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High-Definition Disc Technology - Where is the Market Going? (19/4/2006)

By 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 players.

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.

The technology

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 encoding.


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 lasers

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 politics

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.

Copy protection

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.


HDMI cable

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.

Rollout

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 the console.

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.

Conclusion

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 and PCs.

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


 
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