Discs in high definition: Blu-Ray v. HD-DVD

July 17, 2007

Well, once you have your nifty HDTV, you’re going to want to watch HD content, right?

I touched on the subject of cable/satellite/over-the-air TV sources in a previous note, but I am frequently asked about high-definition disc formats (usually — and somewhat incorrectly — referred to as “HD DVD”).  So here we go.

Before you pick a format, you need to make sure you really do have a TV that’s going to work with the disc players.  That’s because both formats may require your TV to support something called HDCP. 

(Small warning: slight technobabble to follow.)

HDCP is an encryption protocol used by display devices and set-top boxes/players.  What does that mean in English?  It means that movie studios and other content producers don’t want you to be able to make a perfect digital copy of a movie or TV show in HD.  So…when you connect, say, a Blu-Ray player to an HDTV with an HDMI cable, the TV and the Blu-Ray player “talk” to each other.  The TV, using this HDCP “language,” tells the player that it (the TV) is a proper TV and that it’s perfectly OK for the player to start playing in full HD resolution.  (This is an oversimplification, but you get the idea.)

Early HDTVs and HD monitors did not come with this HDCP capability.  Now, it’s important to understand that the HD-DVD or Blu-Ray discs have to tell the player, “You need to get this HDCP thing going or else don’t put out HD video!”  So far, that’s NOT happening — in other words, you don’t need HDCP.  Yet.  Still, the studios could start doing this at any time.  (And the player is perfectly willing to put out non-HD video no matter what, but so will your current DVD player!)  Does your TV support HDCP?  Maybe.  If it has HDMI interfaces, then you’re fine: HDMI interfaces are required to support HDCP.  If it has a DVI interface, then maybe — some do and some do not.  Check your manual, or the website for the manufacturer of your TV.

OK, so now that you’ve checked your TV…what’s with the formats?  As you are probably aware, there are two different formats.  One is called HD-DVD and one is called Blu-Ray.  Let’s start off by listing what’s not different between the two:

  • Both play movies in glorious HD
  • Both also play normal DVDs, and even up-convert them (use special hardware to make the DVDs play in HD resolution — it’s not really HD, but it looks nice)
  • Neither will play the other — a Blu-Ray player won’t play an HD-DVD and an HD-DVD won’t play a Blu-Ray disc*

In terms of differences…well, nothing that really matters, technically.  Choosing one or the other likely won’t be a technical decision for anybody.  The big differences are studio support and game console support.  There is one movie studio that only supports HD-DVD: Universal.  There are five movie studios that only support Blu-Ray: Disney, Fox, MGM, Lionsgate, and Sony.  The rest (like Warners and Paramount) are supporting both for now.

What that means is there may be some movie, or TV show, that you really want but you can’t get because it’s only on the other format.

The other major difference is console support: the Sony Playstation3 is a fully-functioning Blu-Ray player, and you can add an HD-DVD drive to an Xbox 360.  But if you’re not a gamer, none of that matters.

For this reason, I’m still telling anyone who asks that the right choice is to wait.  But…if you really want to get one now, I think the winner is going to be Blu-Ray.  I’m not going to go into a huge monologue about why, especially since Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits does a better job than I would.

*LG and Samsung are coming out with dual-format players, but it looks like they’ll cost more than buying one of each.  Yeesh.


One Response to “Discs in high definition: Blu-Ray v. HD-DVD”

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