David Pogue-the pointless DVD format war
May 11, 2006
Why the World Doesn't Need Hi-Def DVD's
WHEN did you first become cynical about the electronics industry?
Was it when VHS went out of style, and you had to buy all your movies again on DVD? Was it the time(s) you never got the rebate you mailed away for? Or was it when your computer's 90-day warranty expired, and the thing croaked two days later?
Doesn't matter. As it turns out, you didn't even know the meaning of the word cynical. This month, Toshiba's HD-A1 high-definition DVD player hit store shelves. It's the first marketplace volley in an absurd and pointless format war among the titans of the movie, electronics and computer industries.
Just contemplating the rise of a new DVD format is enough to make you feel played. What's wrong with the original DVD format, anyway? It offers brilliant picture, thundering surround sound and bonus material. The catalog of DVD movies is immense and reasonably priced. And DVD players are so cheap, they practically fall out of magazines; 82 percent of American homes have at least one DVD player.
To electronics executives, all of this can mean only one thing: It's time to junk that format and start over.
Of course, the executives don't explain this decision by saying, "Because we've saturated the market for regular DVD players."
Instead, they talk about video and picture quality. A DVD picture offers much better color and clarity than regular TV, but not as good as high-definition TV. The new discs hold far more information, enough to display Hollywood's masterpieces in true high definition (if you have a high-definition TV, of course).
UNFORTUNATELY, this idea occurred simultaneously to both Sony and Toshiba. Each dreamed up its own format for a high-def DVD. Each then assembled an army of partners. Toshiba's format, called HD-DVD, has attracted Microsoft, Sanyo, NEC and movie studios like New Line and Universal. Sony's format, called Blu-ray, has in its camp Apple, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Pioneer, Dell and movie studios like Sony, 20th Century Fox and Disney. (Some companies, like HP, LG, Warner Brothers and Paramount, intend to create products for both formats.)
The new DVD players will play standard DVD's, but that's as far as the compatibility good news goes. Movies in Toshiba's format won't play in DVD players from Sony's side, and vice versa.
At first, pundits guessed that Sony's Blu-ray format might win, because it had signed up so many more movie studios, its discs have greater capacity, and the PlayStation 3, expected to top best-seller lists this fall, will double as a Blu-ray player.
But Toshiba has two aces up its sleeve. First, its first HD-DVD player is available now, giving it a head start; Blu-ray players aren't expected until the end of June. Second, this new player, the HD-A1, costs $500 — half the price of the cheapest Blu-ray deck.
The HD-A1 is a pretty big box: 17.7 by 13.3 by 4.3 inches, more like an early VCR than a sleek modern DVD player.
The $500 isn't the only price you pay for being an insanely early adopter; this baby is slow — really slow. It takes over a minute just to turn on; menus are sometimes slow to respond; and a newly inserted DVD takes 45 seconds just to get to the F.B.I. warning. (And no, even the brave new DVD format doesn't let you skip over that tiresome warning.)
The remote is a disaster; its buttons are identically shaped and illogically placed. Not only are they not illuminated, but their labels are painted on faintly and in what must be 4-point type. (A sibling model, the HD-XA1, adds minor goodies like a backlit remote — for $300 more.)
Finally, though, the movie begins — and your shield of cynicism begins to waver. As you watch the brilliant colors, super-black blacks and ridiculously sharp detail — up to six times the resolution of a standard DVD — you realize that you've never seen anything quite this cinematic-looking in your home before.
Even high-definition TV doesn't look this good; the amount of information HD-DVD pumps to your screen dwarfs what you get from high-def satellite or cable (36 megabits a second maximum, versus 19 or less).
You need a big screen to benefit from all this picture data, however. The impact of the extra detail begins to evaporate at screen sizes below, say, 35 inches.
Even on a small screen, though, you don't have to interrupt the movie to open the DVD menu (to get access to settings and extras); on a high-def DVD, the menu appears at the bottom or side of the screen as the movie continues to play.
That feature makes it quick and easy to turn on subtitles during a mumbled scene, for example, or to tune in the director's commentary track without losing your place. I watched six beautifully made HD-DVD movies from Warner and Universal, including the gut-churning "Training Day" and a spectacular "Apollo 13." (It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it.) I quickly concluded that the new on-screen menu system makes the old DVD-menu system look confusing and crude in comparison.
The new DVD generation is supposed to offer several other sophisticated features. For example, director and actor commentaries can now include video, not just audio (the director appears in a small picture-in-picture window). Similarly, the A1's built-in Ethernet jack is supposed to let you connect to the Internet for interactive features.
No movies in the first wave include any of these goodies, however. (Shades of the Camera Angle feature that was supposed to be available on movies in the original DVD format? You decide.)
On the videophile blogs, you can find several cautionary notes regarding the HD-A1's audio and video signal outputs — details that will cause average people's eyes to glaze over, but may alarm high-end movie buffs.
For example, don't buy this player if you're hoping to future-proof your home theater. As any geek can tell you, HDTV comes in several degrees of resolution: 720p, 1080i and 1080p. Weirdly, the Toshiba can't send out 1080p, which is the holy grail. (To be sure, this standard is still rare among TV sets, but it's the wave of the future.)
You should know, too, that you're guaranteed the sensational high-resolution HD-DVD picture only if your TV set has an HDMI connector (a slim, recently developed, all-digital jack that carries both sound and picture). If you use S-video or component cables instead, you may see only 25 percent of the resolution you're supposed to get — a maddening antipiracy feature that the studios can invoke at their option. (Most studios have said that they won't "down-res" those jacks, at least at first; they can begin doing so at any time, however.)
The fine print also includes cautions that the A1 contains a fan (though it's mercifully quiet), that your TV may require tweaking to tame the more intense HD-DVD colors, and that the DVD extras are not, generally speaking, in high definition.
Over all, though, the A1 does deliver the spectacular picture and sound promised by Toshiba. Should you buy one, then?
Not unless you're an early-adopter masochist with money to burn.
Reason 1: The average person can see the difference in picture quality, but only on a big, high-def screen, preferably side by side with a standard DVD signal. The leap forward is nowhere as great as it was from, say, VHS to DVD.
Reason 2: For a brand-new technology, the A1 is a reasonably priced razor — but it's got a serious blade shortage. Only 20 will be available by the end of this month, priced at $20 to $40, and only a couple of hundred are expected by year's end. (Tens of thousands are available in the traditional DVD format.)
Reason 3 (and this is the big one): You could be placing a very big bet on the wrong horse.
In fact, this might even be a race that neither horse wins; the public may well decide that regular DVD's are just fine as they are. (Remember SACD and DVD-Audio, two rival "high-definition audio" formats that also required new players and new discs? Didn't think so. Both are well on their way to the great eBay in the sky.)
You, and everyone else, have everything to gain by waiting until prices fall, the movie catalog grows and a single standard emerges. After all, how will you feel if you buy a player and a bunch of movies — and the one you picked turns out to be the Betamax of the new millennium?
Probably more cynical than ever.
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