HD DVD: End of Week 1

It has now been nearly a week since we added an HD DVD player to the home entertainment system.

Some impressions.

We watched Serenity this evening. It is visually stunning. I’m sure the audio is pretty amazing, too, but I don’t currently have the 5.1 pre-amp / speakers hooked up.

By “visually stunning”, I mean: It looks better than it did in the theater. As an added bonus, I make better popcorn, have vastly superior beverages for far less money, and can watch a visually stunning movie while sitting in front of a fire.

No wonder the theaters are running scared. Hell — we paid $19 for Serenity on HD DVD which, accounting for the evening’s expense, is about 1/3rd to 1/5th the cost of actually going to a theater (depending on babysitting expenses).

Anyway — HD DVD really delivers in terms of the visuals when paired with a decent TV; 46″ 1080p Sony LCD, in my case.

The Planet Earth really drives it home. I have watched it on DVD, via Satellite, and on HD DVD. At 1080p, The Planet Earth is an awesome — a moving — tour of the awesome breadth of life on this planet.

As well, we watched the remastered HD DVD version of Blazing Saddles. The difference between it and the DVD is quite noticeable, but mostly in that HD DVD so clearly displays the noise and imperfections found in the original production process.

And, of course, if the discs do so, the extras on HD DVD can be considerably richer and more deeply integrated with the primary content than regular DVDs. Speaking of regular DVDs, the player does an awesome job of upscaling legacy content (though, honestly, I have no idea how it compares to the various $30 to $70 upscaling DVD players that are commonplace these days).

And that is pretty much where the happiness ends. Click on through for a bit of a rant on the vasty stupidity that is next generation media….

In this first week, it has also becomes abundantly clear that HD DVD is doomed. Though I have no experience with it, I would bet that a lot of my relatively off-the-cuff observations would apply equally to Blu-Ray.

First, the media is fragile. The Blazing Saddles disc came from Netflix. It locked up a couple of times during playback, taking minutes to get through a few seconds of scene. Not surprising — the disc itself was a bit scratched. While the player handled the data corruption better than the various DVD players I have used, the source of the problem — the scratches on the disc — were of a much smaller magnitude than what would be required to make a DVD fail in the same fashion.

This should come as no surprise. An HD DVD disc has a considerably higher data density. That is, the bits are smaller. Much smaller. So that means that a scratch of the same magnitude will obscure several times more data on an HD DVD vs. a DVD (vs. a CD).

So, the media is fragile. And the fragility will increase as the data density increases.

Putting aside reality for a second and pretending that all discs will remain pristine for all time, there is still vast stupidity here.

The user experience leading up to actually playing a movie really sucks. And the added flexibility of the menu system means that the user experience when doing anything but just watching the media can suck mightily, too. Some of this is likely DRM related, but — frankly — I don’t give a rat’s ass why it is this way or if DRM is at fault.

(1) The player takes nearly a minute to boot.

It seems that it is copying firmware from A to B or something. The manual says something to the effect of “This next generation super cool media player is much more like a computer than your previous home entertainment devices and, thus, it takes longer to do stuff.”. Paraphrased, but it really does say that. Worse, there is basically no feedback to indicate that the player has done anything other than lock up.

Inexcusable. The device should be responsive nearly immediately. At least let the user open the damned media drawer, regardless of how much “copying the firmware” crap that has to go on.

If this were first generation hardware, it would be one thing. But it isn’t. This is at least a second, if not third, generation player.

(2) The player takes a good 20 seconds to load a piece of media, DVD or HD DVD

See (1). Why the hell should the player take about 5x as long to load a piece of media as a DVD player?

(3) HDMI v1.3 (and player setup)

Huh? HDMI v1.3? I thought it was just a damned cable!

Apparently not. The player’s manual is rife with warnings and troubleshooting hints regarding mismatches in HDMI compliance levels between the player and the output device — don’t forget the pre-amp / switch tha may be between! — and how it might cause playback to be negatively impacting (i.e. you don’t see anything).

OK. Fine. Clearly, HDMI has a bunch of smarts built into it that allow the player and the destination device to negotiate playback rights or something. That the manual further warns that using the component or composite video out connections may not allow playback of certain content certainly bolsters this statement.

