I've started contributing movie reviews to Sound & Vision, one of the last home theater magazines still available in print form (Home Theater Magazine merged with them back in 2013). You can also find some of my reviews on their site online; Everest is up. I'm focusing on titles with Dolby Atmos soundtracks and/or 3D for now.
First a bit of background: Kaleidescape is a high end media server vendor. They make boxes you have a custom installer put in one spot, which connect over a wired network to smaller boxes your installer connects to each TV and projector in your home. You - or your installer - copies all your DVDs onto the big box, and then you can watch all your movies anywhere in your home. Basically, it's Sonos for movies for rich people. How rich? Kaleidescape was actually the reason I instituted a policy not to review anything I could not reasonably afford. Years ago Kaleidescape offered me a full setup to review; I refused because I didn't want to take out an insurance policy on a loaner, and I didn't want to take out a second mortgage on the chance that I couldn't bear to return it. A full Kaleidescape system in those days easily topped $50,000. Prices have come way down, but most systems will still end up in the $20,000 range with installation.
I had good reason to fear wanting to keep a system. I have used Kaleidescape at trade shows and have been consistently impressed. It is fully babysitter proof and requires no technical knowledge to use whatsoever. As all the movies are ripped to the system's hard drive(s), movies start instantly. However, its one downfall is that until now it only supported DVDs, not Blu-ray discs. As many installations include equally expensive HD projectors, this is a real problem.
Kaleidescape's first stab at the problem was adding Blu-ray support to the M500 player - one of the small boxes you'd have near your TV. That certainly enables you to play a Blu-ray disc (both at that TV or anywhere else in the house), but it still requires physically handling the disc every time you want to watch a movie and it is not all that much better than a regular Blu-ray player from Sony or Samsung. The whole point of Kaleidescape is access to any movie you own instantly thoughout the house.
Kaleidescape is now selling a partial solution to the problem: you can rip Blu-ray discs to the hard drive in the server, and it will play off the server (which means you can include it compilation video playlists). However, to appease the copyright gods, Kaleidescape still has to physically verify that you own the Blu-ray disc before playing any of its sweet 1080p content. To do so, you'll need a media vault ($1500), the ugly box pictured on the right, which can hold up to 100 Blu-ray discs. You can add as many of these as you like, but each needs to be connected to an M-class player (like the M500). In short, Kaleidescape now allows Blu-rays to be treated just like DVDs, only there is a lot more complexity and kludginess involved. It's better than nothing, but it has to seriously pain Kaleidescape's management and engineering staff who have made simplicity and elegance a core part of the product's value proposition.
Well, this is nice: some of us have felt like suckers, buying the same titles over and over as formats have shifted from VHS to letterbox VHS to laserdisc to DVD to special edition DVD to Blu-ray (and I probably missed a few format changes in there). If you've got a bunch of Warner DVDs and feel compelled to upgrade them to Blu-ray, check out this Warner Brothers site: http://www.dvd2blu.com/. You'll have to physically mail in your DVDs, and shipping charges apply if you have less than four to upgrade, but if you have four or more from the list of 55 titles, it should be about $8 per disc. Not free, but not bad, and a nice gesture to loyal customers.
I was talking with Microsoft about the XBOX 360 earlier this week, and one of the things they said will drive consumers to their console vs. the competition is the integration of multiple features into Live, such as Netflix streaming, gaming, and other content. At Current Analysis our Digital Home service covers game consoles from the perspective of connected services; we treat a PS3, XBOX, or Wii like the fancy set top boxes (that not coincidentally also play games) that they have become. However, I thought we were a bit ahead of the curve - most consumers haven't fully embraced this vision yet. But when FedEx dropped off yet another box here this afternoon, I started thinking: how on Earth am I going to connect this? Is Microsoft right - will consumers buy a game console to access digital services simply because they're out of HDMI inputs on their TV?
Now I know that my situation is not something everyone faces, but how many devices can a consumer reasonably connect to a TV or even a sophisticated A/V receiver? I'm not sure there are enough inputs any more - even on flagship receivers - to connect all the possible devices an early adopter/TV nut might want to. (Some of these offer redundant functionality, but even then there are typically unique functions that could justify their purchase.) Here's a sample list:
I'm trying to integrate about eight or nine of those, and I'm not sure that there is a receiver on the planet that can handle more than about half that list.
Look, it's a great format, and I certainly try to rent Blu-ray (from Netflix) and buy Blu-ray discs in the rare cases where I'm buying. I'm even upgrading a few discs from DVD to Blu-ray: Groundhog Day is coming out on Blu-ray on January 27! We watch that one at least annually. When Star Wars comes out on Blu-ray, yeah, I'll buy it yet again even though the DVD is pristine. The thing is, even CNET admits that the only reason a consumer would buy Blu-ray is for picture quality, and, I'm sorry, that's not a good reason for most consumers to upgrade. Upsampled DVD looks very good on nearly any television - even big HDTV sets. Move to a projector/screen combination, and the difference becomes obvious -- which is why I'm renting/buying Blu-ray discs myelf -- but no matter how inexpensive 1080p projectors get, that's still a niche market because projectors require setup and light control. DVD player penetration is pretty high (80%), and there's just no reason to upgrade even when you add an HDTV to the equation.
