Tuesday, June 05, 2007

We Don't Need Another Hero (for a few years, anyway)

Thanks to Moviezzz for motivating me to get going on a long-overdue HD-DVD/Blu-Ray post. Moviezzz speculated on a big development in the ongoing format war: Toshiba's new HD-A2 player, which can be found for as low as $249 at Amazon. My first DVD player cost more than that, yet I'm still confident that I will wait another two years before upgrading to next-generation HD. But before you send me to Deborah Harry's Cathode Ray Mission from Videodrome consider that I fit into the ideal next-gen DVD demographic -- that is, I own an HDTV. I prefer to see my world with more than 700 lines of resolution, but I'm perfectly content in where I stand in today's digital film medium.

Before we debate the merits of each format, let us first appreciate the current state of DVD. Of all DVDs sold, next generation discs make up a little over 1 percent of the sales -- so if there's going to be a format dying out soon, it won't be DVD. Home movie watchers, and the home movie industry has never had it this good: DVDs fly off shelves at such an alarming rate that they have contributed to the decline of movie rental chains (consumers never bought VHS at an anywhere near the pace of DVDs), we can have movies delivered to our mailbox overnight or right on to our computer. Consumers now expect DVDs to be loaded with extras, and when there is a problem, it usually gets addressed sooner or later (after years of patience, we're finally getting a proper RoboCop DVD). Best of all, the fervent demand and competition between retailers has made DVDs a better value (in cost vs. quality) than VHS ever was.

Life is indeed good for the DVD public, which makes it hard for me to understand how to be a next-gen format consumer. Even though the product is impressive, it's nothing like moving from cassettes to compact discs or VHS to DVD. In both of those instances, the new technology was so radically superior that it made it hard to justify ever buying the old-n-busted medium again. Not only were you going to buy the new releases as CDs and DVDs, but you were going to replace your previous collection with the new digital format. With HD/Blu-Ray it's not that simple -- is there any reason I need to get rid of my Citizen Kane DVD or Simpsons season sets in favor of the next generation? How much better could they look, and wouldn't I rather spend that money on something else? It seems that in five years, just about everyone will have regular DVDs sitting on their shelf along with the new format, and doesn't that make it a little less urgent to upgrade?

The manufacturers themselves are making it easier for me to wait, since the available software seems far away from tapping the technology's true potential. With Blu-Ray in particular, early discs barely offered any performance upgrade over normal DVDs -- and certainly not enough quality to justify a player price twice that of HD-DVD. In some instances, the HD/Blu-Ray version lacks the extras found in the standard release (King Kong, despite an MSRP of $40, comes nearly extra-free). In both high-def formats, video quality fluctuates wildly (with Blu-Ray versions of The Fifth Element and House of Flying Daggers being the most glaring examples), this happened in the early days of DVD as well, but it's particularly disheartening when the movies in question would conceivably be benchmarks for quality.

This is not to say that I will never upgrade to a next-gen format -- I will, just not for awhile. Much of that has to do with manufacturers mastering the technology, but also with the format war. The affordable HD-A2 shows there will be a day when high definition players will be sold at affordable prices, but what format will be sold? Though Blu-Ray has the lead in player and disc sales (inflated because of the PlayStation 3's sales numbers), I've always seen HD-DVD as the eventual winner. Part of this comes with my confidence in Toshiba -- every television and DVD player I have bought has been Toshiba, and I have never had a problem with any of them. Toshiba also has a history of pricing its electronics lower than Sony's, without a dip in quality. Sony's format history is obviously more checkered, beginning with of course with BetaMax, but also spreading to the MiniDisc, the troubled PlayStation Portable (still outsold by GameBoy Advance), and the soon-to-be disastrous PS3 (also outsold by GameBoy Advance, and by Nintendo's Wii at a 5:1 ratio in May). It was said before the PS3's launch that Sony may have been betting its future on the game system, so the product's lack of success has to be disconcerting in regards to Blu-Ray's future.

I think consumers are lenient to choose any side in the format war, and that will extend DVD's lifespan even further. Whatever format I'm watching in 1080p a few years from now, I'm confident that most of my standard DVDs will still be on my shelf and in regular rotation through my player.


TALKING MOVIEzzz said...

Great post. I think the main people excited about the new technology are the DVD companies, who want to try and resell product once again. DVD sales have leveled off, and they want something to excite the public again. I guess we aren't all that excited.

From what I've heard, those with HDTV and the new players LOVE the way they look. But then again, they might have to say that, to justify the cost.

But my main problem is just the price issue. I can't imagine the quality of the next gen DVD being worth twice the price of standard def. Especially when they often don't include all the same extras.

Adam Ross said...

If you don't have an HDTV, there's almost no reason to buy HD/BluRay because they'll be played in the same resolution as normal DVDs. You're right about the DVD companies, high def is the perfect medicine to their problems since almost everything has been released on DVD.

OregonWild said...

Some time ago on Boing Boing, I read about the DRM and tracking technology built-in to these hi-def players. Is it true that to output a true HD signal, your player must have access to the internet so that it can be constantly "upgraded" to the new (and pointless) code key, otherwise it will simply play standard DVD def? - So if you lose your internet, or want to set-up a player in the boonies at your cabin getaway - too bad?

Additionally, if I read this correctly, this technology allows the companies to eventually track how players are used, what is played and so forth. I personally have always hated this kind of consumer tracking (despite claims that it is designed to improve the customer's experience - reason #1 that I don't get grocery "club cards")

Personally, my current standard DVD's look and sound great on my HD lcd. While the playback is capable of playing higher-def, when a system is properly set-up, it can truly look terrific (I have seen so many DVD players hooked up the rca jacks, or co-ax inputs on HD tv's that look like crap).

I personally have no plan to currently upgrade - and imagine in a few years that we will be wired enough to purchase HD movie files off the internet, or suing some other killer technology that is currently still percolating.


Adam Ross said...

I haven't heard about any of that tracking technology, but I know that the PS3 needs occasional firmware updates to use its true potential.

And believe me, if you have an LCD HD, next gen DVDs will look incredible on it, even better than most high def television, since most TV signals come across in 720p, not 1080p. It's a huge difference, but the available technology and software is so lacking that there's no urgency to upgrade just yet.