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Blu-ray v HD-DVD – who's got the edge?

The next-generation disc formats have arrived Stateside – and so are hints of where the format war is going. Here's our report from the other side of the pond.

This article appears in the September 06 issue of PC Advisor, which is available now in all good newsagents.

A funny thing happens in a format war. At some point, the theoretical spec one-upmanship gives way to tangible reality. What the rival products are delivering.

After looking at the initial wave of products to arrive in the US from both fronts, we have a few thoughts about where the format war is heading. The first products deliver on their promises of outstanding high-definition video (Toshiba's HD-A1 and HD-XA1 HD-DVD players and its Qosmio G35-AV650 laptop, plus more than 25 HD-DVD movies from Warner Brothers and Universal) and high-capacity, rewritable disc storage (Pioneer's BDR-101A, Sony's AR Premium VGN-AR19G notebook equipped with a Blu-ray player/burner).

We're less intrigued by the actual products than we are by what they say beneath the surface about the two warring formats.

High-def video: a capacity question?

After debuting in fits and starts – and after both formats' encountering delays due to issues surrounding the AACS (advanced access content system) copy controls – HD-DVD is enjoying a slight lead to market. HD-DVD hit the US in late April and, even though player supplies continue to be tight, new titles are steadily streaming out every week.

Meanwhile, Blu-ray has faced a few additional post-AACS setbacks, although not quite as many as we've seen inaccurately reported on the web. Sony Pictures pushed its content launch to 20 June after Samsung announced a change in release date for its player to late June.

Jim Sanduski, Samsung's senior vice president of marketing, said: “We'll be in more than 2,000 storefronts at launch and will have multiple units available at each location. Will we sell out? I hope so. We are launching with more storefronts and more quantity than Toshiba.”

Meanwhile, Pioneer shifted its planned Blu-ray player from an early summer US launch to September. When the product does launch, though, it will be at $1,500 (about £820), $300 (£165) less than the price announced in January at CES. And Sony Electronics has adjusted the expected July release of its BD-SP1 player by a few weeks. According to a company spokesperson, the move is a strategic one, to coincide with the company's August launch of 1080p televisions and its push to educate consumers about Blu-ray Disc at retail outlets nationwide.

We don't expect we'll see dramatic differences in image quality between HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc movie content. We expect it to be tough to isolate which one is superior for delivering video, given the number of variables that come into play, such as choices in the video codec, bit rate, encoder used, even whether you'll view the output over analogue or HDMI, on a display capable of 1080i or 1080p.

We'll probably see subtle differences, however. Sony is planning to encode its first-generation of discs in Mpeg2, while Warner and Universal's HD-DVDs are using the VC-1 or Mpeg4 AVC codec. RCA's and Toshiba's HD-DVD players output at 1080i – even though the movie discs are 1080p – while the first Blu-ray Disc players from Pioneer, Samsung and Sony are all set to output at 1080p.

We hope to at least see the same films released on both HD-DVD and Blu-ray, at different bit rates and using different codecs. Only then will it be clear, visually, whether Blu-ray's greater maximum capacity of 50GB for dual-layer discs provides a tangible advantage.

HD-DVD currently tops out at 30GB for a dual-layer disc. Toshiba raised the possibility of a 45GB triple-layer disc last summer but, according to the DVD Forum it has not been discussed, let alone added to the HD-DVD spec.

The rival media's physical storage constraints have the potential to be a greater issue in this ongoing struggle than many observers have considered up until now. Before HD-DVD's launch, we had privately heard rumblings of studio concerns about HD-DVD's lower capacity.

Packing 'em in

Now that we've taken a closer look at the first eight HD-DVD movies we received from Warner Brothers and Universal, we can understand why. None of the eight titles could fit on a 15GB single-layer HD-DVD – and half came within 5GB of maxing out a 30GB dual-layer disc. This was despite them all relying on the latest, more efficient video codecs – VC-1 and Mpeg4 AVC. The movies we saw were 'The Last Samurai' (which topped out at 27.3GB), Mel Brooks' 'Blazing Saddles' (25.4GB), 'The Phantom of the Opera' (24.8GB), 'Jarhead' (24.7GB), 'The Bourne Identity' (22.7GB), 'Serenity' (19.6GB), 'The Fugitive' (18.2GB) and 'Doom' (16.5GB).