Here's one from the mailbag:
Avi, We want to buy a 37" LCD TV. Is there a significant difference between 720P and 1080P?
Yes, there is a significant difference between 720p and 1080p – though it depends on what you’re watching on it, and even then you may not be able to see the difference. The bottom line is that you can almost always get away with buying a 720p set and saving the money, but nobody seems to believe this answer, so here’s a slightly more involved one:
First, two quick definitions:
1. the “p” in 1080P or 720P = progressive, where the signal has information in every horizontal line, just like a computer monitor.
2. the “i” in 1080i = interlaced, where the signal alternates horizontal lines similar to the way an analog TV works – the information alternates fast enough that you usually can’t tell the difference.
Now you need to answer two questions:
What are you watching? (You want to be able to display all the information that your signal contains, but how much information is actually in that signal?)
· If you’re watching a DVD, it’s 480p. So even a 720p TV is overkill – either the TV or the DVD player will do some magic to “fill in” the extra pixels it has to make up the picture.* A 1080p set has to fill in even more pixels with guesswork.
· If you’re watching HDTV, it’s either 720p or 1080i. Some channels use one resolution (for example, NBC uses 1080i) and some use the other (for example, Fox uses 720p) – this happens behind the scenes when you change channels; you don’t have to do anything. 720p and 1080i both have about the same amount of picture information (720p tends to look better for fast motion like sports, while 1080i tends to look better for scenes without much motion, like dramas), both count as real HDTV, and both look spectacular when displayed properly on an HDTV.
o When you watch a 720p channel on a 720p TV, you’re seeing everything that’s there.
o When you watch a 1080i channel on a 720p TV, first it fills in the interlacing by guessing what the missing line ought to be, and then drops a bit of the resolution.
o When you watch a 720p channel on a 1080p TV, it does some magic to “fill in” the extra pixels.
o When you watch a 1080i channel on a 1080p TV, it fills in the interlacing by guessing what the missing line ought to be.
· If you’re watching a Blu-ray disc, congratulations, you’re watching the only consumer format capable of displaying full 1080p.
o A 720p set throws out some of that resolution; it usually still looks better than a DVD.
o A 1080p set displays all the information on there without any changes.
Now, let’s assume you are going to watch Blu-ray discs 100% of
the time. Question two: can you actually see the difference between 720p and
This will depend on several factors:
· How good is your eyesight? Seriously.
· How big is the TV, and how far away are you sitting? In smaller screen sizes it usually doesn’t matter if you’re cramming one or two million pixels into the set; unless you’re sitting two feet away you won’t be able to see the difference. Higher resolution allows you to sit closer to the set and does nothing for you if you’re farther back. For example, if you’re sitting ten to twelve feet back from a 50” TV you literally cannot see the difference between 720p and 1080p. Some people want to get the higher resolution anyway. I am not one of those people. My couch is about 12 feet away from my displays, and my 50” plasma is a 720p model. My projector, on the other hand, projects onto an 8’ screen that comes down in front of the plasma; the projector is a 1080p model because when the images are projected that large, the difference between 720p and 1080p is quite obvious.
Conclusion: unless you plan to sit awfully close to that 37” set and watch a lot of Blu-ray discs, there’s no reason to spend more on a 1080p version. If you insist on spending money for something you can’t see, I won’t stop you. But you’ll be much happier if you put the extra money into a good surround sound system.
Does the upcoming change in broadcasting frequency have any impact on the reception?
It depends. If you’re getting your TV shows from cable or satellite, the analog/digital switchover will make no difference whatsoever. None. You do not need to do anything at all.
If you’re getting your TV shows from an antenna, then you’ll need either a new HDTV with a digital tuner built in, or a new tuner/converter box. Your reception will either get much better or much worse, and it will vary by channel, how far away you are from the station, and (in some cases) your physical location (i.e., if you’re at the bottom of a hill or sandwiched between big buildings). Digital channels do not degrade gradually. A rough rule of thumb is that if you get a reasonably clear channel today, you’ll probably get an even better looking version of it on digital. On the other hand, if you have a snowy channel that’s just sort of watchable today, once it goes digital you probably won’t get it at all.
Hope this helps,
*720x480 progressive, or about 350,000 pixels of actual information per frame. This is a gross oversimplification, but it provides a good basis for comparison. 1280 x 720 = around 900,000 pixels. Incidentally, this is why watching analog TV channels or VHS video on an HDTV usually looks much, much worse than it did on your old analog TV; the new TV is trying to take very little information (VHS is roughly 240i, or 480x240 every other frame, or the equivalent of about 60,000 pixels) and displaying it on something expecting more than ten times that information to create the picture. Without much to go on, the TV fudges, which, instead of looking soft and fuzzy like an analog set, looks blocky and horrible.
Well, I'm back from Las Vegas, but my body is still on the wrong time zone. There were three main stories at this year's CES:
Other CES trends:
Due to a hyper travel schedule I will not be in SFO for MacWorld next week, however I will be covering announcements made at the show from afar. Should be interesting!