So why the hell do I have to tell the player what video format and resolution the display device is capable of?

Why do I have to go through a relatively complex setup procedure of the player just to get it to display properly? Could the appropriate information not be passed across the HDMI cable sometime? Did the consortium that created the standard decide to completely ignore “user experience” or “convenience”?

(4) During Playback User Experience Sucks

In the box with the player was a copy of 300 and The Bourne Identity. I tried turning on closed captioning during 300. Couldn’t figure it out. I managed to bring up French and Italian subtitles, but not consistently. I probably could have stopped playback and turned ’em on from the setup menu, but I was actually trying to interrupt playback as little as possible. I failed.

Worse, there was no documentation on how to do this that I could find.

So, while HD DVD (and Blu Ray) offer all kinds of advanced tools for building complex human-computer interfaces, there doesn’t appear to be anything remotely resembling some kind of a standard for basic functionality. While not limiting creative flexibility is critical, the complete lack of usability guidelines meaans that the user experience is going to vary vastly from disc to disc and, frankly, is often going to be completely sucky.

That the player has settings for accepting cookies and phrases in the manual that allude to a “degraded or uncontrolled user experience when viewing content downloaded from the internet” does not bode well.

Some pretty harsh criticism.

Do I regret the purchase? Not at all. Currently, buying an HD DVD or Blu Ray player is the only way to consume 1080p content in your home without hefty recurring costs. The picture quality really is amazing. On a completely personal level, the folks that have seen The Planet Earth at 1080p have walked away impressed both technically and emotionally (yes, emotionally in the form of a deeper appreciation for the stunning gorgeousness of our little blue marble).

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19 Responses to “HD DVD: End of Week 1”

  1. Ben says:

    There is at least one other way to get 1080p content without recurring costs, and that’s xbox live which will let you rent HD movies. (without recurring cost, or an HD drive)

    (FIOS TV also has a lot of great hd content, including movies, as well, but that has the recurring cost there..)

  2. psu says:

    HDMI is bullshit. It’s nothing more than a carrier for link level copy protection being sold to the consumer as a simple “single cable” solution. The problem is that it doesn’t really work well and the standard keeps changing. I have intermittent problems with the HDMI ports in my Sony TV just not syncing with my Sony DVD player and my Sony PS3. This never happens with component video. I think I’ll go get another component video switcher and not use the HDMI at all.

  3. BBum on HD-DVD at Duncan Davidson says:

    […] Bumgarner writes about his first week with his new HD-DVD player, covering both the good and the bad. It’s amazing how consistently frustrating life in HD […]

  4. TimT says:

    Just to add a bit of additional evidence: I have had none of these issues on my setup with a PS3 (Blu-Ray) and Sharp Aquos D92 46″ TV. I did buy an HDMI 1.3 certified cable out of the gate, but since setting this up many months ago, and buying around 15 Blu-Ray discs, I can’t say I’ve had any of these issues. I haven’t rented a movie so the scratches havn’t been an issue yet, but your reasoning makes sense, BBum.

    The TV and PS3 always work well together, and of course look amazing. The startup of the PS3 isn’t great, but not horrible by any means. Far better than what I’ve been hearing from users of the stand-alone players (both Blu and HD). Getting to the disc is a good speed, nothing I noticed. However, the “special” features of Blu-Ray haven’t really been noticeable on the discs I’ve bought – I think lowest-common-denominator is in place by the disc producers. I have had no issues with subtitles (I buy some Korean language movies.) Overall I find the experience very good.

    The one big (REALLY big) caveat that gets me steaming each time I start up the PS3 to watch a movie: why on earth for a $600 box did they not include an IR port? No IR means Bluetooth remotes, which means no Harmony support. I get IR on the $30 Wal-Mart DVD players.

  5. Scott Anguish says:

    There is at least one other way to get 1080p content without recurring costs, and that’s xbox live which will let you rent HD movies. (without recurring cost, or an HD drive)

    sort of. You get to pay 5-6 dollars for a movie you can watch at some point within 2 weeks, but must FINISH within 24 hours of the initial pressing of play. Ultra lame.

