HDTV UK's Guide to the Ultimate High Definition Home Cinema Experience – Part Three: High definition disc players

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In the third of this six part series from HDTV UK on creating the ultimate high definition home cinema system, we look at high definition disc players

When it comes to watching high definition content, particularly movies, there’s a paradox.

Theoretically, the easiest and cheapest method is to invest in a high definition disc player (HD DVD, Blu-ray, or HD VMD) and buy high definition discs.

However, thanks to an ongoing format war between competing film studios and competing hardware manufacturers, the choice is made harder for consumers.

HD DVD and Blu-ray: What’s the issue?

We’ve talked at length — and I mean at length — on HDTVUK.tv about this so-called format war.

Often paralleled with the VHS/Betamax video cassette ‘war’ of the 80s, which Sony’s Betamax eventually lost, the two main manufacturers in this war are Toshiba and Sony.

Sony pioneered the Blu-ray format, while Toshiba created the HD DVD format. A number of other manufacturers and movie studios have either sided with one format or the other, sat on the fence, or created hybrid players. (We’ll get on to HD VMD later).

The problem is that, unlike standard DVDs, you now can’t get every movie on both formats. Notable examples are Transformers, available on just HD DVD, and Spider-Man 3, only on Blu-ray.


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What to do?

There are five choices you can make right now:

1. Do nothing: Wait

Sounds obvious, but many consumers are indeed choosing to stick with their existing DVD players, even if they’ve already invested in a HDTV, because it’s too confusing at present.

See option 5 for making the best of your existing DVD collection without breaking the bank.

2. Be an early adopter and pick a format

This is probably the riskiest option. Even some movie studios have swapped sides recently, and taken their back catalogue of films with them.

Pick HD DVD, and chances are a title you really want will be on Blu-ray. And vice versa. Then again, you could still buy some titles on DVD and upscale them.

3. Be an early adopter and buy both formats

The price of both sets of players are coming down all the time, though Blu-ray players are typically at least two or three times more expensive than HD DVD players.

Buying both players would mean you can play any major high definition movie, but you’ll need an extra plug, an extra remote control, an extra HDMI input, and extra space.

4. Be an early adopter and buy a hybrid (dual format) player

Several manufacturers now offer dual format players, with a single drive able to play both HD DVD and Blu-ray discs. However, it’s important to note that some earlier players didn’t offer all of the features of each format to be used.

5. Buy an upscaling DVD player

Standard DVD quality can actually be really good, when played on a decent player. Upscaling DVD players incorporate technology which can play standard definition DVDs on a 720p or 1080i/p TV.

Decent players boast a picture that’s nearly as good as some high definition discs. There’ll certainly be an improvement, and it protects any investment in DVDs you’ve already made.

Even without a special DVD player, some TVs can also upscale standard definition material, with mixed results.

Main features to look out for

Buying a high definition player? Here’s what to look out for:

* Resolution: Be warned that some cheaper players can’t output 1080p, but only 720p or 1080i. This may not be a problem, depending on what other equipment you have, and what content you want to watch. Cheaper players usually have a reduced feature set.

* HDMI: Ensure that the player has an HDMI output, preferably version 1.3. This makes it easy to connect to a high definition TV, projector, or other home cinema equipment.

* Interactivity:

For HD DVD: The specification was in place from the start, but ensure that the player can handle HD-i (some early hybrid players did not). Otherwise, many interactive features such as picture-in-picture and Internet connectivity will be lost.

For Blu-ray: Since 1st November 2007, all new Blu-ray players have to conform to “Profile 1.1”, which guarantees an interactive feature set similar to HD DVD. However, older players didn’t have to meet this standard, so interactivity may be lost.

A comparatively few number of titles currently utilise interactive features to their fullest, but you can be sure that will change as the formats evolve.

* 24fps “Film mode”

This comes under a variety of names, depending upon the manufacturer, but if a high definition player allows 24 frames per second playback, it allows compatible film discs to be played back at the same speed and frame rate as the original film.

Bear in mind that you need a TV or projector that’s also capable of displaying this, otherwise you’ll get no advantage.

This is an increasingly common feature, worth having for a more authentic movie experience.

* Audio

Check that the player can handle all the types of audio that you’ll require for your system.

There’s a fairly bewildering array of formats that players may or may not handle. These will be either compressed or uncompressed formats.

The highest fidelity sound will come from formats such as linear PCM, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. However, you’ll only notice the advantage of this type of audio with a fairly high-end, compatible audio system, and with discs that include this type of audio.

Newer, higher end high definition players are including support for these hi-fi audio standards.

* Upscaling standard definition DVDs

Most high definition players offer some built-in support to upscale standard DVDs to near HD quality, however some do a better job than others.

It’s worth checking specifically whether a particular player includes specific technology to do this, if that’s an important feature, because it’s fair to say that some HD equipment does a lousy job with standard definition content.

* Additional technologies

Just as with TVs, manufacturers will often boast about a number of other proprietary technology that is supposed to enhance the video or sound.

These include such delights as pixel enhancement, deep colour, motion processing, and such like.

The best way to tell whether you need these extras is to compare the same HD discs on the same HDTV, but on a variety of players, and see which one looks and sounds the best to you.

Having said that, most HD DVD and Blu-ray players will do a very good job with well produced content.

What about HD VMD?

To add to the confusion, a third type of high definition disc has been released in the last year or so.

HD VMD (High Definition Versatile Multilayer Disc) uses very similar technology to standard DVD, but allows more information to be stored on a single disc.

Players and content is starting to find its way into Europe, Asia, Australasia, and the US, but no major Hollywood studio currently supports it. Personally, I’d be surprised if they do.

The players are generally cheaper, but be warned that you probably won’t see many blockbusters appearing on the format.

What about games consoles and HD?

A whole section of this guide will be devoted to high definition gaming, but in the meantine, there are two ways of combining HD viewing with gaming.

The Playstation 3 has a built-in Blu-ray player.

The Xbox 360 has an optional HD DVD add-on drive.

Personally I’d say a standalone player is a better option.

What next?

Until the propaganda war simmers down, consumers are never going to get a clear picture of which high definition format is best.

To the layman, there’s little to choose between the formats.

One side may eventually “win”, or dual format players will become the standard and then it won’t matter.

The good news is that player prices are dropping, so it’s not prohibitively expensive to buy a player, and enjoy your existing DVD collection in a new way to boot.

Stuart Waterman