HD-DVD: High-Definition Digital Video Disc
Videocassette tapes (VHS) dominated the home video market up until the mid 1990’s when DVDs, a major medium upgrade, were introduced. DVDs, much like compact discs (CDs) with a greater data capacity, are capable of storing:
• A full-length high-resolution movie (133 minutes)
• The accompanying soundtrack and alternative soundtracks in other languages
• Subtitles in up to thirty-two languages
• Other content and information
Furthermore, DVDs provided other advantages over VHS:
• Better picture quality
• More advanced sound
• Compatibility with audio CDs
• The option to select wide screen or standard
• The ability to pause and zoom without distortion
• The freedom to skip scenes and/or chapters (Alleman).
However, a problem with the DVD was noticed when high-definition (HD) television sets started to become available in the late 1990s. The larger size of the TV screens on these new sets posed a great problem for DVDs since, due to their resolution standard (720x480 pixels), DVDs looked best (i.e., clearest, most vivid, and most focused) on smaller screens – usually screens no larger than 36 inches (Wilson).
In response to the problem the DVD was facing (i.e., poor image quality on HD TV sets), Toshiba manufactured and sold the first high-definition (HD) DVDs in the beginning of 2002. The product was developed to provide consumers with an affordable option to high-quality, high-definition content. Moreover, HD-DVDs were designed to prepare consumers for the ever-progressing digital convergence – the fusion of consumer electronics and information technology (Toshiba).
How It Worked
The HD-DVD shared many characteristics with the standard DVD. To begin, the HD-DVD disk was the same size and structure of the standard DVD – two 4.7 inch diameter, 0.02 inch thick discs bonded back-to-back to form a 0.04 inch thick disc. This was an advantage, as well as a large promotion factor, for the HD-DVD since it allowed manufacturers the ability to easily modify existing equipment to accommodate the production of the new discs (Williams).
Although very similar to the DVD, the HD-DVD incorporated a much-needed improvement for the ever-growing home theatre experience – the ability to hold more information (4 to 8 hours, approximately 30GB, compared to 2 hours, approximately 4.7GB). The HD-DVD's ability to hold more information was due to three main features:
• The use of 405-nanometer blue-violet lasers rather than 650-nanometer red lasers
• Smaller pits and closer together tracks
• More efficient compression to cut down the size of the stored files
The blue-violet laser of the HD-DVD had a shorter wavelength than the red laser of the DVD. Because of this, the blue-violet laser allowed the HD-DVD's pits to be smaller and closer together. This means that the size of the laser spot on the disc is much smaller and therefore capable of fitting more data in the same amount of space. An example of this is thinking of the “difference between writing with a magic marker and a fine-tipped pen” (Wilson).
HD-DVDs used MPEG-4 compression, a superior form of compression to that of the DVD’s MPEG-2. MPEG-4 compression allowed HD-DVDs to have both higher video quality (i.e., a resolution of up to 1125 lines of pixels from top to bottom, as opposed to 525 lines) while, at the same time, maintaining a much smaller file size (Wilson).
HD DVD Player – DVD Compatibility
Although HD-DVDs couldn’t be played in standard DVD players (only in HD-DVD players) standard DVDs could be played from an HD-DVD player. And, even though standard DVD’s didn’t have a high enough resolution to look good on large screen TVs, Toshiba’s HD-DVD player had the capability to automatically up-convert regular DVDs to accommodate 720- or 1080-line displays. Therefore, even though the converted picture didn’t have as high of a resolution as an HD-DVD it was still a superior picture to that from an analog signal from a standard DVD player (Wilson).