The Leichtman Research Group (an ex-Yankee Group analyst) put out a press release with some interesting stats on consumer HD awareness.
LRG claims that over 75% of HDTV owners believe that they are watching HD programming, but LRG estimates that "about 53% of all HD households are actually watching HD programming from a multi-channel video provider (cable, DBS or a telco), and about 4% are watching HD programming via broadcast-only - leaving about 20% of those with an HDTV erroneously thinking that they are watching HD programming when they are not." That may actually be better than previous studies, which put the number of HD delusionals at 25%.
But it doesn't stop with TV content. According to LRG, "about 40% of HDTV owners, and over 20% of all adults, believe that their household currently has a high definition DVD player." Actual HD-DVD and Blu-ray player sales penetration -- even including every last Sony PS3, whether it is being used for movies or not -- equates to single digit household penetration numbers, not 20%. I've been saying this for years now: many consumers don't think there's a problem that they need an HD format to solve for them. Even once/if the format war is resolved, the HD-DVD and Blu-ray camps will need to do some serious educational outreach / demand creation.
Engadget just posted a nice wrap-up of their CEDIA coverage. (I was not able to attend CEDIA; after Nokia's big London event last week, I went to RIM and Motorola events this week and even had to follow the Apple announcements from afar due to scheduling). The big news both at CEDIA and in the press last month is around the HD-DVD Blu-ray war; HD-DVD gained a studio just when it appeared Blu-ray was pulling away with software sales, and both Samsung and LG have new dual-format players coming to market demonstrated at the show.
Back in January at CES, I attended the launch of LG's first dual-format player, and it looked like it might assuage early adopters fears about getting into the market. Certainly, the new players, which support even more features of both formats, are welcome. However, with the software schism, prospects for success for either format have gotten much worse. The only way a HD disc format could succeed is if it brought new experiences to consumers along with overwhelming industry support.
With some content available only on one format and some on another, consumers are understandably gun-shy. So industry support is certainly far from overwhelming. But a more fundamental problem is why anyone beyond videophiles should care about either HD-DVD or Blu-ray.
(For a videophile, higher resolution is reason enough to embrace a new format. I've bought and re-bought DVDs several times just to get versions enhanced for 16x9 TVs and better transfers. I am decidely NOT normal. The problem is, there aren't enough videophiles out there to make a mass market. Normal people need clear reasons to move to something new, and upsampled DVDs look pretty good.)
The last transition brought a lot more than just better looking video. The move from VHS to DVD brought:
The move from DVD to either HD format is basically the DVD experience, plus:
I made these points back when the formats were first announced, but it's worth repeating now. Neither format offers average consumers enough to get excited about. If the PS3, which includes a good Blu-ray player as part of the package, had been a smash hit AND content providers all lined up to support the format, it might have had a shot at replacing DVD by default. But the PS3 has struggled out of the gate and is getting trounced by Nintendo's Wii, which cannot play movies at all. Wal~Mart will be offering inexpensive HD-DVD players this Christmas, but if the content question is still in doubt (and titles are more expensive than DVDs), free players would not make much of a difference.
Consumers are moving to random access media. A strong case could be made for a new format that brought HD video resolution to a media server where it could be queued up at will from a visual menu, seamlessly distributed around the house, moved to portable/phone/car -based systems, and sliced and diced for instant access to greatest hits scenes (like a typical spliced-together YouTube video). This would be a significant improvement for consumers who today must load individual discs from racks of DVDs or download movies from iTunes to watch on a single PC or iPod touch. Of course, content owners won't let this happen -- they can't even get out of their own way with HD DVD/Blu-ray. But if Hollywood doesn't create and monetize a system like this themselves, consumers will eventually piece something like it together on their own with pirated/downloaded content and/or content ripped from DVDs. Sure, the video quality won't be as good, but video quality alone isn't enough to get consumers move to a new format - or keep them from moving to different format, either.
The New York Times (free registration required) has an article up on the difficulties facing independant DVD labels:
The most important point? Overall DVD sales are stalled. I suspect that sales will start to fall next year as collectors have built their libraries and the market is saturated: anyone who doesn't already own a DVD player simply doesn't want one (my supermarket sells DVD players for $20, so it certainly isn't an affordability hurdle).
High def discs will not make up the slack, even if a miracle occurs and the format war ends tomorrow, because half the people with HDTVs are perfectly satisfied with upsampled broadcast TV (480i at best), never mind DVDs (anamorphic 480p).
The Wall Street Journal has a great article (subscription required) quoting a recent survey showing that 50% of consumers who bought an HDTV set don't actually have HDTV service. What's more frightening - and yet entirely believable - is that 25% of HDTV owners think that they do have HDTV when they don't. Well worth a read.
JupiterKagan's Michael Gartenberg has a great post about the three elements needed to successfully launch a new consumer media format. He concludes that neither HD-DVD or Blu-Ray measures up.
Full disclosure: I created the diagram that Michael uses to illustrate his point back when I was an analyst at what was then called JupiterResearch and he was my Research Director; it was for a report on next generation audio formats.
