Why HD DVD is more technically advanced than Blu-ray

Since forever it seems that there is this idea that Blu-ray is "more technically advanced" than HD DVD. This was based on Sony's PR as far as I can tell, so now I feel it is necessary to call out the gaping holes in Blu-ray to prove how much more technically advanced HD DVD is in fact. [Note I am talking about Blu-ray Movies here, not the older, incompatible data-only format].

There is of course one way where BD is more advanced: disc capacity. 50G BD discs can now be made, and a few movies are using these (though for no good reason: the extra capacity isn't being used for anything terribly useful, its just wasted with uncompressed audio, or two copies of the movie, or huge bitrate MPEG2 video. Ug).

BD Missing Features

What many folks don't realize is that there are different Levels for BD, and all of today's BD players only support the lowest level (1.0). This means that these players do not support these features:

  • Advanced audio codecs (Dolby Digital Plus, DTS Master Audio, DD TrueHD) [a few players offering a smattering of support here but it isn't mandatory]
  • Network hardware
  • Secondary video decoder
  • Persistant storage
  • Reliable interactivity

Why are these good features?

Advanced audio codecs get you kick-ass sound, but without wasting all your disc space doing it (like PCM does). I mean you could in theory rip your CDs to uncompressed WAV files, but who does? You use a lossless format if you have the space or demand maximum audio quality, or a lossy format to save space. BD doesn't have those choices: audio is either DVD-quality DTS/DD or WAV-equivalent files.

Network hardware is very handy for firmware updates. However very soon the first network-aware HD DVD titles will be released (starting with Blood Diamond), and we'll start to see the potential this adds to the high definition experience.

A secondary video decoder allows for two simultanous video streams, i.e. Picture in Picture. This has been often used on HD DVD titles for Directors Commentaries that you can actually watch the director (and how scenes were shot etc) at the same time as the movie itself. Elephants Dream uses it to show the difference between HD and SD side-by-side.

Persistant storage allows titles to save information in the player, and the most common usage right now is Bookmarks. I find this great for recording those classic demo scenes to show off the format (e.g. King Kong meeting the Dinos). It can also be used to remember user preferences (e.g. language choice). With networking, a whole lot more use can be made of it in the near future.

Reliable interactivity means a lot: it means nice menus; it means PIP; it means games; Blu-ray's interactivity is Java-based (BD-J) and is simply not up to the task: try running the Disney title Gauntlet on the Samsung player for example: there is a great video on YouTube of how embarassingly bad BD-J is. "Chicken Little" is another deeply inconsistent and flaky BD-J title, though it appears to work on the PS3 at least. As it should: the PS3 has way more horsepower than any stand-alone player, and is probably the only current player that stands a chance of being software upgradable to Level 1.1 and maybe beyond.

All of these features are mandatory for HD DVD players. As every player has them, title authors can confidently use them on their discs and know they will work for everyone.

The BD folks have often talked about "Level 1.1" and "Level 2 Players" which have these features, and that they would be coming in July 2007. However that date recently got moved back to October 2007, and note that this is the date for new players to be released: titles that use these new features will be later still, plus the old players will still be available for sale. This also assumes that title creators will be willing to put in the time to add Level 1.1 or 2 features, despite the fact that most of the user base won't be able to use them for an unknown amount of time. BD-Live, which is BD's networking support, remains an optional feature even on the October-timeframe players.

The PS3 Factor

It is my personal opinion that without the PS3, Blu-ray would have died by now. With almost every BD player costing over a grand and selling in low volumes, BD support would have collapsed had the PS3 not come along at a low-ish price point and offering the best BD performance. If the PS3 remains the only mass-market BD player, is that enough to keep BD going? (UMD anyone?)

Player Support

Ah but the BD folks say, there's all those BD player manufacturers. Samsung, Pioneer and Panasonic are it right now (the other players are ODMed versions of those). BD players are still strangely expensive (considering they have less hardware in them than HD DVD players: no ethernet, no storage, no secondary video decoder etc). Pioneer just proudly announced a "next generation BD player" which is exactly the same as the original one, except it has TrueHD and DTS-HD audio support and a cheaper price: features HD DVD has had from the get-go. Still no networking, PIP, Level 1.1 etc.

Studio Support

Here BD does have a theoretical advantage right now. However Fox don't seem terribly interested in actually releasing very much, and Disney who have a great back catalog don't seem to be doing as much as you might expect: Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean are coming soon, but still no classic Disney movies on the horizon. Why not? Also some studios who support both formats choose not to release some titles at all on Blu-ray as it cannot handle them (e.g. Batman Begins, Matrix Trilogy, Constantine) or they release the Blu-ray version with dumbed down features compared to HD DVD (e.g. Blood Diamond, V for Vendetta). For the titles that are ostensibly the same on both formats, the HD DVD version still offers features Blu-ray can't, like bookmarks, zoom, TrueHD audio and Tivo-style time bar. Despite the theoretical studio difference, the total number of available titles on both formats worldwide is almost identical.

Conclusion

HD DVD is clearly the more technically advanced format. It has had features for over a year now that BD still doesn't have, and isn't likely to have anytime soon. Time to call FUD on BD's "technical advantages". As the old adage says, size is not everything...