HD DVD: Blu-ray Has Problems

Having finished speaking to Blu-ray, BetaNews sat down with a representative from HD DVD to discuss how the Microsoft-backed format will compete with Blu-ray. Toshiba HD DVD expert Mark Knox gave a thorough explanation of the optical disc drive technology, and said that because of Blu-ray's complicated design, HD DVD will triumph in the format war.

Blu-ray's difficulties, Knox explained, begin with the technology itself, and the idea that its 50GB dual-layer capacity is superior to HD DVD's 30GB. Through the use of better codec technology, such space is not actually needed for high-definition movies. In fact, Blu-ray admitted to BetaNews that most discs won't go beyond the 25GB mark.

Although both formats are being demoed at the show, there has been much speculation about production problems in the Blu-ray camp. Knox confirmed the rumors, and said the problem involves Blu-ray's numerical aperture. In order to store more data on a disc, the laser is bent into a cone shape.

The aperture setting on standard DVD is 0.6, with the setting for HD DVD a slightly smaller 0.65. The additional capacity is provided by the blue laser technology. However, in order to store a full 25GB per layer, Blu-ray has adopted a 0.85 aperture, meaning the divots on the optical layer are smaller and more prone to error.

Additionally, the smaller aperture requires a thinner disc and smaller layer spacing, which makes the medium more vulnerable. Initially, Blu-ray was designed with an external cartridge to protect the disc. But now, the group is utilizing a special protective coating that has not yet been finalized due to disagreements.

Given HD DVD's design, the requirements are similar to standard DVDs, which has eliminated manufacturing problems. Knox said that Blu-ray could see a much higher production flaw rate, as the equipment has minimal room for error during both the medium and content manufacturing, as well as the reading of discs by Blu-ray players.

Additionally, Knox refuted claims that Blu-ray's use of Java for its menu system and interactive features will make development easier. He explained that Blu-ray is actually using an imported specification from Europe named JEM. Due to JEM's large number of instructions, it will be nearly impossible for hardware manufacturers to ensure devices will function under any circumstance.

Knox said that HD DVD can verify that every disc will play on every player, as its iHD specification is DHTML-based rather than built with Java. This also means reduced production time for studios and firms developing the HD content. Hewlett-Packard recently asked Blu-ray to adopt iHD, but the group balked at the demand.

Regarding the notion of limited content in the HD DVD format, BetaNews was told that while HD DVD does not have the number of studios its rival touts, the Blu-ray Disc Association simply wanted "as many logos as possible on their PowerPoint slide."

Knox highlighted the fact that of the American Film Institute's Top 100 movies, more than 60 were from studios supporting the HD DVD format, and a majority of the major-grossing films of the last three years were from those same studios. HD DVD has focused on quality, not quantity, Knox said.

HD DVD recently signed foreign and independent studios, including European filmmaker Studio Canal. By the end of 2006 HD DVD will have roughly 200 titles available, more than Blu-ray has announced thus far.

Another problem plaguing Blu-ray development is a requirement placed on the organization when it signed a deal with Fox Studios. Fox had demanded that high-definition DVDs utilize a stricter copy-protection format than AACS, which is employed by both Blu-ray and HD DVD. While HD DVD rejected the demand, Blu-ray conceded.

Knox said Fox was unhappy with the decision to let consumers watch movies where they please using Mandatory Managed Copy. Managed Copy has become a contentious point in the next-generation DVD battle, with HP demanding that Blu-ray require the technology on all discs. However, as Fox's proprietary DRM will run after AACS, the studio could theoretically restrict such portability.

This proprietary format is also rumored to have delayed the PlayStation 3, which will include a Blu-ray drive for the masses. Pioneer is set to launch a $1,800 Blu-ray player in May.

HD DVD, meanwhile, is launching its first players in March. Toshiba will bring two models to market with price points of $499 and $799 USD. The high-end model will feature improved output connections for home theater aficionados who have componentized systems.

For the average consumer, with surround sound systems "from a box," the $499 HD DVD player will be sufficient, Knox said. Consumers will see the $499 models in stores such as Best Buy, while the $799 player will be available through specialty retailers where home theater buffs can additionally purchase high-end audio systems.

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