Monday, November 12, 2007

We're High-Def Baby

So, the HD-DVD forum, has decided to put a sleeper hold on Sony and Blu-Ray.

Sony has been sustaining Blu-Ray on the back of the PS3; but the thing originally cost $600 ($699 list), and people just weren't buying them. It seems that $399 is the upper limit for what people are willing to pay for a game console; because any higher than that, and they can get better results and more utility with a PC they buy for just a bit more money.

Sony had cut the price to $599 list (about $500 street) and still sold less than half of what they projected. They've just cut it again to $499 for Christmas, and added a lower specced model. Even the new stripped down model they sell for $399 is tanking on the shelves; but they can't go below $399, because they were already losing $200 on every PS3 they sold at $600, never mind ower.

If you take the PS3 out of the equation, standalone Blu-Ray players have sold less than half of their HD-DVD competition; and it's about to get worse.

From now until at least Christmas, you'll be seeing HD-DVD players that were normally selling from $299 to $600 suddenly selling for under $200-$300.

The manufacturers are selling them out as loss leaders, to increase unit sales; and man it is working.

Lots of people have been betting on Blu-Ray because of Sonys backing and tactics, but for the last two years, Sony has actually been in serious trouble. Their management has been sacked twice now; and almost all their profits were coming from SCEA, the electronic entertainment group, that includes the PS3. Well, the PS3 is a flop, that pulls a $200 loss to Sony for every unit they sell; and those Playstation profits have just evaporated.

On the content side of things, Sony has been losing partners all throughout 2007; as now every studio except Sony, Disney, Fox, and MGM have switched either exclusively to HD-DVD, or they are supporting both formats.

With this new sales drive, HD-DVD should achieve the critical mass of home players necessary to institute the network effect. This is especially true, with HD-DVD drives available for the X-BOX 360 (and believed to be place directly inside the chassis as of next years major revision), and coming pre-installed in far more home computers than Blu-Ray (even Sony only has a couple models with them).

The sad part is, Blu-Ray is technically superior (slightly)but it's sonys pricing and insistence on control that are killing it.

Now, Sony can't afford to make the same kind of price cuts with Blu-Ray; one, because they have no profits to discount out of; but also because they recognize that half the sales they've made of the PS3 are due to it being the cheapest Blu-Ray player on the market (and it still is by the way. at $399 it's $50 cheaper than the lowest price standalone models generally available street price; though I've seen that model discounted to $379 on sale in the last two weeks). If they were to discount Blu-Ray players, they'd be cannibalizing their already pathetic PS3 sales.

Two weeks ago, Best Buy had a blowout sale on the Toshiba HD-A2, which lists at $299 (and usually streets at $249), for $99. It was gone in about two hours of course. This weekend Costco is doing the same model for $169; and they've got a lot more stock than Best Buy had.

To top it all off, Toshiba is offering anyone who buys one of their HD players, five free HD-DVDs (from a list of about 25) as a rebate (there is a similar rebate available for Blu-Ray)

I'd been planning to sit out the fray for a while, and either wait for one of the obscenely expensive dual format machines to come down in price (currently about $699); or to see who came out on top. With that price in front of us though, we took the plunge and bought an HD-DVD player this weekend. We also grabbed four movies: Top Gun, Serenity, 300, and Blazing Saddles.

Oh my god, why did we wait again? This thing is worth twice the price.

Now, please note, I don't even have an HDTV yet. I have a high quality SDTV, with component inputs; but not an HDTV (we were planning on buying one for Christmas, but a new transmission for the truck nixed that idea) . It's being switched through a standard AV receiver with no HDMI, and no conversions (also, just for giggles, we hooked it up to one of my higher end computer monitors, and played some HD content at 720p).


This thing looks incredible on both the monitor, and on the TV. It's WAY better on the TV than regular DVD. You wouldn't think the difference would be so notable; but I have two of those four movies on standard DVD, and switching back and forth, even on the SDTV display, the difference is unbelievable. It's at least as big a difference as VHS was to DVD.