I attended Samsung's Blu-ray Disc player launch this evening at the Samsung Experience in New York and came away disappointed. There were several things wrong with the launch, starting with the fact that it was off by ten days (the players won't actually be available for sale until the 25th):
Now, it's certainly possible that the sound glitch was just a glitch. And that in a controlled environment, there would be audible benefits to the enhanced bit rate version of Dolby Digital used on Blu-ray. And that, over the course of an entire movie - we saw just a few minutes - the higher resolution video would have altered the experience. It's even possible that while romantic comedies such as 50 First Dates do not benefit from Blu-ray, an epic film, animation, or sci-fi really would. I have been on the record saying that most consumers will not be excited by a new disc format - you need several real enhancements to sell a new format, and the only thing Blu-ray offers is higher video resolution for videophiles. Nonetheless, I always assumed that videophiles - and I am one - would be excited by Blu-ray.
But I got none of that from the launch. Samsung's clearly artificial excitement bled away any possibility of the real thing. This was the official launch of a product I've been following and looking forward to for several years - there should have been no way for me to have felt like heckling during the presentation. I have been to product launches where Steve Jobs made me excited about a sneaker/iPod combo for hard core runners, and I have not run anywhere since I was in fifth grade. I've been to product launches for televisions - Samsung televisions, in fact - that made me want to pull out my credit card. I have been to product launches for high definition audio formats that I knew were dead on arrival, but at least they made you believe, for a little while, that they might succeed.
The actual Blu-ray experience may be a lot better than Samsung's launch of the first Blu-ray player. I certainly hope it is.
When assessing the relative strength of HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray for high definition disc format war handicapping, I have always been quick to point out that DVD is the likely successor to DVD, as it is "good enough" for most consumers and addresses a larger installed base of non-HDTVs in addition to HDTV sets with decent anamorphic ("enhanced for widescreen TV") performance. But the other thing I have noted time and time again is that Sony's Playstation 3 (PS3) was a potential trojan horse, bringing Blu-Ray playback to the masses. At E3 today, Sony announced the pricing and availability for the PS3, and it's... well, it's late and it's exhorbitant. In the U.S., the PS3 will start shipping November 17 for at least $500. $600 buys the version with HDMI, which you'll need to get all that Blu-Ray goodness over to your HDTV. Will Sony sell more $500 and $600 PS3's than Toshiba sells of its $500 HD-DVD deck? Probably, but this is hardly a price point that will resonate beyond hard core gamers, and the Blu-Ray capabilities are not a "freebie" when you have to pay $600 for it.
The PS3 pricing will come down over time, and so will pricing on standalone HD-DVD and Blu-Ray decks. And the PS3 may yet be the tipping point that puts Blu-Ray over the edge. But even if that does end up being the case, this trojan horse is going to take an awfully long time to mosey over the finish line. In the meantime, it's looking like both formats will have a long, tough fight ahead of them, and may never amount to much more than the laserdisc of this era, to be replaced by on-demand downloads, holographic media, better codecs for red-laser media(DVD-something) or ...something else.
HD-DVD was formally launched last week with a single, $499 Toshiba deck. HomeTheaterView has not had a chance to get in a review unit yet, but Evan Powell over at Projector Central bought a unit and gushes buckets about it.
Part of his review is a primer on the difference between 1080i and 1080p at the source vs. how its delivered to the display; this type of arcane differentiation is what pushes normal people to choose formats based on even dubious specs. For now, there's nothing concrete to compare HD-DVD to in the market. But there's so little content for HD-DVD that a few month lead over Blu-Ray probably won't make much difference in the long run.
Part IV of my post-CES scribbles; each of the next few posts includes a quick look back on 2005 trends and a quick discussion of products introduced at CES 2006. This installment: Media Formats
The warring HD disc camps (HD-DVD and Blu-Ray Disc) could not achieve compromise, but did not actually ship anything to the market, either. With nearly no support from content owners, SACD and DVD-Audio essentially died in 2005.
At CES 2006…
Toshiba hyped its first HD-DVD player at the modest price of only $499. In contrast, Pioneer announced a single Pioneer Elite Blu-Ray Disc player for $1800. Sony is still expecting to sell PS3’s with BD playback capability (and a reasonable price point), but no live PS3 units were shown at the show. In general, 2006 does not look like the year of prerecorded HD disc adoption. Pricing is too high, the available content library is too small, and there's the whole format war issue. Worse, the DVD revolution is winding down, and even on an HDTV, many consumers will find that DVD is “good enough” regardless of the outcome of the format war.
Tekrati picked up my post last week on the death of VHS, and implied that I said that Blu-Ray and HD-DVD killed off VHS. Nothing could be further from the truth! I often question whether there's any mass market demand for a high definition format in the first place (and before I get flamed, yes, there is strong enthusiast demand. I certainly want to go beyond 480p). But only 11% of households have an HDTV, and anamorphic ("enhanced for widescreen") DVD looks pretty darn good on those sets. We're also going into the format war without clear and massive support from the content providers (many of the titles expected to launch this Christmas season for HD-DVD have been pulled). In my opinion, the real key will be Sony's PS3, which is supposed to have a Blu-Ray drive. Will it ship on time? Will it be affordable? Will it be a huge hit based on its gameplay, and build an installed base of Blu-Ray players with consumers who would be reluctant to buy a high definition disc player on its own merits?
