Articles and whitepapers
High-Definition Disc Technology - Where is the Market
Yasmin Hashmi, HiddenWires
Some say the World Cup football and other
significant broadcast events will drive the high-definition (HD)
market in Europe. Others say that high-definition disc will help
spread the word even faster. The question is, when is high-definition
disc coming and what can we do to prepare for it?
The major players in the DVD market naturally
want a good return on their investment in high-definition. The trouble
is, like with the Betamax and VHS format wars, there is more than
one HD disc format to choose from, and they are not compatible with
each other. This is causing confusion as equipment manufacturers
prevaricate over which format to support. And even when player/recorders
do finally come to market, will the consumer be prepared to commit
to one camp or another?
Rivals from the two main formats, namely
the Sony-backed Blu-ray Disc (BD) and the Toshiba-backed HD DVD,
have stated that their players will be backwardly-compatible with
standard DVDs, and both have indicated that they may offer hybrid
discs, i.e. a disc that will have Blu-ray or HD DVD on one side,
and standard DVD on the other. This means that if one of the formats
eventually loses the war, at least the user's collection will still
be playable, if only in standard definition, on the winning format's
Another obvious solution would be for manufacturers
to initially make dual-format players, as Samsung and LG Electronics
have said they will do, but how attractive these will be in terms
of cost, remains to be seen. Nonetheless, high definition is coming,
so we must prepare ourselves to be able to enjoy it, whether it
comes via the airwaves, through a cable, or on a disc.
Standard DVD uses red laser technology with
a wavelength of 650nm. It is available in a single-sided, single
layer version with a capacity of 4.7GB, or in a single-sided dual-layer
version with a capacity of 8.5GB. These hold 132 minutes and 238
minutes of standard definition material respectively, using MPEG-2
30GB HD DVD disc
HD DVD uses blue-violet laser technology,
with a shorter wavelength of 405nm. This means that although its
disc size is the same as DVD, its more precise laser allows data
to be packed more densely. Its single-sided dual-layer version has
a capacity up to 30GB supporting over 8 hours of high-definition
material. It supports a number of codecs including MPEG-2 enhanced
for HD, MPEG-4 AVC - part of the MPEG-4 standard also known as H.264,
and SMPTE VC-1 based on Microsoft Windows Media Video (WMV) technology.
50GB Blu-ray disc
Blu-ray Disc also uses blue laser technology,
but packs the data even more densely than HD DVD. Its single-sided
dual-layer version has a capacity up to 50GB, supporting over 9
hours of high-definition material. It also supports the same codecs
as HD DVD.
The difference between blue and red laser widths
The difference in pit size and track pitch between red and blue
There are other high-definition formats being
put forward. HD DVD-9, proposed by Warner Brothers, uses standard
red laser DVD technology, but with new compression methods. This
means that it can be launched sooner as current production facilities
can be used and the changes in the way DVD players work are minimal.
EVD, proposed by DVD manufacturers in China, also uses new compression
methods with standard red laser DVDs, and uses high-level VP6 compression
to store 2 hours of HD material on a disc. VMD (Versatile Multilayer
Disc) is another high-definition red laser format, recently launched
by New Medium Enterprises.
These new additions may not have as high
a profile as HD DVD and Blu-ray, but they do make it possible to
produce HD content on DVD quickly and cheaply. Their introduction
also means that it may not be a straight HD DVD versus Blu-ray fight
in some territories.
The advantage of HD DVD from the manufacturer's
point of view is that they can use the same manufacturing infrastructure
as for current DVDs, which keeps disc production costs down. Its
drawback is that it is only proposed by two manufacturers, namely
NEC and Toshiba.
The advantage of Blu-ray is its higher storage
capacity and the fact that it is proposed by a greater number of
electronics companies, namely Hitachi, LG Electronics Matsushita,
Pioneer, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony and Thomson. Its drawback
is that is requires the expense of a new manufacturing process.
While HD DVD and Blu-ray support a number
of codecs, the actual coding used will depend on the individual
film studios who provide the content (or software). Indeed it is
said that companies which hold copyrights to large numbers of videos,
i.e. US motion picture companies, will be the deciding factor in
which system wins in the end. HD DVD is backed by New Line Cinema,
HBO, Paramount, Warner, and Universal Pictures. Microsoft has also
added its support to HD-DVD. Paramount and Warner back Blu-ray too,
as do Twentieth Century Fox, Walt Disney Studios, MGM, and of course
all Sony-owned studios such as Sony Pictures, Disney, MGM and Columbia
TriStar. Apple Computer has also announced support for Blu-ray.
