High-Def Video Superguide

Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD are here. Who makes the best next-generation movie player?

High-definition movies are here. Whichever format you choose--be it Blu-ray Disc or HD DVD--you'll find your viewing experience enhanced by more-accurate and better-saturated colours, and greater detail. These two formats are vying to be the sole successor to standard-definition DVD, the dominant format for the past decade; with no clear winner in sight, you'll have to pick sides when buying a player, whether it's for your living room or your PC. Choose the wrong format, and your player's technology--and your movie collection--may become obsolete.

The Format War Rages

The competing Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD formats aren't entirely dissimilar. Their differences, however, are significant. Blu-ray supports higher-capacity discs, which gives the format more headroom to mature. Blu-ray's additional space also allows movie studios to provide full, uncompressed audio (called Linear PCM) rather than solely compressed (but high-bit-rate) lossless audio technologies, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

Where the Blu-ray Disc format falters today is in how much interactivity it can deliver in the movie playback experience. The new world of interactivity includes such features as on-demand picture-in-picture displays, the ability to bookmark favorite scenes, Java-based games, and extra content that you can download to your player directly (such as supplemental audio tracks, featurettes, or trailers) via ethernet. Though interactivity is a big part of the Blu-ray specification, the spec inexplicably failed to require early Blu-ray Disc players to have the minimum hardware needed to enable such features. Players produced after October 2007 will fix this problem by adding a 256MB minimum requirement for storage and a secondary video decoder (for on-demand picture-in-picture video).

The HD DVD format, by contrast, specified more-stringent minimum requirements from the outset. All HD DVD players must have an ethernet connection, a secondary video decoder, and at least 128MB of built-in storage.

These minimum specs enable all current HD DVD players to support the format's fun interactive features, giving you the ability to create bookmarks held in memory, even after you eject a disc; to play a secondary video stream (for viewing discs mastered with picture-in-picture extras that you can switch on and off while watching the movie); to customize your viewing experience (by changing the color of a car on screen, for example); and to download firmware updates and additional content (such as trailers or extra features that will eventually be stored on remote servers). The catch is, these features are not available on all movie titles (see "Now Playing on Blu-ray and HD DVD" for details on what studios are doing on their movie discs). In fact, no HD DVD movie title today takes advantage of the ethernet connection the format requires players to have.

Dueling technical specs aside, Blu-ray for now appears to be a better gamble than HD DVD, if only for the greater number of movie studios supporting the format. For flicks such as Cars, Casino Royale, Eragon, and the Pirates of the Caribbean Series, you'll need Blu-ray, since those films are produced by studios in the Blu-ray camp. But King Kong, Lost in Translation, Midnight Run, and Serenity, for example, are HD DVD only.

-- Melissa J. Perenson

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Blu-ray Disc vs. HD DVD

We slice through the technical specs to determine how the formats stack up.

Blu-ray DiscHD DVD
Disc capacity 125GB single-layer -R/RE/ROM;
50GB dual-layer -R/RE/ROM
15GB single-layer -R/ROM, 30GB dual-layer -R/ROM, 20GB -RW/RAM
Data transfer rate (audio/video)54 mbps (up to 48 mbps for audio and video, with up to 40 mbps dedicated to video;
6 mbps is for overhead)
32.4 mbps (29.4 mbps for audio and video; 3 mbps is for overhead)
Data transfer rate (data only)1X BD = 36 mbps1X HD DVD = 36.55 mbps
Price of media$20 for BD-R, $25 for BD-REExpected spring 2007 2
Maximum resolution1920 by 1080 (at 50i, 60i, 24p)1920 by 1080 (at 50i, 60i, 24p)
Video codecsMPEG-4 AVC, VC-1, MPEG-2MPEG-4 AVC, VC-1, MPEG-2
Audio codecsDolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, DTS-HD Master Audio, Linear PCM 3Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD (core), Linear PCM 4
Maximum number of audio channels7.1 (for Linear PCM, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio)7.1 (for Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD)
On-demand picture-in-picture (via a secondary video stream)Optional (required as of October 2007)Mandatory
StorageOptional; minimum of 256MB required as of October 2007 (1GB for BD Live ethernet-
connected players)
Minimum of 128MB required
Movie studios supporting
the format
Buena Vista (Disney), Lionsgate Entertainment, MGM, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros.Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros.,
Weinstein Company
Number of movies shipping
in the United States 5
167168
Region encodingYesNo
Bottom lineBlu-ray Disc has the edge with its breadth of studio support, greater variety of hardware, and better specs. But the format's interactive capabilities lag dramatically behind those of HD DVD.HD DVD devices deliver on most of their promised interactivity. For now, however, your hardware choices are more limited than with Blu-ray Disc.

