Important: On 19 February 2008, Toshiba announced that they would no longer continue with the development and production of HD DVD, thus ending HD DVD as a viable HD format. Most of this guide was written before this announcement, and as such, any references to HD DVD should be treated as legacy information and used as such.
HD movies are now with us (and when I say HD or "HD Movies", I'm referring to both Blu-ray and HD DVD). Anyone who has enjoyed seeing a Blu-ray or HD DVD movie on a big screen will tell you how great the experience is. But why is it that so few people have jumped onto the HD movie bandwagon? It might be because people, some of whom have only just gotten familiar with DVDs, don't want to take on something new. Perhaps they just don't think there is any benefit to upgrading to HD, when DVDs look so good already. Or perhaps it is the format war that is causing user confusion.
I like HD and I think everybody who can afford it should get onboard. This is why I have written this guide that will go through some of the questions you might have towards the two competing HD formats, and on related issues such as picking the right AV receiver to take advantage of the new HD audio formats. While this guide features a "Blu-ray vs HD DVD" section, it's original intention was to provide a comparison so people can make up their own minds in regards to which format to support. But since the format war has now ended, with Blu-ray victorious, that particular section remains for legacy reasons and nothing more. This guide is also not meant as a replacement of The High Definition DVD FAQ that I wrote previously, instead, it is a companion guide that tackles some real world issues that consumers might run into. If you haven't read my FAQ, I suggest that you keep it handy while reading this guide, as there will be information referred to in this guide that has already been covered in more detail in the FAQ.
Ok, let's start.
Chapter 1: Why HD?
Before we get into specifics, the first question people often ask is "will HD really benefit me?" or "is HD really that much better than DVD?"
Let's take a look at DVDs first. DVDs is really the first digital video format that we've all embraced, and it offers excellent pictures and sounds. However, DVD video is limited to 720x576 resolution (for PAL movies, for NTSC it is 720x480), and due to the way DVD-video handles widescreen movies, a number of these pixels are used to store the black bars for a large number of widescreen movies, thus decreasing the efficiency of the video compression techniques used. In other words, it's not the best way to store widescreen movies and with HDTV resolutions of 720p (1280x720) and 1080p (1920x1080), DVDs cannot take advantage of these higher resolutions. In many countries, even standard TV broadcasts are now ahead of DVDs in terms of resolution, and so something has to be done about home digital video to bring them up to speed.
When proper HD material wasn't yet available, upscaling DVD players helped to improve the DVD picture quality on HDTVs. What these do is to take the DVD picture and using resizing techniques to bring them up to the higher resolution of HDTVs - these special techniques can be as simple as line doubling, or so complicated as to require a special computer chip to do all the calculations.
So why not just keep on using DVDs with upscalers? Why bother with HD movies that cost more and require new hardware? The problem with upscaling is that in the end, it really is just a "trick" rather than real proper HD. The upscaler can only show details that were originally encoded into the 720x576 resolution video, it cannot create new details that weren't there. It does use techniques to trick you into thinking that there is a great amount of detail, such as sharpening the picture, but these are still just tricks. And it's not just the lack of details, once you upscale a DVD to a higher resolution, you will start to see in more detail the compression artifacts, noise and other effects that weren't so obvious at the standard resolution. So while DVD upscaling is a great way to extend the life of your DVD collection, for true HD content, you cannot beat Blu-ray or HD DVD movies for true HD quality. And just in case you aren't convinced, all Blu-ray and HD DVD players act as DVD upscalers, so there's more reason to upgrade if you don't already own a DVD upscaler.
