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Chris Llana, Editor


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Analog High-Def on DVDs?

March 19, 2006 (updated 3/24)

Good news for those of you with older HDTV sets lacking HDMI/DVI inputs if you were thinking of getting one of the new high-definition Blu-ray Disc players!

It has been widely reported that the new high-definition DVD formats (HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc) would only output full resolution HD video to HDTVs via digital interconnects (i.e. HDMI or DVI). This is a feature that makes it more difficult to copy pristine HD digital copies of movies and other high-value content and then distribute those movies over the internet a la Napster or via other pirate schemes.

Well, now that the studios have announced the imminent release of HD-DVD and Blu-ray titles, the absolute implementation of this AACS copy-protection protocol appears to have been relaxed a bit.

Could be that they realized that most HDTVs out there have only analog inputs (although most all new sets in stores these days have, or should have, at least one HDMI input). Those folks with older HDTVs would not have a lot of reason to run out and buy new high-def players if they couldn't see the new 1080-line movies on their HD sets.

The new players all include the AACS image constraint feature, which will down-rez output through the players' analog outputs to 960 x 540 pixels, but only if activated by a flag embedded in the software (i.e. movie disc).

Many of the movie studios are now saying that for the time being, at least, they will not be activating the AACS/image-constraint flag for some or most or all of the movies they are releasing on Blu-ray Disc. If illegal copying and distribution become a problem, undoubtedly they will revert to digital output only.

Blu-ray incorporates a broader array of anti-piracy measures than HD-DVD, so the BD can output via analog (component) and still have some weapons available to combat piracy. The HD-DVD standard, on the other hand, is less well equpped. Studios so far have not committed to releasing HD-DVD discs that will output a full-specification analog high-definition signal.

Five studios so far have indicated they will output their Blu-ray releases via analog as well as digital (HDMI or HDCP-compliant DVI): Paramount, Fox, Sony, Buena Vista, and MGM.

What is not clear to me is whether all or some titles will get this treatment.

Typical, we could expect that catalog titles (older movies) would be passed through analog at full-specification HD 1920 x 1080 resolution.

Releases of new movies would be more likely to be down-rezzed to 960 x 540 through the analog outputs, although even this still gives a picture with significantly better detail than the 480 lines of standard DVD. Of course if you can use the digital interconnects (HDMI or DVI), you'll always get the full 1080 picture.

If the image constraint flag for analog interconnects is being implemented by a studio, it will say so on the high-def movie packaging.

In other news, Warner has announced that it will be releasing its first three HD-DVD titles on April 18 (Million Dollar Baby, The Last Samurai, and The Phantom of the Opera). Toshiba has consequently delayed the roll-out of its HD-DVD players three weeks to the same date (makes sense).

Blu-ray Discs will start flowing on May 23. Samsung's BD-1000 Blu-ray Disc player ($1000?) is expected to reach stores the same day. Sony's $1,000 BDP-S1 Blu-ray player is supposed to go on sale in July. Unlike the Samsung model, the Sony player will output 1080p (vs. 1080i)

Speaking of Sony, they have announced the May 30 release of a new improved 2-disc edition of Oliver Stone's classic Platoon. As you may recall, the past versions have been lacking in video and audio quality (not good when you consider the film won Academy Award kudos for its sound). A nice touch would be a Blu-ray Disc version. I'll wait for that.

At least one manufacturer reportedly now has a player in the works that will work with both Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD, expected to be available later in the year. However, nothing is certain this far out.