Regardless, the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD format war is a fiasco of the first order, and doesn't affect existing formats in any way. Plain old DVD killed VHS. DVD sales are slowing, but that's just a natural consequence of format saturation; in other words, once people build up their initial library of DVD titles, they stop buying as often. But we aren't seeing consumers holding off on DVD purchases because they anticipate the high definition release of the material.
I was somewhat surprised that Beuna Vista's backing away from VHS didn't receive more press. But this week Video Business reported that LucasFilm is releasing Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith on DVD only. It seems that the recent Star Wars movie releases performed spectacularly on DVD, but did so poorly on VHS that many retailers sent back their VHS stock to the distributor and had to be destroyed. Also worth noting: Video Business says Buena Vista will eliminate VHS entirely next year; I expect the rest of the studios to follow.
Yes, at long last, the industry is consolidating the number of media types for pre-recorded movies... unfortunately, it looks like both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD will be launched as is, without any compromise. This really isn't all that unexpected, given the jockeying back and forth lately: Blu-Ray announced that its media can be manufactured inexpensively (which was supposed to be a key HD-DVD advantage) and HD-DVD announced 45GB capacity versions (nearly matching Blu-Ray's 50GB storage, which was supposed to be a key Blu-Ray advantage). But the two formats are fundamentally different at a technical level. For example, the laser reads a different depth for each format. It might not be impossible to create one player that handles both discs, but it turns out it is impossible to merge the two formats themselves.
So what's dead? VHS. I know I haven't rented VHS since the dawn of DVD almost nine years ago, but I'm an early adopter; established formats generally take a long, long time to die. However, Beuna Vista (a Disney subsidiary) has announced that Herbie: Fully Loaded will arrive on DVD on October 25th, and on VHS... never. Keep in mind that this was a moderately successful family film, the type of title that often makes most of its money on video sales and rentals, if not at the box office. This is the type of title that keeps full frame versions alive. This is the type of title that traditionally sold well on both VHS and DVD. And yet, Beuna Vista plans no VHS version.
May the VHS format rewind in peace.
There's been a flurry of news over the past month about Blu-Ray and HD-DVD backers getting together to avoid a format war for the next generation of high definition discs. I've avoided covering each step on the drama, so here's a quick recap of the posturing between the two camps:
To this, Bill Hunt over at The Digital Bits took in a bit of E3 hype and concluded that Blu-Ray has already won (5/17/05 "Early Post"), based on the potential PS3 installed base:
I'm going to go out in a limb right now and post something that some of you may consider a bit controversial. But I think the writing is on the wall. I think the format war is over before it's even begun, and the Toshiba/HD-DVD camp is toast.
Why? You know how many PlayStation 2 systems Sony's sold since that unit's launch? 87 million. Let me repeat that. 87 million. 1.5 million were sold in the PS2's first month of availability alone.
I already covered the PS3 angle back in March noting that with PS3 support, Blu-Ray should be able to solve the chicken and egg problem better than HD-DVD to get an installed base. Of course, that assumes that Sony prices the unit within reach of the masses. Despite lots of details coming out of the PS3 launch this week, pricing hasn't been announced, so Sony could theoretically decide to sell the PS3 at $999 and kill the market. They won't do that, but console pricing will have an outsized impact here.
New connectivity options often drive product design, and DVI/HDMI is no exception. DVI and HDMI are interfaces that allow you to keep the signal in the digital domain throughout their journey, making hookup simpler, and providing a noticeably sharper picture when viewing digital content (such as DVD or HDTV) on digital displays (like plasma, LCD, DLP, or LCOS), as the signal is never converted back and forth to analog at all.
I've already written about how computer-like interfaces open up the A/V cable market to new entrants, but every product in the A/V chain may need to change as well. There are already DVD players with DVI outputs from Samsung, V, and others - some at prices barely above non-DVI equipped models. Most current HDTV tuners and set top boxes have DVI or HDMI outputs. TVs and front projectors have embraced the interface, but only partially - most offer just a single DVI or HDMI input. So how do you hook up two things to one interface?
While specialized switching gear exists, it's not usually cost effective, so A/V switching is a classic task for a receiver (along with audio processing and amplification). For the moment, the only receiver or processor that I know of that switches DVI for you is Sony's ES STR-DA9000ES flagship... a $3,000 behemoth. Outlaw Audio has announced a more affordable receiver due out... eventually (after botching the 950's product launch they've gotten a lot more conservative with their release date announcements).