The Emergence of Blu-ray
When the market began to demand a new technology to follow the standard DVD several companies began to develop alternatives. For several years the two main competitors were HD-DVD (Toshiba) and Blu-Ray (Sony). However, as competition between the two companies increased there was an ever-growing struggle between the two formats. The main comparison points for the two formats were as follows:
• Both formats used blue-violet lasers
• Both formats used the same form of compression
• Blu-ray offers significantly more storage – 50 GB vs. 30 GB
• HD-DVD discs and players were less expensive than Blu-ray disks and players
• HD-DVD players were available to consumers in April 18, 2006 – two months before Blue-ray players (June 2006) (Wilson)
Consolidating High-Definition Formats in Retail and Rental Stores
It wasn’t cost-effective for companies to produce content in both formats, nor was it a sound business plan to provide room on retail shelves for both formats. Therefore, the media industry decided that it would be best to consolidate the high-definition industry into one format. For HD-DVD this meant there wasn’t going to be a competition between them and Blu-ray for much longer – only one of the formats was to survive (Belson).
State of the High-Definition Market After the Decision to Consolidate
Shortly after the decision to consolidate the high-definition market into one format was made, HD-DVD began to struggle:
• Blu-ray discs outsold HD-DVDs by a factor of two to one in the first half of 2007
• Blockbuster Video stores switched exclusively to the Blu-ray format for its high-definition movie selection during the summer of 2007
• Target announced it would stop carrying HD-DVD players and only reserve space for Blu-ray machines in their stores
Blu-ray outperformed Toshiba's HD-DVD format despite Blu-ray being more expensive. Blu-ray’s success was in its ability to store more information – more valuable to studios than a slightly lower cost (Wilson).
Warner Bros. Backs Blu-ray
A sudden shift to Blu-ray occurred in January 2008 when Warner Bros. announced it would be using the Blu-ray format exclusively. Warner Bros., up until this point, had been the only large studio producing movies in both the Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats. However, when the studio made the decision to only issue movies in Blu-ray it marked the beginning of the end for the HD-DVD.
This was because, at the time Warner Bros. began to back Blue-ray, only two studios were using the HD-DVD format: Universal and Paramount. However, Universal’s agreement with HD-DVD had just expired and Paramount had an escape clause – if Warner Bros. switched to Blu-ray, Paramount was allowed to switch to the alternate format as well (Hansell).
Wal-Mart Switches to Blu-ray
In early February of 2008 Wal-Mart, one of the last avid supporters for Toshiba’s HD-DVD format, announced that it would back Sony’s Blu-ray format – by June 2008 Wal-Mart would sell Blu-ray players and discs only. Since Wal-Mart is responsible for selling approximately 20 percent of all DVDs in the United States, their decision to abandon the HD-DVD format was the final blow to the HD-DVD. A few days later Toshiba announced that it would not continue to manufacture HD-DVDs (Hansell).
The competition between the two high-definition formats continued for over two years before finally coming to an end on February 19, 2008 when Toshiba officially conceded the format war to Blu-ray.
Many originally thought that HD-DVD would win as the dominant format, largely based on the fact that it was less expensive than Blue-ray, however, in the end, Blue-ray won out over HD-DVD due to its ability to store more information.
Toshiba stopped manufacturing HD-DVD players, discs and disc drives in March of 2008 (Toshiba).
What we’ve learned from the HD-DVD is that a successor doesn’t always outlive its descendant. The HD-DVD was created in order to improve on and succeed the standard DVD format, however the standard DVD continues to outlive and outperform the HD-DVD today. It’s important to understand this pattern when looking at the future of the video market.
Although Blu-ray seems like the obvious successor to the HD-DVD this may not be the case. In the ever-changing media environment a more important question may be – do we need high-definition disks at all? Or, even more radically, do we need discs (or physical entities) at all?
To answer the first question, the ability to “upconvert” standard DVD’s using standard DVD players (i.e., turn 480 lines of resolution into 1080 lines of resolution) allows viewers to see a picture close to high-definition quality. This ability almost entirely eliminates the need for high-definition discs and players – the only time a viewer would notice a difference between an “upconverted” image and a high-definition image would be on an enormous TV screen (Hansell).
In regards to the second question, an argument can be made against all physical entities/formats of movies in general. With quick movie downloads via the Internet (i.e., iTunes), companies like Comcast offering high-definition movie downloads on demand, Netflix offering over 12,000 movies and TV shows instantly via Roku, and the price of flash memory falling, it seems that movies, in the near future, will not be stored on discs but rather on hard drives or flash discs.
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