One of the issues that most concerns film
studios is piracy. To address this, a group of companies from the
industry, namely Disney, Intel, Microsoft, Matsushita, Warner Brothers,
IBM, Toshiba, and Sony, developed the Advanced Access Content System
(AACS). This is a specification for managing content stored on the
next generation of pre-recorded and recordable optical media for
consumer use with PCs and consumer electronics devices, to which
Blu-ray and HD DVD are signed up. In the digital domain, all AACS-licensed
optical disc players will connect to other devices, including the
screen, via HDMI or DVI/HDCP connectors with in-built copy protection.
Not all devices, including many existing
LCD and plasma flatscreens, support these connectors, and therefore
need analogue output from the disc player. The portion of AACS which
deals with analogue output is called the Image Constraint Token
(ICT) flag. This forces the picture to downscale to a maximum of
a quarter of the highest quality HD. While this resolution may be
adequate for entry-level flatscreen TVs, it is hardly what you would
expect on your 720p or 1080i/1080p screen that only has component
video or analogue RGB inputs.
Given the ensuing outcry, the studios have
changed their mind. Sony recently stated that it will not use the
ICT flag in its Blu-ray movies, followed by similar announcements
by Universal, Paramount, Disney and Twentieth Century Fox. Some
suspect that this might only be a temporary measure to give the
next generation of disc players a boost before the studios start
including the ICT flag in their releases again. The only major studio
with plans to use the flag initially is Warner Brothers.
If the flag is included, the hardware is
obliged to deal with it, but this will all eventually be academic
as high-definition disc players must offer no analogue outputs at
all by 2013 according to the AACS.
The first HD DVD player was recently launched
by Toshiba in Japan, retailing at around US$500. Sony, Samsung and
Pioneer are expected to release their Blu-ray products this summer
in the US, while Panasonic's Blu-ray product is due in the autumn.
Sharp and Philips have also made Blu-ray announcements.
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD
Such products are expected to offer additional
attractive features. Some, such as the Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD and
the Samsung BD-P1000, will be able to playback CD. Indeed the BD-P1000,
with an expected US$999 retail price, will provide native 1080p
output via HDMI, and up to 1080p upconversion of conventional DVDs
via HDMI. The Pioneer BDP-HD1 is expected to retail for around US$1800
and features 1080i/1080p upconversion, home networking, and standard
definition analogue outputs.
PC manufacturers such as Hewlett Packard
intend to sell both HD DVD and Blu-ray drives, while Dell plans
to support only Blu-ray. Not surprisingly, the Sony PlayStation
3, due for release late 2006, will include a Blu-ray drive, while
the Microsoft Xbox will offer an HD DVD drive as an option with
As far as rollout in Europe is concerned,
Matsushita, which sells its products under the Panasonic and JVC
brands, plans to launch Blu-ray players in the autumn, priced somewhere
between the Samsung and Pioneer products. Other players will no
doubt quickly follow.
High-definition disc promises to greatly
increase the enjoyment of video and stills, especially on larger
screens. While analogue output, in one form or another, is likely
to be included by all players initially, it would be worth checking
what types of output, i.e. component or composite, are provided.
For new installations, it makes sense to include HDMI cable runs
to accommodate output from HDTV receivers, HD disc players, and
any other devices that may support HD media, such as games consoles
The fact that a format war is taking place
however, is unsettling, and will do little to help the early adoption
of HD disc technology. The lesson should be learnt from the audio
industry. Having developed the audio equivalent of high-definition,
the market split into two camps; namely SACD and DVD-Audio. No one
likes uncertainty when it comes to the future of their manufacturing
business or of their music collection. The wider market held off,
and consumers opted for the most convenient and least risky investment
of all - we're all happily downloading MP3, even though its quality
is worse than CD! Similarly, if uncertainty in the HD disc market
continues, we may choose to stay with standard DVD and use upconversion
to make our large flatscreens look good, or we may choose to avoid
optical media altogether, and opt for a direct download approach.
Coincidentally as I write, news has just come in that Sony has launched
its download-to-own business - albeit in the US.
Yasmin Hashmi is Managing Editor of HiddenWires.
Blue-ray Disc Association www.blu-raydisc.com
HD DVD Promotion Group www.hddvdprg.com