The Death of the Disc

Slate.com says that both the Blu-ray and HD-DVD are dead on arrival just because other technologies will replace the “disc-oriented” market. The author mentions the internet, cable HD DVRs, on-demand HD TV etc.

Well, here’s the thing. I have access to all that. And yet, I still feel compelled to buy the occasional DVD disc, because of the extras, the convenience and the physical aspect of the disc that mean security for my “possession”.

However, the author IS right to say that the Blu-ray and HD-DVD are dead on arrival. But for a different reason.

The reason is, the DVD is still good enough. It has great sound ability, and when it’s encoded the right way (e.g. the “Daredevil” has the best quality I have ever seen encoded on a DVD disc), its progressive NTSC 720×480 resolution (720×576 in PAL) is more than enough. Most people don’t have HDTVs yet, but even when they do get one, the DVD scales just fine on these TVs and it still looks superb.

Let me put it another way: the visual difference between VCR and DVD was way-way bigger than between DVD and HD. And this visual difference was profound and easily seen on the viewer’s existing TV sets, they did not have to buy a new TV to watch DVDs. Also, there were other technologies before that challenged the VCR, namely the laser-disk, VCD (352 x 288 in PAL) and SVCDs (480×576 in PAL). None of these formats killed the VCR, because while they had better quality, they were not *that* much better than it and they couldn’t easily fit a full movie in a single disc. When the DVD came out, it still took 2 years to take off, but the visual difference was big enough to warrant success. Plus, DVD-ROM devices for PCs were almost instantly available and helped its success, something that’s not true for the HD-ROMs. Even if HD software tools become available, encoding a home movie in HD it can take days, while DVD encoding can be done in a few hours.

In other words, I don’t forsee the two competing HD disc standards to become hits overnight. They eventually might yield good sales and profits, but that won’t be soon enough, and they won’t dethrone DVDs just yet, while the internet/cable/dvr market will also battle them from all fronts. And competing with each other only makes things worse for the companies involved.

They screwed up.

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Billy wrote on November 17th, 2006 at 1:25 AM PST:

While I agree with most of your DVD vs. VCR comment, I think you’re leaving off a few important reasons DVD was so successful over VHS. It wasn’t just the visual quality, although obviously visual and audio quality are huge reasons:

* No rewinding
* No deterioration with use (yes, you can scratch a DVD, but VHS tapes would deteriorate even when treated well)
* The ability to pause and see a clear picture
* The ability to skip ahead / back quickly
* The whole idea of a menu, allowing extra features, etc.

I think these are especially important when considering the next generation, because while Blu-Ray / HD-DVD do provide a nice enhancement in video quality (and to a lesser extent, audio), they have no similar advantages over DVD. Yes, you can have richer extras and a few niceties, but those are very minor when compared to these huge advantages DVDs brought over VHS. Pretty much the only advantage is the picture and audio quality, which makes for a far less compelling case.

That said, I personally disagree that DVD scales just fine. I have a 65″ CRT rear projection with one of the better upscaling DVD players on the market and I can see the resolution problems with even the best DVDs (my roommate owned Daredevil, FWIW. Movies are quite a bit better even via my cable-provided HDTV, which itself is much more heavily compressed than Blu-Ray / HD-DVD). Granted, I’m certainly not the average case; not only do I have a more elaborate setup than most people, but I’m also more picky about the visual quality than most people would be. But I even find the improvement to be compelling on the 42″ plasmas my friends have (1024×768 style). Whether most people will, I guess we’ll see. Certainly, the fact that “sexy” (thin) TVs are almost universally HD, and that sports — one of the big TV sellers — look significantly better in HD will help HD adoption in the coming years. In theory, at least, greater HD adoption means more demanding consumers, once they get used to HD quality.

The kicker is, next-gen optical formats don’t have to dethrone DVDs. The players are backwards compatible, and in a few years 60-100 million people (or however many) will have Blu-Ray capable PS3s. Once you have a next-gen player, you don’t have to abandon your current DVD library, but I’ll bet you’re more likely to buy movies from that point on in the better format. (Even if the TV you’re currently watching it on doesn’t benefit, unless the price were significantly lower, why buy the lesser format and possibly regret it later?) Sure, DVDs will prosper for many years, but Blu-Ray / HD-DVD don’t need to dethrone them to be successful.

