More thoughts on HD-DVD and Blu-Ray

June 24, 2006

Scoble has bit the HD bug hard and he’s coming out swinging against HD-DVD detractors. While I disagree that there’s more HD on Xbox Live than HD-DVD (in terms of minutes or available content), he makes a few pretty good points.

At the end of the day, it’s about price. Mainstream users aren’t going to buy a PS3 for Blu-Ray, but for the cost they could buy an Xbox 360 and a Nintendo Wii! Blu-Ray players are going for $1000+, HD-DVD sub-$400. Yes, they’re first generation units but attactive to americans who have upgraded to HDTVs sets (happening at a rapidly accelerating rate).

Then there’s the question of quality. I have it on good authority that many of the initial Blu-Ray titles don’t look very good, use MPEG-2, and suffer from issues in the mastering process. I believe “asleep at the wheel during encode” was one comment heard from an industry insider. Yes, they’ll improve, but HD-DVD went to the mat on quality up-front.

I have a Toshiba HD-A1 HD-DVD player. It’s ok as far as first-generation devices go. I don’t speak as a video compression expert. But I’ve shown it to a slice of mainstream america in my home. Is it a revolution? Not the way VHS to DVD was. But I have a 50in 720p Samsung HDTV and everyone can definitely tell the difference between it and DVD. Perhaps if I had a 1080p system the difference would be even more striking.

What about HD cable? Perhaps good enough for most who don’t mind watching when it’s on and the quality tests the lower limits of HD in order to cram as many channels in as possible. But even my premium HBO-HD craps out (macro blocking) on high action sequences because of a lower bit rate. And yes, I’ve checked my signal quality :).

But… I’m not an expert, I just have access to a few and you do too. Spend some time in AVSForum (www.avsforum.com) and you’ll come to see that key players, big and small, trusted engineers and even the developers of the formats are still at odds.

I still say the cost vs. benefit for Blu-Ray is out of whack. “Good enough” and “cheap enough” will win in the end. And the funny thing is, HD-DVD just might also be the best in terms of quality of the final product too. Add to that the often-ignored fact that women in the household have a major say in these kinds of family purchase decisions. I don’t know many wives who would buy or green light a $1000+ player for their husbands this coming fall having just spent $2000+ on an HDTV over the past few years.

Another way of looking at this is, for the price of a “low cost” Blu-Ray Player coming next month you could get an HD-DVD Player and seven years of HD-DVD rentals at NetFlix.

Who will win? Only the customer will decide and right now the decision factors are too complex and nuanced, the technology too new for anyone to say definitively.