Unmistakable Marks

Warranted Genuine Snarks

After a long absence, I address the pressing issue of consumer electronics

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Well, here’s the deal: It turns out that I am most compelled to post when almost nobody is saying the sensible thing that I want to say. But these days, on most of the topics I pay attention to, it’s all sense, all the time. Bush? He’s a fuck-up, and everyone knows it. Using CSS on Web pages? Duh; it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when this was an argued point. Microsoft has switched from being incompetent fuck-ups to making excellent software? Obvious to everyone, now.

So I’ve got nothing to say. Or rather, I had nothing to say, and then I started reading articles about HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, which are more full of shit than a pile of, um, shit-filled boxes or something. According to everything you’ve probably read or heard, the new formats are barely better than regular ol’ DVD, it’s ridiculously silly to buy one now, and Blu-Ray is probably better if you are going to buy one. All so, so wrong. Let’s take ‘em in order.

“HD-DVD looks a little nicer than the regular DVD, but most people won’t notice.” Only if most people are not using HDTVs. HD-DVD is the single best HD source available — it’s better than cable, better than the trailers you can download off Xbox Live, and better than satellites. Everyone who’s ever seen HDTV knows that HD content is much, much better than old-style NTSC content, so why would the best HD source available not be a huge improvement over DVD? In reality, of course, it is. HD-DVD looks stunningly gorgeous, pretty much to the limits of your TV. It’s so pretty, I actually watched a big part of Phantom of the Opera.

“It’d be stupid to buy one now.” I’m not going to say it’s a no-brainer decision to buy one, but it’s hardly stupid. Toshiba’s HD-DVD player is $500. The middle of Denon’s line of well-regarded regular DVD players (which are fancier than your Wal-Mart $29 special, to be sure, but hardly high-end esoterica like a $3500 Krell player) is about $600, and the Toshiba player is generally said to be just as good as that, when playing regular DVDs. So if you care about DVD output more than the average joe (and if you’re following news about HD disc formats, you probably do), the HD-DVD player is not at all a bad buy. Even if HD-DVD goes belly-up next month, it’s not as if money spent on the player was wasted.

But obviously, you’re not really buying an HD-DVD player primarily for the purpose of playing legacy DVDs. You want to have yourself some HD fun. In the past, this is where you would have wanted to avoid being an early adopter, and particularly being an early adopter in a format war. The problem was, you could never go down to your local Blockbuster and just rent some of these new-fangled things. When I bought a DVD player lo these years ago, the only way to watch movies on it was to buy them. But these days, there are internets; and on at least some of the internets, there is Netflix. And Netflix will send you HD-DVDs at no extra charge. Which means that you can watch all the HD movies you want, and if the format fails, you’ve not spent a nickel building up a library. And this is supposed to be so incredibly risky that only the most foolish fool would jump in?

“Blu-Ray is technically superior.” On paper, this is true. On paper, Blu-Ray and HD-DVD are basically identical except that Blu-Ray holds 50GB instead of 30GB. In the actual world of today, though, not so much. The Blu-Ray discs that exist today are only 25GB, as they’ve been unable to manufacture the 50GB ones economically. Worse, the discs out there right now are encoded in the ancient MPEG-2 codec, whereas HD-DVD is encoded in the vastly superior VC-1. The result of this is that Blu-Ray movies look really bad compared to HD-DVD. Oh, and did I mention that the only Blu-Ray player out right now is $1000, twice as much as Toshiba’s HD-DVD player? And that it apparently sucks on playing legacy DVDs, so isn’t a safe fall-back purchase? Well, I did now. Blu-Ray genuinely is a “maybe in the future it’ll be cool” sort of proposition, as there’s no compelling content out there right now, and the available hardware is highly expensive.

Upshot to you: If you have an HDTV, ignore the out-of-touch nonsense being spouted off in mainstream technical opinion colums, and seriously consider buying yourself an HD-DVD player. And I’m not just saying this because I’m now invested in this format war, and want to cheerlead for the side I’ve bought into. Or at least, not mostly.

Comments | June 29, 2006

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