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The Future of DVD

Updated 6/25/06

Note: The high-definition DVD saga has been so contentious and confused and such a moving target that much of the following must be read as historical context as both competing formats (HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc) begin to evolve into mature technologies. By the time the next Consumer Electronics Show comes around (January 2007), we should be into second generation players with HDMI 1.3 interconnects and production of discs and mastering of HD movie titles should be past their start-up woes.

The Format Wars!

First there was VHS vs Beta (VCRs for you young'uns). Beta was a technically better format but the VHS people had the marketing smarts. Years of confusion--which to buy?

More recently (and still), there is SACD vs. DVD-Audio for music recordings, duking it out. Both formats are still languishing, while CD still reigns.

Then there was digital versatile/video disc--DVD. The powers that be had the sense to sit down together and come up with a single standard. You know how well that did, and how fast. The consumers won. But for the industry, royalties flowed unevenly, to say the least. Toshiba was happy, but Sony and Philips were on the losing end of that compromise. (Sony also lost the VHS vs. Beta format war, you remember.)

Enter high-definition.

DVD is an NTSC/analog technology (emerging circa 1997), even though its video data is stored digitally. Its native resolution is NTSC-standard 480i, but capable of being de-interlaced and displayed as 480p on a digital TV. Full-specification HD has 1080 lines of resolution, and with the transition to digital/HD television well underway, people are going to want high-def video discs to match the capabilities of their big new widescreen sets.

Seeing the writing on the wall, and not wanting a repeat performance of the VCR and DVD introductions, Sony announced its high-definition Blu-Ray Disc (BD) in February 2002 (the "DVD" name was copyrighted and therefore unavailable). The Blu-Ray name was based on the blue light laser employed in the technology.

The Toshiba camp wasn't sitting on their hands. They evolved the DVD format to HD-DVD, announced to the world on the heels of the Sony BD press release.

HD-DVD has the same disc structure (0.6 mm cover layer) used in standard-definition DVDs, but a blue laser replaces the red laser found in CD and DVD. Because the wavelength of blue light is much shorter than red light, the data pits on the disc can be smaller and packed more tightly--hence much greater data capacity.

Blu-Ray uses a brand-new design (new patents, new royalty regime). Its discs have a very thin cover layer (only 0.1 mm) over the data pits, so the blue laser can focus very tightly on the data structure, yielding a substantially higher data capacity than HD-DVD.

A dual-layer Blu-Ray Disc will hold 50 GB of data versus 30 GB for HD-DVD. This compares to a regular dual-layer DVD's 8.5 GB capacity.

Data capacity is only part of the equation, though. When Hollywood masters a movie in high-definition, it moves video/audio data at a rate of 1.2 gigabits per second. Even with BD's 50 GB capacity (dual-layer), you couldn't even see an uncompressed HD trailer of your favorite blockbuster.

Both standards will use new, more efficient video compression protocols (such as MPEG-4 AVC, etc) than DVD, yielding higher video quality for the same data rate. The HD-DVD encoding software reportedly was initially more efficient than BD's, but both have advanced since then. (Sony may be using MPEG-2 for its initial batch of releases, for some reason.)

Current DVDs are encoded to typically play at a data rate of about five or six Mbps (they are squashed!).

The new discs compress high-def movies down to a data rate of 15 to 20 Mbps (roughly, depending on which coding protocol is employed). The higher your disc capacity, the less compression you will need (higher data rates), which translates (in theory) to better video quality (all other things being equal, which never happens in real life).

All of this means that even though Blu-Ray disc has a higher data capacity, it may not exhibit a proportionally higher picture quality. Although it may, depending on what encoding protocols are used by any particular studio to encode any particular movie. At least the potential is there.

Early HD-DVD titles look amazingly good; at least one of the earliest Blu-ray movies (The Fifth Element--Sony) reportedly didn't look all that great. Titles by other studios looked a lot better, but as of this writing, no one has had much time to look at Blu-ray titles.

Production Cost of Discs

HD-DVD uses the same physical structure as current DVDs and can be produced on the same production lines using the same equipment. Changing a run from DVD to HD-DVD production takes only a few minutes. The cost for HD-DVD discs will therefore be the same as DVD.

That, however, is less than a dollar for a disc that sells for $20, so even if BD costs twice as much, that may not be much of a factor.

