Does Blu-ray or HD DVD have the early edge?

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, today.

After looking at the initial wave of products from both fronts, I 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). I'm less intrigued by the actual products than I am 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 still enjoying a slight lead to market on its rival. HD DVD came out 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 I've seen inaccurately reported around the Web. Sony Pictures pushed its content launch to June 20 after Samsung announced a change in release date for its US$1000 BD-P1000 player, from late May to June 25. However, both of those launches remain on schedule, the vendors claim. Jim Sanduski, Samsung's senior vice president of marketing, says, "We'll be in more than 2000 storefronts at launch, and we will have multiple units available at each of these locations. 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 launch to September--when the product does launch, though, it will be at US$1500, US$300 less than the price the company announced back in January at CES. And Sony Electronics has adjusted the expected July release of its US$1000 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.

I don't expect that we'll see dramatic, overwhelming differences in image quality between HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc movie content. I do expect it to be tough to isolate which format is superior for delivering video, given the number of variables that come into play--including choices in the video codec, bit rate, and encoder used, not to mention whether you're viewing the output over analog or HDMI, on a display capable of 1080i or 1080p.

We'll probably see subtle differences. Sony plans to encode its first generation of discs in MPEG-2, while Warner and Universal's HD DVDs are using the VC-1 or MPEG-4 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 players from Pioneer, Samsung, and Sony all output at 1080p.

I hope to see the same film 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 formally added to the HD DVD spec.)

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

Now that I've taken a closer look at the first eight HD DVD movies I received from Warner Brothers and Universal, I can understand why. None of the eight titles could fit on a 15GB single-layer HD DVD, and half came within a mere 5GB of maxing out a 30GB dual-layer disc--even though all relied on the latest, more efficient video codecs (VC-1 and MPEG-4 AVC). The movies were The Last Samurai (which topped out at 27.3GB), Mel Brooks's 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).

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