    God I hope if Apple does this, they do it right… more netflix like (you get x downloads… use them all you want.. check one back in, you get another.. etc..)

  6. Ken Anderson says:

    I gave up on HDMI – doing everything component w/ either coax or optical digital audio… what a shame!

  7. Sam Smoot says:

    I just got a Toshiba HD-A3 for XMas. Paired with my 720P television, the picture doesn’t appear quite as good as BluRay on my PS3, but I suppose that’s understandable. It does seem better than DVD, but not drastically so. I think the PS3 is a fairly good upscaler for regular DVDs and I’ve just gotten a little spoiled.

    I agree about the boot-up. I don’t understand how a real computer can boot faster than a HD-DVD player. I’m guessing that’ll improve a few years from now though…

    I’m also not too thrilled that the Toshiba player didn’t seem to pickup an IP address right away when the XBox 360, PS3, Wii and Apple TV in the same cabinet all seem to manage fine. I gave up after a minute or so figuring that whatever firmware it has is probably OK until I feel like messing with it.

    The interactive menus on the HD-DVDs are noticeably cooler in appearance than any BluRay I’ve seen so far. Aside from price that seems to sum up HD-DVD’s advantages.

    BluRay discs apparently have some extra scratch resistant coating. I think the marketing term includes something about diamonds. All I know is my BluRay discs don’t scratch. I haven’t had the HD-DVDs long enough, and I don’t use Netflix, but I haven’t had a problem with any BluRay disc I’ve rented from BlockBusterVideo. So it’s only anecdotal I suppose, but it seems like BluRay has quite an advantage here.

    Overall I’m guessing they’re about equal, but I’ve gotta admit I’m secretly rooting for BluRay. I’m just really satisfied with it. Then again, my perception might be different if instead of a PS3 I had purchased a standalone player. Believe it or not, the PS3 has really made for a nice little DVD/BluRay player with the Bluetooth remote. It certainly passes the wife test.

    Ben: Just my opinion, but I felt a bit ripped off by the XBox Live content. It’s 3 times the price of iTunes TV Store content, but it looks *at best*, about equal in picture quality. The level of compression they’ve applied just makes the video absolutely terrible considering how comparably high it’s resolution is. At least this was my experience with the Heroes episode offered. After that, I didn’t bother downloading another.

    It seems almost a for-gone conclusion that video download will take over the market eventually… I’m just hoping it doesn’t happen for a number of years yet. To me, it just doesn’t seem like there’s any way you can get the same picture quality out of a 2GB download that you can out of 20+GB of data on a disc. Especially when they’re using very similar codecs (h.264 or similar derivatives). A 20GB 1080P 1 hour long h.264 video is just naturally going to look far better than the same thing at 2GB.

  8. Kevin Marks says:

    How does the Mac Mini compare at scaling up DVDs to 1080p?
    I am considering an HDTV + Mini setup, and that seems like an important detail.

  9. Richard Stacpoole says:

    Thought you might find this link on movie theatre pricing interesting. Perhaps if they dropped their prices so they just matched inflation they might have more bums on seats.

  10. Richard Stacpoole says:

    Link didn’t copy, here it is http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2007/06/unconscionable-movie-ticket-gouging.html

  11. psu says:

    The software scaler in the DVD player in MacOS is not likely to be better than the hardware scaler in your better DVD players (e.g. Oppo, or whatever).

  12. LKM says:

    I have a PS3, 360 and a Wii hooked up to a HDMI switcher, which is in turn hooked up to a 1080i/720p projector. Getting all the components to work together nicely is a constant struggle. In fact, even though I could play Bluray movies, I have only bought one additional Bluray movie (Paprika), and I’ve never watched the James Bond movie I got with the PS3. The technology is not mature, and the DRM and general ineptitude of the UI designers are killing the experience for me.

    The better quality of the picture is quite simply not worth the hassle of actually getting it to work.

    @Kevin Marks: Can’t tell you about 1080p, but to 1080i, it looks great.

