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It's a Knockout - Blu-ray vs HD DVD

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It seems like we’ve been banging on about Blu-ray and HD DVD for ages so this week I was pleased to finally get the opportunity to see the latter in action. To jump my own gun though, I can say straight away that I was thoroughly underwhelmed. My gast was not flabbered and my eyes remained firmly inside their sockets.

I first saw HD DVD some months ago, and was forgiving due to the very early nature of the hardware and software but without wishing to be partisan I’ve always thought that Blu-ray sounded the better bet on paper. But as Ron Manager would say, movies aren’t played on paper.

Just to establish the basic facts at a press event this week, Samsung announced that it would launch its BD-1000 Samsung deck in the UK on 16th October. Meanwhile Toshiba has announced that its HD-E1 player will come to the UK a month later on 15th November. This is a reverse of the US situation where Toshiba launched first earlier this year with the HD-A1. The Samsung Blu-ray player will cost a hefty £1,000 at launch, while Toshiba’s HD DVD player is listed on Play.com at £450. The Samsung will be supplied with a couple of Sony Pictures discs – a copy of the movie SWAT and Legends of Jazz. ‘Woot’. I’ve seen SWAT – it’s got Samuel L Jackson in it and is the sort of movie he can make twice before breakfast and it shows; and I’m sure everyone will be really buzzed about the Jazz disc.

At the launch there were a couple of BD-1000s playing content on new 40in and 46in from Samsung, the latter of which offers full 1080p resolution. The screens were certainly impressive, but I was disappointed by what I saw on them.

The first thing I did was to check out the reports that the player takes ages to boot. I turned off then on again and found that it took 50 seconds - less than I’d feared but still too long in my book. Once on, it then takes 30 seconds or so to start a disc. However, the rumour that the BD-1000 wouldn’t play dual-layer discs was confirmed as an untruth.

On the test disc provided I skipped around looking for something cool to show off the picture quality and frankly I was shocked though by the paucity of the material – most of it was quite simply awful, full of noise and compression.

What I needed was some real movies to test with. There were some test disc on show and one caught my eye – Into the Blue. Ok, I’d never heard of it, but it sported Jessica Alba in a bikini – which sounds like it should be what High Definition was designed for. Strangely though I wasn’t entranced – the images seemed grainy, soft and compressed and not the virtually three dimensional image I was hoping for. I have seen incredible 1080p before – it was demo material displayed via an early Japanese Blu-ray deck via a Sony Qualia 004 projector – one that costs around £20,000 – the projector looked nothing short of stunning and the image quality was even better. So I know if can be done. I guess as it was supposed to be launch hardware I was expecting more, but it wasn’t to be.

It wasn’t just with picture quality that the Blu-ray discs didn’t meet expectations. With all that space I was hoping to see one of the spanky new High Definition audio formats intended to go along with them, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital-Plus or DTS-HD Master Audio. However, the best there was listed on the back of the box was uncompressed PCM 5.1. Now uncompressed is a good thing and these should sound better than standard Dolby Digital or DTS, which are excellent but still compressed formats. But PCM is only CD quality and the new formats can do much better than that.

I’ve not completely given up hope though. As another journalist there pointed out, the very early DVD discs did not make the best use of the format. They content was also generally very poorly encoded, was in 4:3 and in stereo - yet was trying to persuade home cinema buffs to upgrade from Laserdisc.

One of the problems now is that studios are rush releasing these discs when they don’t fully understand the best was to encode at 1080p. MPEG2 is used on the early Blu-ray discs but clearly it’s not just a case of upping the resolution as otherwise they would have looked fantastic. It’s likely that studios are not going back to clean up the masters, many of which might have deteriorated, and the very high resolution is enhancing any issues with the print such as dirt, sports and too much grain.

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