The Blu-Ray camp has hoardes of companies working on the new technologies needed for its cutting-edge disc design, and it all seems to be coming together. The BD discs will cost more in the beginning, because new production equipment had to be developed and new production machinery and facilities will have to be built.

The Blu-Ray Disc Association announced in late Spring 2005 measures to reassure the movie studios, retailers, and the public, that its disc replication costs will be competitive with HD-DVD. These measures include advanced disc-coating processes, and new Sony-developed high-speed mastering equipment.

Panasonic is setting up a small Blu-Ray disc mastering facility that will demonstrate BD production and produce movie titles to be used in early/demo BD players. The first such title came out in November '05--Charlies Angels: Full Throttle!

Roll-out Dates

HD-DVD was late out of the starting blocks, as was Blu-ray.

Both formats came out before hardware and software were ready for prime time, so bugs are still being worked out. That's what a format war will do for you.

Industry Support

Both HD-DVD and BD will have recordable versions, which means they will be used in computers for data storage: another factor in who wins the war.

Blu-Ray backers include Apple Computer, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard (HP now split--Feb '06). Plus Mitsubishi, Sharp, Hitachi, Samsung, LG, Pioneer, Matsushita, Thompson, and Royal Philips. Hard to swim against that current.

And then there are the video games. Video game machines are sold by the tens of millions, and the current crop is capable of playing movie DVDs through a TV. The high-def video disc format that wins the game wars, stands a good chance at winning everything.

Sony's PlayStation 3 (November 2006) will be incorporating Blu-Ray Disc (no surprise here) and will also be the first device to incorporate HMDI 1.3. 87 million PlayStation 2 machines have been sold. PlayStation 3 is high-def. If you're a kid, very cool, a must-have.

There was speculation that Microsoft's newest X-Box incarnation (360) would run HD-DVD, but as it turns out, the initial release (end-2005) is going to use regular DVDs. Reportedly the game console may include HD-DVD at a later date. Of course if this happens, some game players may hold off purchasing the game until the HD-DVD drives are included (no word on when this will happen). Others will buy with the regular DVD drives.

The outcome for Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD is still too early to call, even though most everyone has been calling it (back and forth, for some time). We still don't know, because the introductions have been anything but smooth, with ongoing delays and bugs.

If you think you might ever want to buy one of these machines

Keep in mind that the movie studios are a little sensitive about piracy--bootlegging of their intellectual property rights. They're losing $billions to pirates every year, and these new high-def video disc players will spew out gorgeous pristine digital 1080-line video. They don't want people to steal it on day one.

Disc players can't make any money if the studios refuse to release movies on their discs, so they are cooperating in building in features that help to prevent piracy.

We expect that these next-generation optical disc players may only have digital outputs in order to prevent illegal copying -- outputs that support HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection).

That means there may be no analog (eg. component) video outputs, so if you want to watch high-definition HD-DVD or BD in the future, it would be a good idea to buy a TV that has either HDMI or DVI inputs (HDMI is better; two HDMI inputs are even better).

The information from the HD-DVD camp (from late-June '05) is that the AACS copy protection scheme will allow for analog outputs (so you can play through your older HDTV), but only at 480p resolution (the same as current DVDs). It's a compromise between preserving compatibility and protecting intellectual property rights.

Well, now that the formats are out, the movie studios have decided to allow full high-definition content via the analog outputs for the time being (so as not to alienate early adopters, and to wait to see it a piracy problem develops).

Next-gen Video-disc Sound

HD-DVD and BD will support next-generation "lossless" audio. There are two formats: DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD. These formats are capable of reproducing the same quality as the studio masters.

Both of these higher-bandwidth protocols support more channels of discrete sound (than 5), and higher bit-rates for better audio quality. They will be backwards compatible with older versions of DTS and DD audio, as well as stereo.

If you're in the market for a new multi-channel receiver/amp to go with your new BD or HD-DVD player, look for one that supports DTS-HD Master Audio, Dolby TrueHD, and Dolby Digital Plus.

And After Next-gen?

Try the Holographic Versatile Disc on for size, "HVD" for short.

An HVD disc reportedly would have a whopping 1 terrabyte data capacity (compared to 50 GB for Blu-Ray), along with a data transfer rate on the order of 200 Mbps (10 times what's needed for full-blown high-def). As of late-2005, this incredible capacity claim has been dropped to 300 GB (still BIG).

Standards are now being developed for this technology, which stores data in the form of laser interference fringes. Could be on the market by the end of 2006.

Shades of R2-D2. May the force be with you!