LG has an interesting solution - combine the two most likely sources into a single component. The LST3510A combines an upconverting DVD player with an ATSC (over the air) HDTV tuner, and a single DVI output for both sources. It works extremely well... when it works. The manual is terrible, offering little actual information about either the DVD functionality or HDTV tuning. The on screen user interface is excellent - but it doesn't control output format (a variety of choices including 480i, 480p, 720p, and 1080i). For that, you need to use two switches on the front, which toggle back and forth between selection and change. While relatively simple, I found this maddening and have never successfully changed settings on the first or second try. It also precludes easily programming different resolutions for different displays or source material into a universal remote control. It's own remote control is pretty good - no backlighting, but buttons are differentiated by size and shape, and overall layout is reasonably intelligent.
HDTV tuner performance is exceptional, which was not surprising given Zenith's long history with the standard (LG owns what's left of Zenith, including their HD patent portfolio). The LG LST3510A locked in on some unamplified signals, indoors, in my basement, using a simple UHF loop antenna, when the signal meter read almost zero, and with a lot of multipath distortion (signals bouncing around off of obstacles - my house is not in an ideal HDTV location). This equals or bests any other HD tuner I've seen.
The channel guide did not reliably work, but that may be dependant on the broadcasters, so I'm not sure whether to fault LG here. The tuner is ATSC-only. No NTSC (regular TV), no analog or digital cable, no satellite. So even if the guide were to work, you’d be limited to seeing HDTV programming. There’s also no digital output such as IEEE1394 (Firewire) suitable for copying the HDTV signal to DVHS tape or to a hard drive like a ReplayTV or TiVo unit. Sure, over the air HDTV is incredibly detailed, but being forced to watch commercial television on the network’s schedule with no control over commercials is cruel.
DVD upsampling performance is also exceptional. I noticed no artifacts, excellent 3-2 pulldown, and there was noticeably more detail in upsampled 720p images over DVI than in 480i playback over component video from my "reference" Panasonic and Sony DVD players. Sure, those are budget decks, but then the LG isn't all that expensive either once you consider the cost of standalone HDTV tuners. The point is, if you go with an all digital signal path, you want there to be a difference, and in my experience, that difference is clearly noticeable. Not earth shattering, mind you, but clearly noticeable nonetheless.
This high performance convergence does come at the cost of audiophile friendliness – neither high resolution multi-channel music format is supported. I suppose truly serious audiophiles may simply add a dedicated DVD-Audio and/or SACD player to the rack – analog connections should be fine for the limited video content on those discs. Everyone else will continue studiously ignoring both formats.
Overcoming Initial Flakiness
As great as I found the HDTV and DVD performance to be, the unit as a whole didn’t always work at first, and I couldn't begin to tell you why, as I haven’t been able to replicate the problems. Most of the time, the unit started right up, the TV locked onto the signal, and everyone was happy. However, for the first two months I had the unit, once in a while it would start up in whatever mode you left it in (tuner or DVD), but if you subsequently switched modes, the TV wouldn't pick up the signal. Sometimes the audio signal sent to the receiver was out, too. And sometimes, the unit started up and neither audio or video were working.
Any number of things seem to reset the machine - or not. Turning the unit on/off, cycling through display output resolutions, switching modes, removing/inserting a DVD. I have heard numerous problems with DVI input/output incompatibilities, and HDCP copy protection on top of them, so my experience is likely not unique. While the video sync could be a problem interacting with my TV (lately, a 50" JVC D-ILA), the occasional audio sync problems suggest problems with the unit itself. Perhaps it was just getting used to its new environment – the gremlins seem to have completely disappeared.
Another problem I have with the unit is not it's own fault, but can be blamed on the dual-use nature: Logitech's Harmony remotes, which magically program themselves over the Internet, choke on the LST3510A. The big problem is determining whether the LG should be considered a DVD player or an HDTV tuner. It's both, but the Logitech software treats the unit differently depending on how you classify it. Logitech tech support assures me that they're working on the problem, and when I updated the remote to account for a new receiver several new commands for the LG showed up as well. Progress! In the meantime, I could simply program the Harmony remote manually, but if I'm going to do that, I could just use my Philips Pronto – if I had time to program that…
Until reasonably priced receivers with DVI and HDMI switching are common (and we’ve all been compelled to upgrade our existing gear), it makes a tremendous amount of sense to add an upsampling DVD player to an HDTV tuner in a single box with DVI or HDMI outputs. In addition to its sensibility, LG’s LST3510A is a bargain at only $399 – some less capable HDTV tuners cost more, making the DVD playback essentially free. However, there were clearly some glitches in my setup where the TV, receiver, and LG unit were not communicating properly with each other at first. I’m keeping my unit, but as much as the raw performance and value push me to recommend this product, I cannot do so unconditionally. Buy one, but make sure the retailer will take it back if your TV won’t play nice with it.
It seems like everybody's writing stories about the upcoming HD disc format war between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray (BD). The technical specs are reasonably locked down, but everything else is up in the air - perfect fodder for journalism/rampant speculation. Gizmodo had prematurely called HD-DVD the winner based on studio support (I called them on it here). More recently, DVDFile.com posted a follow up of sorts - also trying to predict a winner based on the various studios and where they're currently lined up on the issue. This is pretty hard to do because the studios are about evenly split, and will likely move to whichever format appears to be winning.