Footnotes:1 The writable and rewritable disc formats for Blu-ray Disc are BD-R and BD-RE, respectively; for HD DVD the formats are HD DVD-R/RW/RAM. 2 Burners will ship by spring 2007. 3 At a minimum, a player must decode a core two-channel audio stream from these formats. 4 A player must decode at least two channels of Dolby TrueHD and 5.1-channel audio for the other formats. 5 As of 2/20/07.

Chart Note: Both formats support the Advanced Access Content System copy-protection scheme.

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The Players

The ongoing format duel is just one reason to put off buying a high-def player; over time, these early players will be eclipsed by lower-priced and more-capable models. But if you're itching to start your high-def movie experience now, you'll find more choice among Blu-ray players than HD DVD models. We evaluated seven stand-alone units, two HD DVD and five Blu-ray, in the PC World U.S. Test Center. Toshiba's US$500 HD-A2 and US$1000 HD-XA2 are that company's second generation of HD DVD players. The Blu-ray models in this story are all first-generation products: Philips's US$800 BDP9000, Panasonic's US$1300 DMP-BD10, Pioneer's US$1500 Elite BDP-HD1, Samsung's US$800 (AUD$1699) BD-P1000, and Sony's US$1000 BDP-S1. (LG Electronics declined to submit its BH100 for this roundup; the BH100 is the first player that can handle both Blu-ray and HD DVD movies.)

In addition, we looked at two gaming consoles that double as next-gen video players. Sony Computer Entertainment's US$600 (AUD$1000) PlayStation 3 (with a 60GB hard drive) has an integrated Blu-ray drive that handles both game and movie play. Microsoft's US$400 (AUD$650) Xbox 360 (with a 20GB hard drive) requires the US$200 Xbox HD DVD Player add-on to show HD DVD movies.

To determine the best players of the group, we looked at the same scenes from the Blu-ray and HD DVD versions of Corpse Bride, Good Night and Good Luck, Mission: Impossible III, The Phantom of the Opera (2004), and Rumor Has It. To gauge how well these players upscale standard-definition movies to 1080p, we also viewed selected scenes from the DVD versions of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Seabiscuit.

We viewed the movies side by side on two calibrated 50-inch Pioneer Elite PRO-FHD1 1080p plasma TVs. The TVs match the 1080p resolution used by most Blu-ray and HD DVD movies, including the ones we used in our testing. They also have a Pure/Dot-by-Dot aspect-ratio setting that let us pipe the raw video feed from the player to the display without any scaling. (The term 1080p refers to 1080 lines of progressive-scan video--double the content of 1080i, or interlaced, video.) We tested all but two of the players by outputting images at 1080p over an HDMI connection to our TV; we assessed the Toshiba HD-A2 and the Microsoft Xbox 360 combo at their maximum output of 1080i over HDMI and component video, respectively.

Since the filmmakers weren't there to tell us which images were truer to their visions, we used our own judgments when evaluating variables such as background objects, color saturation, skin tones, and shadow detail. The race was a close one; our picks for image quality reflect not a preference for Blu-ray over HD DVD, but rather how these specific players rendered movies. The Samsung BD-P1000 earned our Best Buy for its balance of great image quality and a midrange price of US$800.

Players' Image Quality

Two Blu-ray players, Pioneer's Elite BDP-HD1 and Sony's BDP-S1, gave us the best images: Each scored in the top two for image detail, color quality, and brightness and contrast across both our high-definition and our standard-definition tests. In Rumor Has It, we could almost count the hairs in the stubble on Kevin Costner's face. Both players rendered fine details, which in turn added depth--in the crowded backstage scene of Phantom's chapter 3, for example, and in Mission: Impossible III, chapter 7. In the latter, when the camera pulled back in the Vatican, hallways and staircases appeared three-dimensional, and cobblestones rendered clearly. Shadow detail in the black-and-white Good Night and Good Luck was so sharp we could see the costume details on extras who weren't positioned in the light.

Our Best Buy Samsung and the second-ranked Philips rendered these scenes very nicely as well, though a shade less distinctly (still other players reproduced the scenes just a tad more blurrily than even the Samsung and the Philips did). Sony's PlayStation 3 performed comparably to the Samsung and the Philips with Blu-ray Discs but disappointed in its handling of standard-def DVDs--not surprising, as it can't upscale them to 1080p, a capability Sony says it will offer in a firmware update.

