Friday, April 11, 2008

Where will HD Go? Nobody Knows

In Which I Talk About How Great HD is While I Complain About What's Wrong with Every HD Format That Crosses My Mind

As someone who was never particularly impressed with the digital projection craze or HD movie productions, I didn't expect to be blown away by either of the competing HD media formats. But when I saw "2001: A Space Odyssey" on HD DVD, I bought into it quicker than George Lucas would pay for a digital whore (that he made for himself at ILM, of course).

The leap in home video quality is revelatory. While I'd love to watch every movie I see in its original film format, that's a pipe dream. Given the sorry state of repertory films in all but a few cities in this nation, most film lovers have no method outside of the home to view classics or undiscovered gems that were released more than a year ago. I jumped at the prospect of watching films at home with some of their detail and color accuracy restored.

Of course, I backed the wrong horse and picked up an inexpensive HD DVD player because it was clearly the more consumer-friendly format, and presented more opportunities to indie filmmakers and studios. (Short filmmakers, for example, could author HD transfers of their films onto a regular DVD or DVD+/+DL/-R for HD DVD playback. Think of the low production costs for "Cops" or "Un Chien Andalou" in HD, damn it!)

I misjudged the amount of money Sony was willing to pour into this war—especially for Warner Bros. exclusivity. As it happens, I'm still happy with the purchase—I have a great up-convertor for my regular DVDs and don't plan to invest in any of the remaining HD solutions until they come down in price and/or prove themselves the dominant format. And I somehow wound up with nearly 50 HD DVDs and a $50 gift certificate by spending less than I would have for a Blu-ray player.

With Blu-ray Disc as the remaining optical-disc medium, we now have a herd of HD options that aren't particularly conducive to consumer adoption. While I hope that one will win out, ensuring more and more HD transfers and releases, it's possible that none will, and that BD will exist only as a niche format. The Super Audio CD offered better sound than CDs, but most music-listeners were too busy ripping and downloading lower-than-CD-quality mp3s to notice. And while more and more people have been investing in HDTVs, they've more likely grabbed a cheap up-converter than a Blu-ray or HD DVD machine. So it's really anyone's game.


Buried amongst Blu-ray Disc's pain-in-the-ass DRM, region coding, in-fighting, and inconsistent and unfinished specs is the best picture and sound quality of any HD option still standing. Blu-ray also shares its size and dimensions with DVD, making the discs familiar and the players hospitable for old (or new) DVDs. (When the war was still being waged, Sony execs said that people should just by regular DVDs of the HD DVD studios' films and up-convert with their BD player.)

Now that Sony has won the war, it needs to launch an assault on DVD, but Sony actually raised one of its player's since HD DVD's demise. If the players weren't so damn expensive, they might appeal to the folks who are buying up-converters for a quarter to an eighth of the price.

People forget that the DVD didn't kill VHS with only its picture quality and loads of versatile features. It offered the new, superior movie experience for a fraction of the price people were paying for VHS tapes or Laserdiscs. If studio execs think they would have sold nearly as many catalogue movies and TV shows at two to four times the price, they are sadly delusional.

There are plenty of early adopters who are willing to pay premiums, but those adopters can only make Blu-ray a niche format. Certain people, like those who owned laserdiscs (I still have mine), are willing to pay a premium to watch films in the best quality available for their home theaters, but others want to play the movies they own in many different places.

The majority of consumers (including those who own BD and/or HD DVD players) still purchase DVDs with gleeful disregard of their inferior picture quality. You have to wonder how many movies most people will add to their Blu-ray collections. Even if everybody decided to get a BD player, they'd probably only get one, to use in their nice home theater setup (yes, I know that not everybody has a "nice home theater setup"). It'd be pointless on the small TV in their car, overkill for the bedroom, too costly for the kids' playroom. So they're still going to have DVD players around the house. That means that every time they buy a movie, they'll have to decide whether to purchase a DVD that they can play anywhere, or a BD that they can play in one room.