  13. Alderete says:

    I have a similar TV to bbum’s (40″ instead of 46″), and a Sony standalone Blu-ray player I picked up at Costco. My experience with it is pretty similar to Bill’s, the boot time and time to load a disc are just way, way longer than the DVD player I replaced. I have had a few Blu-ray discs (from Netflix) that were scratched enough to cause a skip or stutter. But I get those with standard DVDs already, it doesn’t seem worse or better, and I can almost always fix the issue with a lens cleaning cloth.

    My biggest aggravation is the content that comes out for HD-DVD only, instead of for both HD-DVD and Blu-ray (I’m sure Bill experiences this in reverse). It sucked to have to watch The Bourne Ultimatum on a standard DVD instead of in 1080p, even though the upscaling on my player is quite good. There are enough titles that are exclusive to one or the other format that it has to be am irritation to virtually everyone who has purchased one of the new format players. Way to put the customer first.

    In all, I’d say that while I don’t really regret getting the Blu-ray player, it would have been better to wait a year or two, for the two formats to shake out more, the player hardware to improve and get faster via Moore’s Law, etc.

    But with 30+ Blu-ray titles in my Netflix queue, I wouldn’t consider returning the player. In the end, the picture is very noticeably better, and that’s the killer app of either format.

  14. Horacio says:

    I wonder if there is a little more at stake than just a “format” issue here:


  15. Various and Sundry: DVDs, Tech, HDTV, and More » Blog Archive » Link Dump for a Brand New Year says:

    […] heard plenty about HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. Here’s an interesting blog post on the problems with the HD-DVD player and the overall experience. It’s slow and prone to damage, basically. But I still want to […]

  16. HD Format War: Warner Goes Blu-Ray » Webomatica - Technology and Entertainment Digest says:

    […] So if Apple announces something Blu-Ray related come MacWorld in a few weeks – say a Blu-Ray equipped Apple TV – a shopping trip may be in order. Even if the end experience is less perfect than I’m currently imagining. […]

  17. DG says:

    Hello, I have a PS3 and a Toshiba HD-A3. At first the HD-A3 didnt look as good as the PS3. Then I messed with PS3 setting and My TV settings and now both HD-A3 and PS3 look exactly the same. I tested it with star wars THX thing that they have. My only complaint about HD DVD is that with the stand alone player I have trouble watching a movies because they freeze 33% of the time after an hour of playing the movie. They Even skip and freeze if they are perfectly clean with no dust or scratches. I heard Toshiba HD DVD players do that a lot. That kind of suck because they are the only company that make HD DVD players. I use to have the Xbox 360 with the HD DVD drive and it never froze, even on dirty scratched discs. I gave up on the Xbox 360 because it kept on breaking down on me. I have never had problems with my PS3. I also have a blu-ray burner in my Laptop and never had problems. I was thinking of abandoning HD DVD but I have over 50 HD DVDs and I dont want to get rid of Transformers on HD DVD and the Matrix and The Jason Bourne trilogy and more. I could get a $800 multi player but I dont think its worth it just for HD DVD which I believe will die.

  18. bbum’s weblog-o-mat » Blog Archive » HD-DVD Month Three: New Levels Of Suck Achieved. says:

    […] I have written before, I picked up an HD DVD player as it was the cheapest way to vie the BBC’s The Planet Earth […]

  19. ARTISTIC FRAMER 99 says:

    I’ll get excited about HD movies when I can buy that BR/HD-DVD combo drive from Newegg.com for $100 instead of $1,000.

    If the only advantage of DVD had been a better picture, it would never have caught on. Never rewinding, instant access to any scene, never having the machine “eat” a tape, not having the quality degrade, taking up less space on the shelf – all that mattered too.

    That’s why DVD was slower to catch on in Asia, where VCDs already provided most of those benefits.

    My guess is that starting this Christmas we might see a HD-DVD player under $199. This will be close enough to the up converting DVD players that companies will drop those models in favor of HD ones. Probably in a year you will see retail stores keeping DVD player shelf space for store brand players and HD players taking up where the name brands are forcing people with a broken player to pick in the HD format war.
    As for people not buying discs, ignorance definitely plays a large role. Many people probably have no idea how much better a BD/HD-DVD looks and sounds than a standard DVD or even a broadcast HD signal. I was amazed by how much better my BD was than my Comcast HD.

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