Granted this is a small, random sampling. But the results nonetheless surprised us, considering that we had for so long heard HD-DVD supporters say that even 15GB would be roomy for high-definition content. Instead, it seems that HD-DVD content is, in many cases, barely squeezing on to 30GB discs today. The tight space leaves little breathing room for the interactive-video future that Hollywood's creative minds will dream up down the road.

All of the titles we saw are first-generation. Not surprisingly, their menus and level of interactivity are basic and do not reflect the complexity we expect to see from both formats. The extras don't take full advantage of the formats, nor were they created natively in high-definition, with high-def, widescreen presentation in mind. And the soundtracks are more limited: typically only today's 5.1-channel sound, with just one audio commentary instead of multiple commentaries and elaborate features.

Imagine what an innovative director such as Peter Jackson might have done with the on-set documentaries and featurettes for 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy, had everything been filmed with HD-DVD or Blu-ray Disc in mind. Something tells us a 30GB disc wouldn't come close to enough – and that a 45GB disc might get a bit snug.

How much space Blu-ray content will consume remains to be seen. The first titles from Sony are beginning to ship and, although none will be on 50GB dual-layer discs, other titles will ship on 50GB discs later this summer.

We can't help thinking this format's greater capacity will serve it well over time. But we're not convinced the PlayStation 3 will be Blu-ray's trump card.

Recording artists

The advantage in recording is with Blu-ray. Vendors in this camp were the first to market with disc burners for PCs, as well as the first to release mobile burners for laptops – and the format has the higher maximum capacity.

PC Blu-ray burners are shipping from Pioneer and I-O Data, with others soon to come. Sony will ship its AR Premium Blu-ray laptop and Vaio RC series of burner-equipped desktops in June, starting at just $2,150 (£1,170) inc VAT.

Officially, the HD-DVD camp is keeping quiet about the status of PC burners. Because media was recently introduced at Computex in Taiwan – and since RiData announced that its HD-DVD-R media will ship in July – one might think a burner isn't far behind. From the start, the HD-DVD camp's stated focus has been on the home-theatre playback experience, with PC movie playback coming in second and recording not even on the road map. The lack of recording capabilities restricts HD-DVD to prepackaged Hollywood content. No aspiring Spielbergs can edit their own high-definition films and burn them to disc. This of course limits HD-DVD's viability as a data-storage medium.

Money does the talking

There's no question: HD-DVD has the edge in price. Toshiba's players start at a highly accessible $499 (£270) – if you can find them. The cheapest standalone Blu-ray Disc player will be Samsung's $1,000 (£540) BD-P1000. Sony's BDP-S1 will be $1,000 when it ships in August, Pioneer's BDP-HD1 will be $1,500 (£810), debuting in September.

Sony's PlayStation 3, due in November, will be the least expensive player of them all, but it has no HDMI (high-definition media interface), so you won't be able to display all-digital 1080p content. Let's hope Blu-ray player manufacturers can adequately convey that their devices deliver enough value to justify being at least twice as expensive as their HD-DVD equivalents.

The AACS wild card

Forget that Blu-ray has PlayStation 3 on its side and that Intel and Microsoft have thrown their collective weight behind HD-DVD. Forget that high-definition televisions are still gaining traction among consumers. Forget that HD-DVD and Blu-ray are formats in their infancy, trying to claw their way to dominance to succeed DVD.

For now, both are hampered by the fact that AACS has yet to finalise its managed copy component, the most critical aspect of the spec that remains unfinished.Without a final AACS specification, living-room high-definition recorders can't proceed to market, neither can devices that are designed to take advantage of legally copying and moving content from one disc to another. Original estimates were for AACS's final spec to be available in May, but there are still no updates.

Until the hardware can be manufactured to take advantage of everything from media servers to copying content, the first high-definition video players from either camp should have limited appeal. We have no doubt that these players, be they Blu-ray or HD-DVD, will deliver enticing high-def images. If all they do is play back content, however, they're missing a core part of the innovation that Blu-ray and HD-DVD have the potential to deliver.

For more information, our sister site Techworld has a comprehensive data storage resource centre.

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