Toshiba's HD-XA2 produced strong image quality as well. With a score of Very Good from our judges, its output was the best of the HD DVD players. But colors looked slightly muted compared with those generated by the best players, and background details were a little less sharp and deep.

Panasonic's DMP-BD10 handled detail, brightness, and contrast very well, but the unit faltered on color quality. A mild reddish tint marred skin tones.

Toshiba's HD-A2--the least-expensive player in this group--suffered from subpar color handling, brightness and contrast, and detail. Only the Xbox 360 combo did worse, and by a significant margin. The Xbox 360's component-only output produced images that were less sharp and crisp than those output over HDMI. Both players top out at 1080i resolution, which could explain the interlacing artifacts we saw in Mission: Impossible III's chapter 7, where a brick wall showed a distracting moire pattern and vibrating bricks. Viewed on competing players at 1080p, the bricks were solid, distinct, and motionless.

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Audio Comparisons

The best sound came from the Sony BDP-S1, followed by the two Toshiba models (which tied for second place overall) and the Pioneer and the Philips (which tied for fourth).

Dissecting these players' audio support is a mess. If you thought DVD's sound terminology was arcane--with Dolby Digital, Dolby Surround, DTS Digital Surround, and PCM--you ain't heard nothing yet. To that jargon add Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio, and Linear PCM.

To find out what all that will sound like to your ears, we attached each of the players to Pioneer's Elite VSX-82TXS audio/ video receiver and NHT's Classic series 5.1-channel surround-sound system. We configured the players to handle their own audio processing.

In the first two chapters of The Phantom of the Opera, we listened for the sounds of birds flying, the clatter of the crystals on chandeliers, and the strains of instruments in the orchestral score; all sounded crisp and clear on the Sony BDP-S1 and on the two Toshiba players. We compared the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound tracks; the Blu-ray version of this film lacks the HD DVD version's Dolby TrueHD track.

Linear PCM blew me away in informal tests I performed using the Blu-ray version of The Last Waltz, a 1976 concert film recorded in high-quality analog. As heard piped through our test setup, from either the Sony BDP-S1 or the Pioneer, the film's music hit me with the full force of a live rock concert; every inflection by the individual musicians was perfectly clear. The same Linear PCM sound track played through the Philips and Samsung players, and to a lesser extent the Panasonic model and the Sony PlayStation 3, sounded muffled and muddy.

Player Specs and Details

The three HD DVD models--Toshiba's HD-A2 and HD-XA2, and Microsoft's Xbox 360--clearly lead the way in integrating interactive features, including picture-in-picture video, persistent bookmarks you can view after ejecting a disc, and the capability to deliver future content via ethernet. This is not surprising, given that the HD DVD format requires players to have the necessary hardware for a minimum level of interactivity.

Annoying design problems among the players abound. All of the units we tested responded slowly to commands, but the Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1 and the Sony BDP-S1 were the worst; each of those models took more than a minute just to accept a disc. Sony gave the BDP-S1 power and eject buttons that are merely thin slivers of metal, placed so high on the front panel that they're difficult to get to if you've stacked another component on top of the player. Toshiba's HD-XA2 remote uses similar sliver buttons, making it frustrating to use. And the Panasonic DMP-BD10 requires you to lower its front flap--which conceals the drive tray and buttons--just to use the machine.

Toshiba's players had issues when we switched from the players to another HDMI input, and then back again. The HD-XA2 stopped, indicated that the resolution had been changed, and insisted on restarting the film from the beginning. The HD-A2 froze up entirely, and needed to be rebooted. Toshiba says it is investigating why this HDMI handshaking issue occurred.

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The Game Console Option

Microsoft's and Sony's game machines offer a relatively inexpensive way to enter the world of high-def movies. While the PlayStation 3 easily beats the Xbox 360 here, neither system offers an optimal home theater experience.

If you already own an Xbox 360, the USB-connected HD DVD Player costs an additional US$200--a bargain if you're a gamer looking to play high-def movies on the cheap. But movie playback is clearly a secondary consideration on the Xbox 360. For instance, when you press the eject button on the Windows Media Center-like remote, out comes the Xbox 360's DVD drive tray; the HD DVD Player's tray remains closed. Furthermore, the Xbox 360 provides the worst picture and sound of the bunch by a wide margin, due to its analog-only component video and comparatively limited audio support.

