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Duel of the Discs

A Japanese expert's assessment of next-generation DVD machines produces some surprises

5 min read

This seems to be the year when the real fight to the finish over next-generation DVD technology begins. To date, groups led by Sony and Toshiba, championing the Blu-ray Disc and the HD DVD format, respectively, have been locked in a kind of phony war, each maneuvering for position without much actual combat.

To be sure, the Blu-ray camp got off the first shots several years ago with the release of some bare-bones ­recorders in Japan. Then followed a long standoff, as the opposing groups sought to find a technological compromise to bridge their incompatible systems. After last-ditch talks failed last year, the truce came to an end this March when Toshiba Corp. shipped the industry’s first HD DVD players, sparking a barrage of product announcements and releases from the Blu-ray group.


Reiji Asakura

To get a sense of how those first offerings stack up against each other and whether next-generation DVD is all it’s cracked up to be, IEEE Spectrum visited with Reiji Asakura [photo], a noted digital media reviewer and critic in Japan who already possesses all available next-generation recorders and players released there. Asakura, 55 years old, teaches music theory and the history of music at the prestigious Tsudajuku University, in Tokyo. He is the author of 15 books, including Revolutionaries at Sony: The Making of the Sony PlayStation and the Visionaries Who Conquered the World of Video Games (McGraw-Hill, 2000), which has been translated into Chinese and Korean as well as English.

In what otherwise appears to be a normal family house on a quiet street in suburban Kawasaki, Asakura has commandeered the entire first floor of his two-story home for his hobby-cum-work, forcing his wife and two children to retreat upstairs. The rooms on the first level and even the entryway are literally crammed to the ceiling in some cases, with electronic consumer gear dating back to a Sony Betamax videocassette recorder; stacks of industry magazines, technical journals, and books on hobbies; and about 2000 VHS and Betamax videotapes. Piled up alongside these are boxes of records, laser-disc albums, and miscellaneous incongruous objects like large model airplanes and bottles of wine.

In the midst of this chaos, Asakura has made space to set up a home theater, the center of which is a magnificent motorized roll-up 380-centimeter screen. The screen is flanked by two towering speakers, part of an equally impressive 6.1-channel surround-sound audio system [see photo, " Doing It at Home”].

Asakura began the visit by demonstrating both terrestrial and satellite high-definition TV shows he had recorded on the first-generation Blu-ray recorders. Sony released the first such recorder in the Japanese market in April 2003, at a price of 450 000 yen, or around US $4000 at the time. Panasonic and Sharp followed with similar recorders the next year, also in Japan only, and Sharp’s model incorporated a hard disk. All these products targeted early adopters.

The ability to record high-definition television is potentially much more than just a geeky interest in Japan. The country’s national TV network, Japan Broadcasting Corp., or NHK, has been broadcasting HDTV programs via satellite since 2000 and began additional terrestrial HDTV service in 2003. Currently, more than 90 percent of all its prime-time programming is in high definition. NHK aims to increase this to 100 percent well before the government deadline of 2011, when Japan is due to change over to all-digital broadcasting.

The other five major Japanese TV networks are also broadcasting regularly in high definition, though they lag somewhat behind NHK. Meanwhile, flat-panel televisions, capable of ­displaying movies in the proper full-width format, are outselling boxy CRT sets, and the clear trend is for all televisions to incorporate high-­definition tuners.

Asakura played a couple of clips of news programs recorded in the 1080-line, interlaced high-definition format. These recordings didn’t do much to make the talking heads more interesting. But when Asakura slotted in a Blu-ray ­cartridge containing a recent live rendition of the Eagles’ ”Hotel California” in high definition, the result can only be described as the next best thing to being there. The Blu-ray recording had an impressive clarity of sound and video, more gradations of light and shadow, and a wealth of detail down to the sweat and wrinkles on the faces of the aging rockers.

”When it comes to TV broadcasting, this is not just a step-up, it’s another world,” says Asakura. ”Though to really appreciate the benefits, you need a large screen and surround sound.” The impact, he adds, is far less ”if you watch it on a TV of, say, 30 inches.”

Of the three Blu-ray recorders, he prefers using the Sharp machine, with its hard drive. ”This lets you easily edit and index a program before transferring it to disc for archiving,” he explains.

To sample Toshiba’s HD DVD technology and demonstrate how it stacks up against standard DVD, Asakura used the more expensive of the two ­consumer-oriented players that the company launched earlier this year in the United States: the HD-A1 and the HDâ''XA1, surprisingly low-priced at $499 and $799, respectively. Asakura chose to compare how the 2004 movie The Phantom of the Opera looked and sounded in the standard DVD and the HD DVD formats.

Bear in mind that although Asakura was doing the demonstration on large-scale, state-of-the-art equipment, average ­consumers increasingly have the ability to view DVDs in the wide-screen movie theater format as well, if that format is available on the disc. So for those people with LCD or plasma displays, the ­difference between a DVD movie and one recorded in the next-generation format is strictly a question of resolution, not one of screen shape and size.

In Asakura’s demonstration, while the HD DVD movie ­provided more detail, the overall differences—for this writer at least—were not ­significant and lacked the impact of watching the recorded high-definition TV programs contrasted against a standard TV broadcast recording. Asakura subsequently explained, however, that while he uses a standard DVD player, he also uses additional video-enhancement equipment to upgrade the viewing of standard DVDs to high-definition quality—a feature that is incorporated in the Toshiba HD DVD player and will be in Blu-ray players as well.

Unfortunately, therefore, Asakura’s comparison was not entirely faithful to what the average consumer’s experience would be, moving from standard unenhanced DVD to next-generation video recording.

Still, the way he did the demonstration drew attention to an important point: the video enhancement feature in the next-generation ­players will be a bonus for early adopters, for they will be able to virtually turn their current DVD movie collection into near-high-definition renditions.

This video enhancement feature built into the next-­generation disc players could well encourage videophiles to buy early models, despite remaining questions about several issues. Among them are copy-protection schemes that are still being finalized; absence of a guarantee that current products can be updated later to reflect new developments in copy protection; a dearth of prerecorded movies; and, of course, concern over whether one of the optical systems will eventually suffer the same fate the Sony Betamax videotape format met, when it lost out in the market against the VHS ­format in the 1980s.

In light of those uncertainties and despite the intrinsic appeal of the next-generation players, many consumers may opt for the time being to keep their wallets closed and their eyes open.

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