A lot of people ragged on the HD DVD combo format, which included DVD on one side and HD DVD on the other, but I experienced its usefulness multiple times when I lent friends the combo discs of "Knocked Up" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Maybe now that HD-DVD is dead, Blu-ray can reach an agreement that allows for a combo disc format.

The longer it takes Sony and its Blu-ray pals to make their format cheap and flexible, the more time they give other options to come in and take their place. Luckily for them, the most threatening option isn't as close as we think.

Many have predicted that Blu-ray will soon die out to downloaded content, but this assumption jumps the gun and overlooks key factors. First of all, we who use the Internet nonstop sometimes forget that there are many among us who do not. When a blizzard hindered the Utah Film Critics Association's awards voting, I tried to setup a chat group via AIM and iChat, only to learn that several of my colleagues had only slow dial-up connections at home and had no idea how to do anything but check their email. (I hope my colleagues appreciate that I didn't go for the easy addition of "and look up porn" to that joke. Just for you, guys. Just for you.)

So let's not get carried away about how quickly downloadable movies will catch on. While popular amongst its users, Xbox Live, like Blu-ray, feels too tied to its videogame system to reach success amongst the masses. Even the best device for this type of thing, Apple TV, comes with several negatives.

As I wrote when it first came out, Apple TV does what it does incredibly well, yet lacks the consumer appeal of the iPod. There's no reason that Apple's normal strategy of implementing a few key features amazingly well shouldn't work for the Apple TV, except that most people can't easily use the device to play any digital video that they want—not true for their iPods in regards to their music collection.

In my case, I'd be on Apple TV in a second if I could actually use it to watch all the movies I want to watch. But it can't play all the formats Quicktime can, and the iTunes store doesn't have the movies I want to watch. I do much better with an HD DVR and channels like World Cinema HD.

Consumers can't rip their DVDs through iTunes due to DRM and the laws that protect it, (Downloadable programs like Handbrake won't crossover to the mainstream.) And even if they could, most of us don't have the hard disc space to make it work.

When the Blu-ray and HD DVD of "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" came out, several reviews complained about the image quality, and how the transfer was on a single-layer Blu-ray Disc, meaning it's less than 25 GB.

How about a moment of thought.

How much free space do you have on your hard drive right now? An Apple TV comes with a 40GB hard drive or a 160 GB hard drive. Gee, that gives us either two or eight movies at sub-BD quality. Those who just rent anyway might not mind, except for the selection factor I mentioned earlier.

Given the Apple TV's fantastic design, it could become a hit if only Apple could come up with a reason people should buy one. New implementations, such as ordering movies direct from the Apple TV device, are an improvement. But as John Gruber pointed out, 24 hours is too short a window to start and finish their movie. And I'd like to feel like I'm not just buying the device so I can go spend money at the iTunes music store.

Apple isn't even going for the super-HD crowd, using 720p as Apple TV's native output. This strategy may prove a cost-effective way to keep prices down, especially when many can't see the difference.

Video-On-Demand Cable
On-Demand may very well become a popular way for people to expand the use of their already installed cable receivers. But let's not hope for it to become the standard.

As iLounge found in their comparison of "Live Free or Die Hard" on four different formats, on-demand cable has a higher resolution than DVD, but also uses higher compression. The result is a more detailed picture when there isn't much motion, but increased compression artifacts during fast action. Unconverted DVD offered the better presentation of the film in many instances.

Just as important (for me, anyway), on-demand was the only service that didn't offer the film in its correct aspect ratio.

And in the particular case of "Live Free or Die Hard," what the fuck's up with the colors?

My prediction? Well, I'd like an Apple TV, but expect that I'll eventually end up with a Blu-ray player once they can be purchased for less than $200. But whichever format gets Buster Keaton's complete catalogue from 1920 to 1928 on HD first will have my support. (I'll even give you—I'm addressing the format, here—a break and let you leave off "The Saphead," if you must.)

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