is nonexistent. I’d rather not do business with Netflix because I like the spontaneity of renting in the nabe. While HD DVD recently nailed exclusive deals with Paramount and DreamWorks, using promotional lucre as bait, these deals are good only for 18 months—as the Blu-ray people never tire of pointing out.   (3) New-title availability, back-catalogue depth, and boxed-set values. Regardless of where you get your software, DVD still rules here. If your cinematic taste goes beyond the latest no-brain mega-budget movies, a lot of the foreign and other titles you crave are still available only on DVD. Want to collect the complete works of Alfred Hitchcock? DVD is the only way to go (assuming laserdiscs and VHS are no longer good enough). And, HD DVD’s Star Trek coup notwithstanding, most of the mind-blowing boxed sets that have graced DVD’s cornucopian autumnal phase have yet to materialize in the new formats. No intelligent life on this software planet—beam me up, Scotty.   (2) Video downloads are coming. In the present tense, HD DVD and Blu-ray are—at their best—state of the art. But they’re just big ol’ bit buckets that hold advanced video and audio codecs. Any other bit bucket that delivers the same number of bits (or even somewhat less if you don’t need the interactive stuff) can deliver the same video and audio quality. So it’s legitimate to ask how long these high-quality formats will last, especially since they’re having so much trouble gaining traction in the first place. The main reason they haven’t already gotten blown out of the water is the sorry state of broadband in the United States. That window of opportunity won’t be open forever. If BD and HD DVD don’t hit big during the year-end holiday shopping rush, they may be done for.   (1) It’s the format war, stupid. But you knew that already.             Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater.

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