HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray

DVD is, by some measurements, the greatest success in consumer electronics history. Following its 1997 debut, it took the format just a few years to completely conquer the home-video market previously ruled by VHS tapes. Before it even reaches its 10th birthday, however, the electronics industry and the
Hollywood studios are already putting DVD out to pasture. Two rival next-generation formats–Blu-ray and HD-DVD–are already vying to become the successor to DVD’s throne. Both display movies in full high-definition resolution, addressing one shortfall of the current DVD format, which is only standard-def. But to get that improved visual fidelity, you have to decide to buy either a Blu-ray player
or an HD-DVD player–and be willing to live with a list of caveats a mile long. To explain why we’re so cautious, we’ll take a look at both formats, examine how they compare to one another, and highlight the advantages–and disadvantages–they offer compared to the current generation of DVD.

Blu-ray, HD-DVD, and DVD formats compared  

Blu-ray and HD-DVD are rival incompatible formats, a situation that recalls the Beta vs. VHS battle that stifled the early growth of the VCR and home-video market in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Despite an attempt to unify the two standards in 2005, the corporate godfathers of the two formats–Sony for Blu-ray and Toshiba for HD-DVD–failed to come to an agreement.

What that means to you is that no Blu-ray player will be able to play HD-DVD discs, and no HD-DVD player can play Blu-ray discs. If a movie comes out in one format, there’s no guarantee that it will be available in the other. Certain studios could release movies in both formats, but you’ll still have to be careful not to buy the wrong version of the movie. Adding to the frustration is the fact that the capabilities and features of the two formats are far more similar than they are different–as shown by the chart below.


DVD HD-DVD Blu-ray
Maximum native resolutions supported via HDMI EDTV (480p) HDTV (720p, 1080i, 1080p) HDTV (720p, 1080i, 1080p)
Maximum image-constrained native resolutions supported via component video1 EDTV (480p) EDTV+ (960×540) EDTV+ (960×540)
Disc capacity 4.7GB (single layer)
8.5GB (dual layer)
15GB (single layer)
30GB (dual layer)
45GB (prototype triple layer)
25GB (single layer)
50GB (dual layer)
100GB (prototype quad layer)
Video capacity (per dual-layer disc)2 SD: approximately 3 hours
HD: n/a
SD: approximately 24 hours
HD: approximately 8 hours
SD: approximately 23 hours
HD: approximately 9 hours
Audio soundtracks3 Dolby Digital EX, DTS-ES Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital, DTS-ES Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital, DTS-ES
Manufacturer support (home theater)4 All Toshiba, LG, Thomson/RCA
Hitachi, Mitsubishi, LG, Sharp, Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, Philips, Thomson/RCA
Manufacturer support (PC storage)4 All Microsoft, Intel, HP, NEC, Toshiba Apple, Dell, Benq, HP, LG, Panasonic, Philips, Pioneer, Samsung, Sony, TDK
Studio support4 All Paramount,Studio
Canal, Universal, Warner, the Weinstein Company
Sony Pictures (including MGM/Columbia TriStar), Disney (including Touchstone, Miramax), Fox,
Paramount, Warner, Lions Gate
Compatible video game consoles PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox, Xbox 360, Nintendo Revolution Xbox 360 (via forthcoming external HD-DVD accessory, sold separately) PlayStation 3
Player prices $99 and less $499 and more $599 (PlayStation 3 with HDMI port); $999 and more (stand-alone players)
Movie prices $6 and more (retail) $20 to $28 (retail) $20 to $28 (retail)
Number of titles available by the end of 2006 50,000-plus Dozens to hundreds Dozens to hundreds
Players are backward compatible with existing DVD videos Yes Yes Yes
Set-top recorders available now Yes No No
Can record high-def at full resolution (eventually)5 No Yes Yes
“Managed copy” option6 No Yes Yes
Copy protection/digital rights management7 Macrovision, CSS AACS, ICT AACS, ICT, BD+, BD-ROM Mark
Region-coded discs and players8 Yes No (currently; could change in future) Yes

 Sources include: thedigitalbits.com, dvdfile.com, blu-ray.com, Toshiba HD-DVD, Blu-ray Disc Association, CNET News.com, Business Week, HDbeat.com, About.com, and Wikipedia Notes

