Opinion: State Of HD-DVD & Blu-Ray

Nearly a year since the first players were released and the Blu-ray & HD-DVD cold war remains at an impasse. Every other week there’s a wild claim from one side that almost always ends up unsubstantiated. It became so catty and pointless that I ceased much of coverage of both formats months ago until things became more civil.

They haven’t. Both sides, but much more notably the Blu-ray camp, have been fudging numbers and declaring victory when the actual results have proven far less rock solid. Both seem to think this will be the format of the future rather than the far more likely outcome of it simply remaining a high-end niche product – it’s looking more and more like high def discs will be to the next few years what laserdiscs were in the early 90’s – a item for cine-enthusiasts and tech geeks only, with 95% of people perfectly happy with regular DVD and likely to stay that way.

Now comes the time to shoot down some long-running myths. Having done extensive reading on the subject, and more importantly having used players for both formats and several dozen discs from each for the last few months, it’s time to shut down some of the wild claims floating around and talk about the whole thing in a practical way.

First off, studio support. Despite claims of shifting loyalties, all the major studios remain exactly in the camps they were at the start and none have plans to move anytime soon. Universal remains committed HD-DVD only whilst Disney, Sony & Fox remain Blu-ray only, the rest are both formats. Talk of Disney and Universal crossing over to the other side were officially shot down shortly after the talk first sprang up online about it. The ONLY people who have shifted loyalties have been some player manufacturers – all of whom remain still very much open to change depending upon which way the money is blowing.

Secondly the often skewed sales figures offer no real verdict. Thanks to the PS3, Blu-ray players are in five times as many homes as HD-DVD players, but whilst the sales difference between the formats show Blu-ray notably ahead at present, it is far from the margin it should be winning with considering its heavier promotion and larger foothold in home. The most revealing sales statistic of any so far is that the best-selling single simultaneous major release in both formats – “The Departed” – sold at a ratio of 3:2 in favor of Blu-ray.

The biggest myth remains that Blu-ray offers better picture quality because of its larger size – completely false. Early reviews all listed HD-DVD being the far better format in terms of picture quality. So what’s with the disparity? The cause is different encoding methods. All films on both formats are recorded onto disc using three different compression methods – MPEG2, MPEG4 & VC-1. MPEG2 is the one used on regular DVDs and has been around for a decade. The other two are more advanced codecs developed more recently.

Having watched several films in all three the difference is only slight, but MPEG2 are a touch sharper, grainier, and prone to digital artifacts whereas the other two (which look identical) offer a slightly smoother, glossier feel. Only the keenest eye will be able to spot the difference (and even then not right away), but ultimately VC-1 and then MPEG4 are the best two codecs, followed a distant third by MPEG2.

Almost all HD-DVD titles have been recorded in VC-1, the remaining few in MPEG4. All Blu-ray initial titles were done in MPEG2 but have moved towards the other two and now can be any of the three formats. Warner Bros. has been the best on this front, offering the exact same encoded transfer on most of its releases across both formats.

In either case, films in both formats and all codecs take up around 5-7Gb of space per hour of footage. Thus for 99.5% of feature films – a four-hour capacity disc (HD) vs. a seven-hour capacity disc (BR) makes little difference.

On the sound front Blu-ray often wins as it offers an uncompressed PCM soundtrack, easily as good as the original studio master. Better still it’s been offering it on many of its major releases so far. The closest thing HD-DVD has to that is the Dolby TrueHD soundtracks, but those have only shown up on a few releases. Yet, most notably with some Warner releases, some titles will only offer a Dolby Digital 5.1+ soundtrack for HD-DVD and a regular 5.1 for Blu-ray which is rather odd.

Presentation is a mixed bag. Both offer in-movie special features via pop-up menus and the interface changes dramatically from title to title. No clear winner here, but the loser has to be Universal who offers a dreary standardised menu at the start of all of its discs. Non-Combo HD-DVDs have the best casing with the cool round corner ruby red packaging. Their combo discs, and all of Blu-rays, use a thinner but flimsier latch casing which in the latter case is a slightly garish neon blue.

Having used both of them extensively, compared titles in each and so forth on a proper home entertainment system (ie. big plasma screen, surround sound, etc.). To me picture quality is most important, then sound, then value, then presentation (packaging, features, etc.).

The difference is for the most part negligible, to me a VC-1 encoded picture and high quality audio (Uncompressed PCM, Doly TrueHD, DD 5.1+) soundtrack is the most important thing – as a result when films come out in both formats I tend to favour HD-DVD simply because it offers both of those things almost mandatorily whereas the Blu-ray will often skimp on one or both.

Those lapses however are becoming notably less frequent and Sony have been improving in its problems areas quite fast. The format war is having a benefit, causing both to actually lift their game and offer better quality transfers and features, whilst also driving the price down. Both are promoting themselves as the better product when in actuality they’re both about equal (HD a tad in front).