Not long after the demise of the HD-DVD format at the hands of Sony's Blu-ray spec, it's apparent that the High Definition format wars are far from over, and in dire need of a tide-turning surge.
As a tech-savvy consumer, I smugly sat by as impetuous friends bought into either HD-DVD or Blu-ray, knowing that, in the end, one format was going to win out over the other. I told myself I'd not invest in either format until one was the clear victor. While each side had proponents who were willing to swear by the feature-advantages of their chosen format, the differences between the two were negligible, and I simply wanted a guaranteed future. In the meantime, I was happy enough with the quality of my current DVD collection to wait out even the longest of stalemates.
Lo and behold, the demise of HD-DVD came surprisingly quick and, in a player vs. player matchup, Blu-ray scored a definitive finishing move. So, why haven't I jumped onboard the Blu-ray train to HD town, despite the victory?
Sadly, "High Definition" video, as a concept, is still stuck in a quagmire of fear, uncertainty and doubt:
- Digital delivery is on the horizon, offering a tantalizing glimpse of a next-gen solution, just as the "this-gen" solution wins a knockout blow.
- Prices remain a stumbling block for even the cheapest Blu-ray players.
- The difference between "low-price" players and brand-name (expensive) players is technologically significant.
While digital delivery is tempting, for a variety of reasons, it's simply not a ripe solution for most consumers. The temptation is to leave the concept on the tree for a few more months, but that same temptation has been an issue for over a year, now.
First and foremost, the best quality HD (1080p or even 1080i) simply isn't readily available in a digital download. Most vendors who offer digital content delivery (such as Apple's iTunes Store) provide the vast majority of said content in standard definition (near-DVD quality) and content which is provided in HD is usually provided at the lower 720 spec.
This roadblock would seem to be partly studio based -- piracy concerns translate to nervous studios which resist pristine digital copies of movies and television programs -- and partly technological both because bandwidth restrictions translate to painfully slow downloads for 1080p content, and because hard drive restrictions limit storage.
The other issue is one of consumer confusion: What's the upshot between 720 and 1080 resolution? Why is there such a disparity between content offered on iTunes and content offered on Amazon's Unbox service? Is there a quality difference between the two services?
All of these questions lead to serious anxiety regarding possible buyers remorse. "If I purchase an Apple TV today, will Steve Jobs unveil a 1080p capable device, with more features, in January?"
Today's Apple TV is just limited enough, feature-wise, that this becomes a more plausible concern than it might otherwise be. The tinfoil-hat-wearing "but if I just wait long enough I'll get something better for less" crowd may have a point, for a change.
On the Blu-ray front, players are still expensive, especially for consumers who want the reassurance of investing in a major brand. Sony players, for example, still straddle the $300 price point. That's a hard pill to swallow for consumers who aren't quite convinced that their DVD collections look bad enough to warrant an upgrade in the first place. Moving down to off-brand manufacturers such as Olevia, consumers can still expect to pay in the neighborhood of $150.
Unfortunately, customer satisfaction seems to dwindle rapidly as price goes down and reviews indicate that the cheapest players are plagued with unbearably long load times (up to two minutes, in some cases) and unreliable playback of (supposedly) compatible last-gen DVDs. In some cases, players even offer unreliable playback of this-gen Blu-ray discs.
The highest quality players offer internet connectivity (via an ethernet port) allowing for firmware upgrades. This means that the aforementioned compatibility issues, if they crop up, can often be addressed by a software upgrade. Some of the cheaper alternatives don't offer this option, which means a poorly functioning device will forever remain a poorly functioning device. Then there's that some of the newer Blu-ray discs offer features which older (or cheaper) Blu-ray players simply cannot access, and I've read reports that these discs are often completely incompatible with older players.
These are the sort of issues which will ultimately confuse consumers and which may push Blu-ray into an early grave, especially with digital delivery seemingly on the horizon.
As a case study, my setup currently consists of:
- 37" LCD TV with DVI input for HD. (Capable of 1080i resolution.)
- TIVO Series 3 HD DVR.
- XBOX 360 game console.
- 15" MacBook Pro with Display Port video output.
- 7.1 surround sound receiver.
- Netflix account.
I'm intrigued by HD video content. Currently, I utilize the XBOX as a DVD player. I can download video content straight to my TIVO via Amazon's Unbox service, for a fee, though this content is provided in standard definition and letterboxed, which means that widescreen TVs will show black bars on all sides of the display, resulting in a 37" TV showing an ~ 30" video.
Annoying, to say the least.
At some point in Decmember, Netflix will begin to stream their "watch instantly" content to the TIVO series 3 and it is already available on the XBOX 360 console. My Netflix account qualifies for the instant watch option, which means content of low-ish quality and limited selection can be streamed directly to my LCD TV. While I plan to take advantage of this, it's not quite the solution that I want, and certainly isn't an HD solution.
This leaves me with a narrowed-down choice between two products:
Undeniably, the Blu-ray option provides the highest quality HD currently available. For ~ $240 I would be able to take advantage of Blu-ray content on a device which offers (according to reviews) reliable backwards compatibility with my existing DVD collection. At the amazon.com price of $237, the Panasonic player is the cheapest "nice" deck to offer an ethernet connection and access to firmware upgrades. Downsides include foregoing a solution which would afford digital downloads and the looming uncertainty that is the future of disc-based content.
As a MacBook Pro owner, the Apple TV offers a lot of promise and convenience coupled with a lot of risk. There's no denying that it's a product which doesn't quite live up to the potential of digital delivery. Steve Jobs has even gone so far as to refer to the Apple TV as a hobby, a designation which doesn't particularly scream confidence or certainty in its future as a content delivery platform.
Still, the ability to access and store digital content -- with rentals a possibility, at least in the case of movies -- is a major plus. Unfortunately, content is only available in 720 resolution HD, and in most cases isn't available in HD at all, and current-gen Apple TVs won't be firmware upgradeable to support 1080p if and when downloads advance to that level; a next-gen Apple TV will have to be unveiled for that purpose. Buyer beware.
To be fair, the HD that most consumers are familiar with -- that which is delivered by cable companies to digital set-top boxes -- is provided in the lower quality spec as well, and it's undeniably better looking than DVD quality video.
So, the conundrum is this: Both formats offer an uncertain future. Which is the smarter short-term investment -- or -- is the future so uncertain and short-term that waiting is still the best bet?