  1. Each movie studio may choose to implement the image-constraint token (ICT) on a disc-by-disc basis, which constrains or downconverts the movie’s resolution to 960×540 via the component outputs (HDMI output remains at full resolution). However, most major studios–Sony (Columbia/Tri-Star/MGM), Fox, Disney,
    Paramount, and Universal–have publicly stated that they will not make use of ICT, at least initially. There are even rumors of a backroom deal among studios to withhold use of ICT on HD disc releases through 2010. If true, movies from those studios will display at full resolution via the component outputs.
  2. Video capacity will vary depending upon the type of encoding used. Discs encoded with MPEG-4 or VC-1 offer more compression and, therefore, more video per gigabyte (standard-definition or high-definition) than those encoded with the older, less efficient MPEG-2 codec.
  3. All HD-DVD and Blu-ray players should incorporate built-in audio decoding and analog audio outputs. Those features should enable the newer Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS-HD surround formats to be heard by using existing A/V receivers and audio equipment–but the resulting soundtrack may be a downmixed Dolby Digital or DTS-ES version that lacks the theoretically better audio fidelity that’s encoded on the disc.
  4. Manufacturer and studio support is subject to change. With the exception of Sony’s devotion to Blu-ray and Toshiba’s to HD-DVD, other manufacturers and studios can (and already have) switch sides, or they can support both formats. Also, the depth of support for companies aside from Sony and Toshiba has yet to be determined; for many of them, “supporting” one or both of the formats has been limited to issuing press releases or scheduling future product and/or movie releases that remain theoretical until they are available for purchase by the public. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s support for HD-DVD does not preclude Blu-ray compatibility for Windows; Blu-ray discs will be usable with Windows XP and Windows
    Vista PCs through the use of third-party software and hardware.
  5. Early-generation set-top (non-PC) HD-DVD and Blu-ray players are players only, with no recording capabilities. Future set-top recorders are expected to become available in both formats in 2007 or later, but look for copy-protection and digital rights issues to severely restrict the HD programming you’ll be able to record from TV.
  6. Managed copy refers to the ability to make an HD-DVD or Blu-ray movie viewable via a home network or a portable video device. The details haven’t been worked out yet, leaving managed copy as more of a theoretical option than a usable feature for the foreseeable future.
  7. It is likely that HD-DVD and Blu-ray will feature additional copy-protection methods (including Macrovision or other protections for analog outputs) than the ones listed here.
  8. As of spring 2006, HD-DVD discs and players are not region-coded, but that could be changed at any point in the future–for example, the appearance of region-coded discs and a firmware upgrade for the hardware needed in order to play them. Blu-ray discs are coded to three regions (roughly, the Americas and Japan; Europe and Africa; and China,
    Russia, and everywhere else not included in the previous two regions) that are far more streamlined than the nine-region DVD system. That said, HD-DVD and Blu-ray players should honor the nine-region system when playing standard DVDs–so don’t expect to play out-of-region discs.

HD-DVD in-depth

The Hardware:  HD-DVD beat its archrival to the marketplace by a couple of months. The Toshiba HD-A1 ($500) has been available for purchase since mid-April. Three other HD-DVD players are currently or will soon be available as well, but all of them are little more than clones or rebranded versions of the base Toshiba model: the Toshiba HD-XA1 ($800; adds a motorized front flip-down panel and backlit remote), the Toshiba HD-D1 ($500; the Wal-Mart version), and the RCA HDV5000 ($500).

The Movies:  The first wave of HD-DVD movies is currently available. There are three versions of HD-DVDs: single- or dual-layer HD-DVD-only discs; hybrid discs (a single-sided disc with a standard 4.7GB layer that plays on any DVD player as well as a 15GB HD layer); and twin-format discs (with a standard dual-layer 8.5GB DVD on one side and a 30GB dual-layer HD-DVD on the other). The advantage of the pricier hybrid and dual-format discs is that you get backward compatibility of a sort: watch the movie in high-def on your HD-DVD player in the living room, but use the DVD version in your bedroom or portable player. Early HD-DVD titles available for purchase include The Last Samurai, Million Dollar Baby, Phantom of the Opera, Doom, Apollo 13, Serenity, Swordfish, Goodfellas, and The Bourne Supremacy. On deck for June and July are
Constantine, Pitch Black, The Rundown, and The Perfect Storm–to name just a few. Other titles pledged for the format–albeit without specific release dates–include 12 Monkeys, Dune, The Thing, End of Days, Backdraft, Waterworld, The Bone Collector, Spy Game, Conan the Barbarian, Dante’s Peak, The Italian Job, Tomb Raider, U2: Rattle and Hum, We Were Soldiers, and The Manchurian Candidate. Suggested retail prices are $28.99 for catalog titles (movies already available on regular DVD), $34.99 for new titles (films coming to any home-video format for the first time), and $39.99 for hybrid/twin-format discs, which will work on HD-DVD and regular DVD players, as described above; however, online pricing seems to have settled into a more affordable $20-to-$28 range

The Gaming Wild Card:  While the Xbox 360 is capable of 720p and 1080i high-def output–it can display games and downloadable video clips in full HD–it’s limited by its internal DVD drive. That’s kept the price down to a reasonable $399, but it also means that the Xbox 360 won’t play HD-DVD–at least, until Microsoft releases a promised HD-DVD add-on drive, which the company has officially announced is coming later in 2006. That accessory will enable HD-DVD movie playback, though 360 games will continue to be released on DVD-ROM discs to ensure compatibility for all systems. Because it will require an external drive, though, it seems destined to be a kludgy solution, no matter what the cost.