A couple of key points that tend to get overlooked:
HD-DVD is cheaper/easier to replicate. OK, this isn't overlooked, everyone points this out. But the implications go well beyond speed to market and Warner's willingness to flood the market with titles. Plain old DVD penetration is now approaching 75% in the U.S. market. With cheap players, cheap software, a huge installed base, and no need for an expensive high definition TV, regular DVD looks likely to remain a mainstream format indefinitely. No HD format is going to kill off regular DVD any time in the next decade; killing the golden DVD goose would be suicide for the studios. If Hollywood is going to make any additional money over and above regular DVD revenue, there are just two ways to do it:
· One way is to sell high definition discs as a higher priced separate SKU in addition to regular DVDs. Never mind retailers' reluctance to stock even more SKUs of each title, nobody wants to reinvent the limited laserdisc market. However, I should point out the videophile market is considerably larger now than it was: Joe and Jane Q. Public has gotten used to director's commentaries, proper film aspect ratios, and are beginning to gain exposure to HDTV.
· The other way is to sell HD-DVD as part of every "collector's edition" SKU along with regular DVDs. If HD-DVD replication costs are essentially the same as regular DVDs, that would enable studios to continue with a business model that seems to be working already: a basic movie-only SKU, and a deluxe, 2 or 3 disc collector's edition -- only one of those discs has the movie on HD-DVD, adding value, and keeping the pricing of the collector's editions from slipping down DVD's brutal price curve. This strategy may also negate BD's space advantage -- just keep all the supplements on the regular DVD disc - most of them don't have to be in high def anyway.
So HD-DVD is a winner, right? Not necessarily. At least initially, prices for the decks will be in the $1,000 range. CE vendors will be reluctant to push prices too low, too quickly, as there's no margin left in regular DVD players, and they'll want to make back their R&D. Still, prices will have to fall fast because a pricey HD-DVD player is going to be a tough sell with a full blown format war on -- consumers will simply wait on the sidelines. Even with reasonably priced players, DVD may be considered "good enough" and consumers may direct their attention elsewhere in CE-land (it's shocking, but if you look at the numbers, apparently everyone has not bought an iPod and a cameraphone yet). And then you have a classic chicken and egg problem -- just how much will studios push a format for an installed base that doesn't exist?
It's here that BD has a secret weapon: the Sony Playstation 3. If Sony's next gaming console is a hit, that will put millions of subsidized BD players in homes, neatly solving the player/software chicken/egg problem. If the software is difficult to master and costly to replicate, you still may end up with a more limited, laserdisc-like audience. But if HD-DVD players don't sell in volume, a limited videophile market may be all we get from this group of HD disc formats, until the next new thing rolls along, or the whole industry goes hard drive or on-demand.
Aren't format wars great?
Wired is reporting that Disney has given up on Flexplay’s EZ-D disposable DVD format. The press had a field day getting environmental activists all riled up against the format, but that’s just a sidebar. If consumers found disposable DVDs moderately convenient, then the used discs would end up in the landfill alongside the rest of our disposable society. If the discs were a smash hit, then we’d end up with another color plastic recycling bin for media (which might not be a bad idea anyway. I must throw away hundreds of discs a year, even after AOL stopped mailing them to me twice a day). Since the format didn’t even make a dent, conventional wisdom says that consumers aren’t interested in a disc that self destructs 48 hours after you open the case.
Conventional wisdom is wrong – the product hasn’t been adequately tested to determine anything at all about consumer willingness to adopt one-time-use media. Simply put, the business model here is all wrong. Traditional video rental places won’t carry the product because there’s no return trip to encourage repeat business, and the pricing structure doesn’t fit in with their large scale agreements with Hollywood. Non-traditional locations (supermarkets, convenience stores) can’t sell the product at $5 or $7 each – there isn’t much margin in it for them, and they’re already carrying regular DVDs that sell in or just above that range. Target has an entire line of DVDs for $5.50, including some decent flicks (for example, the Special Edition of Total Recall). Other limited-use entertainment is priced lower: any cable subscriber with a STB can get VOD from their cable provider for $3 to $5 without ever leaving the house (and many digital systems provide for multiple start times or fast forward/rewind capabilities).
So let’s recap: nobody wants to sell this, “real” DVDs are priced at or just above EZ-D, VOD is priced below it. How exactly do you conclude from this that consumers aren’t interested in anything that self destructs after 48 hours?
Somewhat related, The Wall Street Journal had an article today (I got the paper version, no link, sorry) comparing services for legally downloading and watching movies over broadband on a PC. MovieLink and CinemaNow provide downloable movies for $3 to $5, which also self destruct (within 24 hours of hitting “play”). However, there’s a unique value proposition there for anyone who specifically wants to watch movies on their PC (for example, notebook users heading out on the road).
I don't know why this didn't come out at CES, but Samsung is expanding their lineup of upsampling DVD players. The key product feature is added 768p support, which is the native resolution for many plasma and projectors (the players will also do 480i for regular TVs, 480p for digital EDTVs, and 720p and 1080i for other HDTVs).