The dramatically sloped PlayStation 3 offers a far better movie experience--though, like the Xbox 360, it won't integrate well with other electronics components in your entertainment rack. For now, the PlayStation 3 is the cheapest Blu-ray player around, even if you factor in an extra US$25 for the optional remote control. The PS3 produces terrific high-definition video, and it has some pleasing movie-centric touches--insert a movie disc into its slot-loading Blu-ray drive, and the unit powers up and starts the movie. But it also has a way of reminding you that movies aren't its main business: Slip in a disc while the unit is on, and nothing happens (you have to initiate playback manually).

Buy Now--or Tomorrow?

Even if your HDTV doesn't support 1080p resolution, any of these next-gen players will give you a huge image-quality advantage over a conventional DVD player. Our best player overall happens to be a Blu-ray player, Samsung's BD-P1000; it delivers great image quality at a more reasonable price than does the Sony BDP-S1, our best image and audio performer.

Not in a hurry to see high-def movies? I recommend waiting another six months. By then, lower-cost players will be available (Sony has announced a US$600 Blu-ray player, due out mid-year). And a clearer winner in the format war may emerge.

-- Lincoln Spector

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High-Def Movies on a PC

So you want to play HD DVD or Blu-ray discs from Hollywood on your existing computer? Well, it's going to cost you--not only in cash, but also, if your experience is anything like mine, in frustration. The hardware you'll need is expensive, the software is immature, and your graphics card or monitor, even if recently purchased, may not measure up.

Though I got my setup to play Blu-ray movies, I had difficulties with HD DVD movies, proof that the upgrade path to high-def playback isn't ready for the masses just yet. Playing high-def movies on your PC requires more than just adding a new optical drive to your existing rig. Hardware and software vendors recommend at least 1GB of memory and a dual-core processor.

The bigger gotcha to playing back both Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD movies, though, concerns copy-protection schemes. Commercial movie discs are encrypted with the new Advanced Access Content System (AACS) protocol; but Intel's High Definition Content Protection, a hardware handshaking/security protocol embedded in device firmware, is the real roadblock. All of the hardware in your PC's chain--the HD DVD or Blu-ray drive, the graphics board, and the monitor--must be HDCP-certified to play back copy-protected content at full resolution via a digital connection, either DVI or HDMI.

Shopping for HDCP-certified devices remains tricky. If the box doesn't say "certified," don't buy the product. Some graphics cards state HDCP compliance in their specs, or boast HDTV output, but don't actually implement HDCP (only implementation earns the "certified" moniker). Look for a card based on an nVidia GeForce 7- or GeForce 8-series GPU with PureVideo HD drivers, or AMD's ATI Radeon X1650 or a better card with the latest Catalyst drivers. Even if a board has one of these chips, however, that doesn't guarantee that it implements HDCP. nVidia grants its PureVideo HD logo only to certified cards; AMD doesn't have such a logo at this time.

Because of HDCP, the hardware you'll need to play high-def Hollywood movie discs at top quality on your computer gets expensive quickly, beginning with a US$500 hd100 HD DVD-ROM drive from HP or a Blu-ray burner such as Sony's US$700 BWU-100A or Lite-On's $600 LH-2B1S. Add to this an HDCP-certified video card (US$150 or more) and an HDCP-certified monitor of reasonable size (expect to pay at least US$700 to get 1920 by 1200 resolution for full 1080p; though less-costly HDCP monitors exist, many don't accept 1080p output). The total upgrade bill could easily top US$1500 if you were starting from square one.

Getting It to Work

To see just what it takes to upgrade a system to play HD, I tried a number of components in search of the perfect setup--which I subsequently redefined as one that actually worked. My own Dell UltraSharp 2405 monitor let me play high-def only through the analog VGA connector, so I switched to ViewSonic's US$799 VX2435wm and Dell's US$1399 UltraSharp 2707WFP (24 and 27 inches, respectively) HDCP-certified wide-screen displays. Replacing my existing graphics card with a GeForce 8800-based card completed the HDCP chain.

I then turned my attention to watching movies. I had to install several versions of CyberLink's Power DVD Ultra 7.3 software before I managed to get Blu-ray movies to play. Alas, HD DVD was more problematic. I never got my ad hoc test system to play HD DVD movies via my monitor's DVI connection; even the PowerDVD 6.5 HD DVD Edition app that came with HP's hd100 drive took me only as far as the FBI warnings, titles, and menus before a black screen kicked in. HP and CyberLink were at a loss to explain this.

You can avoid compliance worries by buying an expensive yet decked-out machine that's preconfigured for high-def playback. Doing so worked best for me: I had no issues using HD DVD on a preconfigured HP Media Center PC.