My lord, the SOUND. These HD movies are mixed so much better; and then output in better formats. The detail, richness, and definition through my stereo is miles beyond what I was hearing from standard DVD sound tracks (admittedly, I do have a decent surround decoder with optical inputs etc... ). Watching Serenity, I actually clearly heard lines I didn't even know were in the movie; and in so doing, improved my enjoyment of it.

I've seen Top Gun... probably hundreds of times; including the original in theaters. This HD version, even on an SDTV, looked amazing. I saw detail I've never seen: rivets, panel lines, beads of sweat, reflections on the canopies and face shields... The color and lighting are just amazing. Everything is bright and vivid without bleeding or oversaturation.

Oh and I forgot to mention… DAMN HD-DVDs look amazing on high resolution, fine pixel pitch, high contrast, high brightness, professional graphics quality LCDs. I can't wait to see what it looks like when I buy my 52" 1080p Aquos.

(warning, major film geekout ahead. If you are not a film geek, just skip this bit)

What surprised me most though, was "Blazing Saddles". Now, I can't tell you how many times I've seen this movie; and to my eye it was always washed out, grainy, and had poor color rendition and shadow detail.

The movie was made in Panavision (2.35:1 anamorphic) and was one of the last true technicolor process movies (it was made in 1973 and released in 74. The last true Technicolor Hollywood movie was Godfather II, released the same year), so it was at the top of the technological heap in quality at the time.

An aside: Technicolor movies, especially the last few years of them (the first years of Process 4 were definitely oversaturated and somewhat cartoonish); had a level of color saturation that was expensive, difficult to achieve and light for, and unfashionable with "modern" filmmakers.

In the late 60s, and through the 70s, filmmakers started using much lower color saturation processes; while at the same time moving to lower quality (and cheaper) film stock. This lead to many of the films of the era having a gritty, washed out look; or a more flat look. This was often (to my mind incorrectly) praised as being more realistic; but really it was desaturation in comparison to what your eyes saw. It wasn't more realistic or accurate; it was just less colorful.

For "Blazing Saddles", Brooks wanted to preserve the look of the classic westerns, the best of which were filmed in cinemascope and technicolor; so he went and filmed anamorphic widescreen with technicolor.

At any rate, the original quality of the film was VERY high; but all of the video and DVD transfers, including the broadcast TV transfer; were just awful. Whoever did the Telecine transfer on the original home video releases should be killed. Painfully.

For the HD-DVD transfer, the studio went back to the original film stock (I'd presume the proof edit prints), and really spent the money on getting a true and rich transfer. I've seen a hell of a lot of technicolor movies in my lifetime, and none of them, displayed in any medium, have looked as good as this movie did on just my SDTV.

Typical Technicolor transfers to video look cartoonish, or plasticy, and "fake"; and they tend to have color bleeding, or washout, or just generally poor detail. Often, DVDs simply used the original VHS Telecine transfers, which not only didn't help, in some cases it actually made the problem worse; because a higher quality display of a lower quality image looks even worse than it did before; and pulldown and color palette issues are made worse in the format transfer.

This transfer just POPPED off the screen. It looked gorgeous, and rich, and saturated; without any bleedthrough, halos, artifacts, or any loss of detail that I could perceive.

After seeing this, I need to go and buy a whole bunch of old movies on HD-DVD. The digital to digital transfers of movies like 300 of course look incredible (I really can't wait for the LOTR trilogy to come out in HD), but on the old movies, that I've only been able to see on standard definition television screens with unknown quality Telecine transfers... Well, it really will be a whole new world for those movies.

HD really lets you see the film the way the director and cinematographer saw it, as they were shooting and editing it; and there are so many great classic movies that will be almost a whole new experience with the improved visuals.

I can't wait to see what Audrey Hepburn REALLY looks like.