Upside: Players and movies available now before Blu-ray; players are much more affordable than initial Blu-ray units; decent selection of movies slated for release throughout the year; some movies include standard-DVD version on the same disc; “managed copy” requirement means movies are technically able to be transferred to other devices and/or viewed over home networks.

Downside: No HD-DVD movies from Columbia, MGM, Fox, or Disney; Xbox 360 requires as-yet-unreleased accessory to play HD-DVD discs; initial HD-DVD players not capable of 1080p output; studios can program discs to not display full HD resolution on older HDTVs without HDMI inputs (though they have not yet opted to do so); “managed copy” details are vague and may involve additional charges.

Outlook: HD-DVD players are already available–and not obscenely expensive–but only a handful of movies will be available before midyear.

  Blu-ray in-depth 

  The Hardware:  The first of many Blu-ray players arrives just a few weeks after the first HD-DVD players. On or around June 20, Samsung’s BP-D1000 ($1,000) will hit stores, followed soon after by the Pioneer BDP-HD1 ($1,800), the Sony BDP-S1 (July, $1,000), and the Panasonic DMP-BD10 (September, less than $1,500). By the time of the CEDIA (Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association) trade show in September, even more Blu-ray models from various manufacturers should be available or, at least, announced. Unlike initial HD-DVD players, all Blu-ray players are expected to be capable of outputting video at 1080p.

The Movies:  The first wave of Blu-ray movies is scheduled to hit stores the same week as the initial players, though a few titles may dribble out beforehand. Stealth, Saw, Ultraviolet, Lord of War, Crash, Robocop, Terminator 2, 50 First Dates, The Fifth Element, Hitch, House of Flying Daggers, A Knight’s Tale, The Last Waltz, Resident Evil Apocalypse, Underworld Evolution, and XXX are scheduled to be among the titles you’ll be able to pick up before the end of June. Those will be followed later in the summer by Kung Fu Hustle, Legends of the Fall, Species, SWAT, and The Terminator. That list should begin to swell later in the year when additional titles, such as Fantastic Four, Behind Enemy Lines, Kiss of the Dragon, Ice Age, Black Hawk Down, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Reservoir Dogs are released. The wholesale price for Blu-ray movies will be $17.95 for catalog titles (movies already available on regular DVD) and $23.45 for new titles (films coming to any home-video format for the first time), but online preorder prices are in the $20-to-$28 range–exactly the same as HD-DVD. 

The Gaming Wild Card:  Now that the 2006 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) has come and gone, we finally have the relevant details on the PlayStation 3. It’ll be available on November 17 in two configurations: a $600 “deluxe” model and a $500 “entry level” version. Gamers are already grumbling that they’re paying a hefty overhead just to subsidize Sony’s Blu-ray ambitions, but for gamers who are also movie fans–or movie fans who don’t even care about the PS3’s gaming capabilities–either version of the PlayStation 3 will be the most affordable Blu-ray player you can buy. No, it won’t have all the home-theater options–analog audio output, for instance–that more expensive Blu-ray players will but for $400 cheaper, who’s complaining? But before you add the PS3 to your Christmas list, keep two important issues in mind. Anyone who’s even remotely interested in Blu-ray movies will want to stick with the $600 version; the cheaper PS3 omits built-in Wi-Fi, the flash memory reader, and (most critically) the HDMI output. And while Sony is pledging to ship 4 million units before the end of the year, it’s still likely to be sold out–even at those prices.

Upside: EveryHollywood studio except Universal has pledged to release movies in the Blu-ray format; PlayStation 3 will play Blu-ray movies; Blu-ray movies and players are optimized for 1080p output; Blu-ray discs can hold more data or video than HD-DVD counterparts; most studios have pledged to not constrain resolution via component outputs.

 Downside: Initial Blu-ray players will be much more expensive than their HD-DVD counterparts; Blu-ray-compatible PlayStation 3 not available until November; studios can program discs to not display full HD resolution on older HDTVs without HDMI inputs (though they have not yet opted to do so).

Outlook: Blu-ray’s broader coalition of corporate support may be negated–at least in the short term–by higher hardware prices and the PlayStation 3’s November arrival. But its broader support from hardware manufacturers and movie studios can’t be underestimated.

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