Another issue people have is with the price, and the cost of upgrading your other equipment as well. But unless you are a home theatre nut that want the latest equipment, you don't really need to upgrade all that much (see "Chapter 2: Prerequisites"). The cost of Blu-ray and HD DVD hardware have dropped significantly - they are now just $100 more than most well known brands of upscaling DVD players - and as mentioned before, these double as DVD upscalers and will extend the life of your DVD collection if nothing else. HD players also come with lots of freebies, up to 10 free HD movies in some cases, and these alone are worth the price of the machine itself (so basically, you get the player for free). And as for additional equipment, you don't really need to upgrade anything else - your sound system will still work fine with HD movies, since all movies carry DVD compatible audio tracks (Dolby or DTS) that will work on your existing decoder/receiver (see "Chapter 7: HD Audio" for more information). You might need to purchase a HDMI cable, but many players even come with that as well.
But won't HD movie downloads be the way of the future? Who needs disc formats when you can stream movies in real-time online? HD movie downloads and streaming will be great, but unfortunately, it is out of reach of most people for the short to mid term future. The problem is Internet bandwidth, which is already quite congested - a HD movie is often 25 GB or larger, and on a regular 8 Mbit/s ADSL connection, it will take you more than 10 hours and probably half your monthly allowance to just download a single movie, and that's given that you download at the maximum theoretical speed available. For me, 25 GB represents more than 60% of my monthly allowance, and at my download speed (8 Mbit/s, but nowhere near this speed in real life), and it would take 15 hours of continuous download at my top speed (assuming I do nothing on the Internet other than download this file). And my ADSL connection costs $USD 100 per month (Australian prices, unfortunately), so that's $60 used just to download a single movie that I could have purchased for $28 at any shop. Suffice to say, Internet based HD content delivery is still some ways off.
The last question people often ask is "will my TV be good enough for HD for me to see a difference?" - My opinion is that if you have a 32" or larger TV, that is HD (720p or 1080p native resolution) and comes with HDMI (most of the ones sold in the last 2 years do), then you should not hesitate in buying a HD movie player. Even if your TV does not have HDMI, you can still enjoy HD through the component output on HD movie players, and while you will be limited to 1080i resolution, it should not matter in most cases (you only need 1080p through HDMI if your TV has 1080p native resolution, and even then, 1080i input is probably good enough).
I personally own a Pioneer 720p plasma that I purchase 3 years ago (so it's hardly "state of the art" stuff, although it does have 3:3 pulldown mode which I find invaluable for watching 24 FPS content found on HD movie discs - 3:3 will convert the 24 frames into 72 Hz, not as good as the 120 Hz in new TVs, but pretty damn smooth already). I can honestly say that, while I've enjoyed the TV for the 3 years and I've enjoyed using my old upscaling DVD player on it, only after I've played back a HD movie through HDMI did I find what the TV was truly capable of. It was like I had just purchased a new TV!
If the above hasn't convinced you, then I recommend you visit a specialty hi-fi store (not just a department store, where the staff sometimes knows even less about HD than you do, especially after you've read this guide). They will show you the benefits of HD that you can see with your own eyes, and as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Chapter 2: Prerequisites - What equipment do I need before I can buy a Blu-ray or HD DVD player?
As mentioned above, you don't need too much to get into Blu-ray or HD DVD. In fact, Blu-ray and HD DVD is designed to work on any TV that has component inputs, even if the TV is not high definition (and many people have found feeding their standard definition TV a HD picture does improve quality as compared to DVDs). So basically, the only requirement is component input. Everything else is optional, but it's these optional components that will give you a truly fantastic HD movie experience. Please note that DVDs cannot be upscaled over component due to copy protection licensing agreements - only DVDs that do not feature the CSS copy protection scheme (ie. your home made DVDs, and very few commercial DVDs) will allow upscaling over component. This is true of every upscaling DVD, Blu-ray or HD DVD player, including the PS3 and the Xbox 360.
I will now list some of these optional and recommended items, but most of these items will be covered more extensively further on in the guide:
- 720p HDTV recommended, 1080p HDTV preferred
- HDTV with 72 Hz or 120 Hz display mode, either for 3:3 pulldown of 1080i input or for 1080p/24 input
- HDTV with HDMI input
- 7.1ch AV receiver that supports PCM 5.1 audio through HDMI input recommended, receiver that supports the decoding of Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio preferred