Burning Questions: Blu-ray Disc, HD DVD arrive

After much bluster and a few false starts, high-definition DVD has arrived. At least in the US. You'll find several products meant for the living room and for the PC at your favorite store, with more on the way. Unfortunately, high-def DVD comes in two, incompatible formats -- Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD -- and the formats' supporters have not resolved their differences. That means buyers must carefully weigh their options while everyone waits to see which technology will reign as successor to DVD, both as an entertainment medium and as a storage medium. You may want to wait before you lay out your cash.

The technology

Both Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD measure 12cm in diameter, the same as a standard DVD. The formats physically differ in where the data lies on the disc: On Blu-ray, data is closer to the surface of the disc than it is on HD DVD. This is one reason why player and recorder engineers will have to refine their products to support both formats in a single device. There has been some talk about drives and recorders that can handle both, but no definite announcements about when consumers might see one.

A more important issue is disc capacity. Both formats offer capacities several times that of conventional DVDs. At launch, Blu-ray Disc is available in 25GB single-layer and 50GB dual-layer flavors (for prepackaged media as well as for recordable and rewritable media). By contrast, HD DVD's capacity comes in at 15GB for a single-layer disc and 30GB for a dual-layer disc (for prepackaged and recordable media; rewritable media will be 20GB for single-layer discs).

In most other ways, the formats are identical. Both use the same high-definition video codecs (MPEG-2, MPEG-4 AVC, and VC-1). Both use the same copy protection controls, known as the Advanced Access Content System (Blu-ray adds two additional layers of copy protection, dubbed BD Plus and ROM Mark). Neither format needs an Internet connection on the player, though plans for both formats call for interactive features that will. Finally, both Blu-ray and HD DVD devices are backward-compatible with current CDs and DVDs; this requires each device to integrate both a blue laser and a red laser, the latter for handling the older formats.

The players and products

Sony is a leading member of the large consortium of consumer electronics companies and Hollywood studios backing Blu-ray Disc (including Dell, LG Electronics, Lite-On, Panasonic, Philips, and Pioneer on the tech side, and Walt Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Lions Gate, Paramount, and Warner Brothers on the studio side). Furthermore, Sony is incorporating Blu-ray into its highly anticipated game console, the PlayStation 3.

In the HD DVD corner is Toshiba (with backing from Hewlett-Packard, LG, NEC, RCA, and Sanyo, plus Paramount, Universal, and Warner Brothers among the studios). Microsoft, another backer, will be offering an external HD DVD drive as an add-on to its Xbox 360 console.

For the moment, early adopters have a very clear choice -- what you buy will definitely depend on what you want to do. The HD DVD camp has initially released living-room players and read-only drives to go along with the first HD DVD movies. We've looked at two such players from Toshiba, and we've had a sneak peek at a Toshiba laptop with a read-only drive. Blu-ray supporters have come out with data recorders, which also play Blu-ray HD movies. We've looked at the first Blu-ray PC drive from Pioneer, as well as at a Sony laptop with a built-in burner. Overall, each has device lived up to the hype in many ways, but faltered in others.

Your choices will get better shortly, as summer and fall should see a slew of new devices from each camp. Blu-ray especially has an impressive array of announced products on the way -- but pricing is set at almost twice that of comparable HD DVD devices. The first Blu-ray video players will cost US$1,000 and up; likewise, the first Blu-ray PC burner is priced at a cool grand. In contrast, you can score Toshiba's HD-A1 player for US$500.

Here's our take on two of the first products out the gate, one from each camp.

HD DVD for the living room

As the first HD DVD player to ship, Toshiba's HD-A1 both impresses and disappoints. On the upside, the US$500 HD-A1 produced video that was both eye-catching and brilliant, as we observed in playing some of the first HD DVD movies, such as Serenity and The Last Samurai. Once you've seen what a high-definition movie can deliver, you'll be hooked -- as we were.

We attached the HD-A1 to Samsung's LNR328WX 32-inch plasma TV, whose maximum resolution of 1080i matches the maximum output of the HD-A1. In the first 15 minutes of The Phantom of the Opera, the high-def advantage was evident when compared with the same movie on DVD (played using upconversion via Samsung's DVD-VR325). Even on a 32-inch screen -- which isn't particularly huge in the high-def world -- we could readily observe differences between the high-definition and standard-definition discs. The HD DVD image was crisper, had more depth, and exhibited far more detail. We observed better facial textures and skin tones on dancers; improved handling of light; fewer artifacts; and details like the individual toes on chickens' feet, which standard DVD rendered as blurred blobs.

In usability and design, however, the HD-A1 falters. It has a boxy shape with rough edges. In our tests, its buttons felt slow to respond, and jumping through different parts of a disc seemed sluggish. Most critical, the startup time from inserting a disc to beginning playback was interminable. The unusually long remote control felt awkward to handle, too. These design quirks are harder to swallow considering that the HD-A1 is a next-generation product targeted at home theater lovers, who are accustomed to the trigger-fast response and snappy design of today's polished DVD players.

Blu-ray burner for video authors

Unlike initial HD DVD devices, the first Blu-ray products give you recording capability and belong in your PC, not in your living room. Pioneer Electronics' US$1,000 BDR-101A is the first PC drive out of the gate, though many more are planned in the next few months.

The PC World Test Center tested a production-level BDR-101A drive using shrink-wrapped BD-R media from TDK along with close-to-final software from Sonic. The device's installation was standard fare for an IDE drive; it looks and feels like any ordinary optical drive, and was a snap to install in our test system.

Though the unit was light on software and extras, its appeal is undeniable. In our tests, we were able to pack nearly 25GB on a single write-once disc in about 45 minutes. That translates to a throughput of 67 mbps, which is quite close to the theoretical maximum of 72 mbps for 2X BD-R. Copying the same disc back to the hard drive took just a bit longer.

The promise of so much capacity on a single disc is alluring, not only for storing video and multimedia but also for streamlining data backups. Backing up your data with the Pioneer device will take a little longer than burning five single-layer DVD-Rs, but you'll save a bit of time compared with burning the same amount of data to double-layer DVD+R. And that isn't counting the time for swapping discs.

However, the BDR-101A comes with some notable trade-offs. Though it supports BD and DVD media, it does not read or write to CDs. Also, its write speeds to standard DVD formats are slower than what you get from a dedicated DVD burner (8X for DVD-R on the Pioneer versus 16X on stand-alone DVD burners). It doesn't write to dual-layer 50GB BD media, either. The second wave of burners, coming this summer from BenQ, Lite-On, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony, will handle CD writing and dual-layer writes, making those drives ideal for data pack rats seeking the maximum in storage capacity.

Another caveat: This drive, targeted at the professional video authoring market, lacks software for disc authoring and packet writing. However, according to Pioneer, customers will be able to upgrade to a more full-featured version of the DigitalMedia software containing these missing components, when it is available.

Let's get this party started

Keep in mind that these are only the first two products to hit the market. The next wave of products is already on deck, including a slew of Blu-ray Disc drives for the PC, notebooks with HD DVD-ROM, and players for Blu-ray Disc. As eager as you may be to start enjoying movies in high-definition, or to save copious amounts of data on a single optical disc, I recommend holding off before making a buying decision. After all, the more products that are out on the market, the more choice you'll have, and the more competition you'll find for your wallet.

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