To make a long post even longer, personally, I would love to see a viable internet solution, and I would love to be wrong, but I don’t see it in the next 5 years, and that’s the Blu-Ray / HD-DVD timeframe (even Sony executives say that the PS4 probably won’t use optical discs). I’ve got some of the better broadband currently available here and I can pull 600 kbytes/sec tops. Given that good-quality ATSC is broadcast at 24 Mbits/sec MPEG-2, let’s be generous and say you could get good-enough-quality H.264 (or whatever codec) HD video at 8 Mbits/sec (1 Mbyte/sec). So that would mean that a single 2-hour movie with no extras would be around 7.2 gigs (more or less in line with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 HD movie download estimates), and I’d still be looking at over 3 hours for the download — slower than realtime. Sure, in a few years my net connection will be faster, but in five years I’ve gone from 1.5 Mbits/sec to 6 Mbits/sec, so I’m not assuming miracles.

Again, I’d love to be wrong on this, but given how most people seem to have slower broadband (almost all the TV advertising I see is for the 768/368 low-end deals, so I’m assuming some people are buying it), I don’t know how practical it will be. Not to mention such services (generally) don’t have the ability to take the movie with you, lend it to a friend, etc. Heck, music is quick to download, and digital purchasing even has some benefits over CDs (often able to buy a single song, often cheaper) in spite of its downsides (inferior quality, DRM, yada yada), and it’s still a very small portion of the market.

For better or worse, Sony may have hurt the Playstation a lot by forcing Blu-Ray in it (being late to market and coming in more expensive than competitors — although you get more), but my money’s that Blu-Ray will beat HD-DVD and become at least reasonably popular with the general public because of it. It’ll be fun to watch, at least.


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Eugenia wrote on November 17th, 2006 at 1:38 AM PST:

> I have a 65? CRT rear projection with one of the better upscaling DVD players on the market and I can see the resolution problems with even the best DVDs

I don’t see any such problems on our Sharp 55″ rear-projection HDTV. DVDs look fine. Maybe it’s because our TV is a bit smaller, maybe because of Sharp’s algorithms, or because our expensive DVD cables do a better job, dunno. Make sure you have your TV switched to 480p when watching DVDs.

For the money and convenience, DVDs on our 55″ HDTV are just fine. While HD will look better, I don’t think that they will warrant the money and effort.

Also, most people are buying HDTVs that are smaller than 50″, because they don’t have the money to buy the huge ones. And for these TVs, DVDs should look just fine.


Billy wrote on November 17th, 2006 at 5:09 AM PST:

> Make sure you have your TV switched to 480p when watching DVDs.

As I mentioned, I have one of the better upscaling DVD players on the market — a fair bit better than most TVs’ scalars, unless you go really exotic. So it upscales and outputs to my TV at 1080i. (Thankfully, you can toggle it between upscaling and outputting straight 480p. My TV’s upscalar is mediocre, and 480p looks just *awful* on it. It’s nice to be able to toggle and see the difference.) With the upscaling, DVDs look *good*, to be sure, but I can still see pixelation even on top-quality DVDs, like the one you mentioned. On my friend’s 42″ 1024×768 plasma, I can similarly see the pixelation, although they do still look good overall. (In his case, using the TV’s scalar, not the DVD player’s. But he’s got Samsung’s newest model in their midrange line, so I’m assuming its scalar is respectable.)

> While HD will look better, I don’t think that they will warrant the money and effort.

My joking response to this was if I wanted to save money, I wouldn’t have gone HD in the first place. ;) My more serious response is that 60-100 million people will get Blu-Ray “for free” because they’ll buy a PS3.

> Also, most people are buying HDTVs that are smaller than 50?, because they don’t have the money to buy the huge ones.

Your point is well-taken, although it’s interesting that the cheaper technologies are where the big screens are. I bought my 65″ 3 1/4 years ago for $1900. My friend’s 42″ plasma cost just under $2000 a month ago, and he got a hell of a deal on it. (It’s a better quality plasma than most.) But yeah, I doubt most people want big honkin’ things in their living room, so I’ll take a wild-ass guess and guess that most current HD owners are in around the 40-50″ range. And I personally see the pixelation on a 50″. (At least on both my brother’s 56″ DLP and my friend’s top-end 50″ Bravia LCOS.)

Anyway, sounds like we’re on more or less the same page. As I mentioned before, Blu-Ray / HD-DVD don’t offer nearly the level of benefit over DVD that DVD offered over VHS. But I think the fact that 60-100 million people will end up with one whether they really want it or not will push ‘em over the edge, and once you have it, unless you’re saving a ton of money, there’s no sense buying content in the inferior format. I’d love to see online distribution be realistic, but I’m not sure it’ll be able to handle the data requirements, at least not for the next 5 years or so.


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