This is great news if you have a recent model 768p TV with DVI or HDMI, but this is NOT HD. It's merely moving the process of image manipulation from your TV over to your DVD player. Your HD TV has more lines of resolution than are on a DVD, so the image must be upconverted somewhere; doing it in the player itself can offer a slightly better picture by keeping the signal digital throughout its journey from disc to screen. Of course, that's only if you
I highly doubt most consumers will understand the nuances or set things up to properly take advantage of them. I remember how many questions I got when progressive scan DVD players came out (progressive scan DVD players make NO difference on analog TVs and often make no difference even on digital TVs that have good internal image processing). Lately it seems that any time you put the word high definition in the product description, consumer confusion ensues.
But can you blame the CE industry for trying? Margins on regular DVD players (even ones with progressive scan) are in the toilet. My supermarket sells $29.99 DVD players. So does the local gas station. Banks give them away instead of toasters when you open a checking account. Adding progressive scan didn't help things for manufacturers, as that simply became another feature on even the cheapest DVD players. Consumers rejected Nuon and similar "DVD and" schemes, and consumers are ignoring DVD-Audio and SACD without even discovering that they exist. Video killed the audio star (receiver and component sales have been dropping for years), and DVD has been a gravy train for Hollywood but not Japan. HD-DVD and Blu-Ray are the CE industry's last hope for reclaiming profits out of media players, which is why we're getting a HD disc format war nobody wants. In the meantime, the hope is that upsampling players will convince consumers to buy another deck (and spend actual money on it this time).
The New York Times today reviewed upsampling DVD players. What I found remarkable was the balance between making a somewhat difficult concept easy to understand for non-enthusiasts, while still being technically accurate. As a bonus, it was a reasonably vigorous review, and even offered clear conclusions. But this exception to the rule highlights just how bad a job the consumer electronics industry has done complicating the products and the jargon. Even efforts to simplify things on a practical and technical level come in acronym form with compatibility notes back to other acronyms (think HDMI and DVI).
The industry as a whole needs to do a much better job of demystifying this stuff. My brother, apparently, reads Home Theater View; his feedback on the column on Intel's LCOS fiasco/TI's direct-to-consumer DLP advertising? What the heck is DLP, LCOS, and OLED? Clearly, some of his confusion is my fault (and the expected readership of this site). Still, my brother's a smart guy, but he can't possibly know from a discussion on microdisplays to buy one of these TVs if he doesn't know that TVs are the subject of the discussion...
Last month I pointed out that Gizmodo declared the HD-DVD wars over with Blu-Ray victorious due to better studio support. This week, four major studios lined up behind HD-DVD. With Sony and Columbia firmly behind Blu-Ray, this is shaping up to be an interesting format war.
Bill Hunt over at The Digital Bits suggests that a format war is better than the situation we had at the launch of DVD - where nobody other than Warner was promising to support the format. He goes on to say that if hardware vendors provide universal players, actual format could be irrelevant.
In the long run, sure, but what a waste! Dueling marketing dollars, more expensive players, and consumer confusion mean slower uptake. Plus, it's possible that consumers simply tune out format wars at this point - as evidenced by DVD-A vs SACD (more on this later).
Michael Gartenberg over at JupiterResearch points out that first-to-market advantage is overrated - early adopters will buy whatever is available - and it's the mainstream consumer you need to worry about.
True - and the existence of JVC's tape-based D-Theater proves that the earliest adopters will do anything to advance the state of prerecorded HD - but I'd take this a step further: these formats have a lot to prove even without a format war.
Nobody has shown me evidence that mass market consumers actually want higher resolution discs:
Interesting analysis over at Gizmodo, particularly the charts highlighting market share for the studios. I think it’s premature to declare the format wars over well before any product actually reaches the US market – so many things could go wrong for either camp.
As I’ve written before (here and here, and here), a bigger issue is whether there’s much of a market for prerecorded HD content in the first place. Anamorphic DVDs cross the “good enough” threshold for most people – even on HDTVs. Star Wars on DVD - remastered yesterday, but shot in 1977 – looks spectacular on my 7’ screen, and most consumers watch on considerably smaller televisions. There’s concern about buyer fatigue (speaking of Star Wars, this is the fourth time I’ve bought it already), killing the DVD golden goose by introducing any format confusion, and pricing.
Ah, pricing. Yes, all the players are going to be backwards compatible (who cares about the technology – if a red laser DVD costs $29 at Wal-Mart, you can just it in any kind of player). But if the disc itself isn’t backwards compatible, you need to either have two separate SKUs – retailers hate that – or put two discs in the box – doubling the cost of media.
So will HD releases be more expensive? Will consumers pay extra to get both formats? If consumers won’t pay more for both discs, then studios will have to go the multiple SKU route. In that case, the HD format will be limited to a high end niche, and for titles big enough to get shelf space. That’s enough to get me excited about the format – I’m a sucker for anything that promises a noticeably better picture. It probably has a bit more appeal than the old videophile-only laserdisc (which never got out of low single-digit penetration), too, as DVD has considerably broadened the home theater audience. Even so, it is unlikely to be a mass market product or replace DVD as a format.