Is watching movies on your PC worthwhile? Yes and no. The picture is a visual treat, visibly better than DVD, even on a screen that's small compared with a gargantuan plasma or LCD TV. The question is, will you get playback to work on your PC? Unfortunately, you may not know this until you actually jump in and give it a try.

-- Jon L. Jacobi

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Chart: High-Definition Players

We viewed the movies side by side on two calibrated 50-inch Pioneer Elite PRO-FHD1 1080p plasma TVs. The TVs match the 1080p resolution used by most Blu-ray and HD DVD movies, including the ones we used in our testing. They also have a Pure/Dot-by-Dot aspect-ratio setting that let us pipe the raw video feed from the player to the display without any scaling. (The term "1080p" refers to 1080 lines of progressive-scan video--double the content of 1080i, or interlaced, video.) We tested all but two of the players by outputting images at 1080p over an HDMI connection to our TV; we assessed the Toshiba HD-A2 and the Microsoft Xbox 360 combo at their maximum output of 1080i over HDMI and component video, respectively.

To determine the best players of the group, we looked at the same scenes from the Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD versions of Corpse Bride, Good Night and Good Luck, Mission: Impossible III, The Phantom of the Opera (2004), and Rumor Has It. To gauge how well these players upscale standard-definition movies to 1080p, we also viewed selected scenes from the DVD versions of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Seabiscuit.

Jon L. Jacobi is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. Melissa J. Perenson is senior products editor for PC World U.S. Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector writes about film for Bayflicks.net.

RankNameRating
1Samsung BD-P1000
  • Price when rated: US$800 (AUD$1699)
  • Blu-ray Disc player
  • Maximum resolution: 1080p
  • HDMI 1.1
  • No secondary video decoder for picture-in-picture
First Blu-ray player ever released offers great image quality and nicely designed menus, but the audio output sounds muddy.
Very good -- 82
2Philips BDP9000
  • Price when rated: US$800
  • Blu-ray Disc player
  • Maximum resolution: 1080p
  • HDMI 1.2
  • No secondary video decoder for picture-in-picture
This Blu-ray device offers well-rounded image performance at a good price, but it has mediocre audio capabilities and a poor manual.
Very good -- 81
3Sony Electronics BDP-S1
  • Price when rated: US$1000
  • Blu-ray Disc player
  • Maximum resolution: 1080p
  • HDMI 1.2
  • No secondary video decoder for picture-in-picture
Sony's BDP-S1 is slow and lacks frills, but it's a great performer: It tied with the Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1 for top audio and video honors, and costs $500 less than that player.
Very good -- 80
4Sony PlayStation 3
  • Price when rated: US$600 (AUD$1000)
  • Blu-ray Disc player
  • Maximum resolution: 1080p
  • HDMI 1.3
  • Secondary video decoder for picture-in-picture
Multifaceted game console doubles as a competitive Blu-ray player with terrific high-def video; but its lack of DVD upscaling dragged down its overall performance.
Very good -- 80
5Toshiba HD-A2
  • Price when rated: US$500
  • HD DVD player
  • Maximum resolution: 1080i
  • HDMI 1.2a
  • Secondary video decoder for picture-in-picture
The cheapest stand-alone player we tested, this HD DVD model produces good audio; but resolution maxes out at 1080i resolution, and the unit won't display some movie scenes optimally.
Good -- 79
6Toshiba HD-XA2
  • Price when rated: US$1000
  • HD DVD player
  • Maximum resolution: 1080p
  • HDMI 1.3
  • Secondary video decoder for picture-in-picture
Expensive HD DVD player offers strong image performance and a broad range of features; it's the only model other than the PlayStation 3 we tested with HDMI 1.3.
Good -- 79
7Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1
  • Price when rated: US$1500
  • Blu-ray Disc player
  • Maximum resolution: 1080p
  • HDMI 1.2
  • No secondary video decoder for picture-in-picture
This Blu-ray model tied for the best picture and sound, but its subpar user interface and sky-high price hold it back.
Good -- 77
8Panasonic DMP-BD10
  • Price when rated: US$1300
  • Blu-ray Disc player
  • Maximum resolution: 1080p
  • HDMI 1.1
  • No secondary video decoder for picture-in-picture
Mediocre design and a tendency to add a reddish cast to skin tones reduce the attractiveness of this pricey Blu-ray player.
Good -- 75
9Microsoft Xbox 360 and HD DVD Player
  • Price when rated: US$600
  • HD DVD player
  • Maximum resolution: 1080i
  • No HDMI port
  • Secondary video decoder for picture-in-picture
Inexpensive option for Xbox owners is a poor choice for home theater fans analog-only video outputs make for poor image quality.
Good -- 72