Flashback: HD DVD vs. Blu-ray

Readers new to the home theater universe might not be aware that the Blu-ray video disc format wasn't always the only game in town. Back in the late aughts it was engaged in a brief but hard fought format war with a similar competitor for the consumer's high definition dollars: HD DVD.

DVDs had been around for roughly a decade when Sony formally introduced the first Blu-ray player to the Japanese market in late June 2006. But Toshiba had launched its first HD DVD player three months earlier. The war was on. Conventional DVD had been wildly successful, but as high definition sets became mainstream, broadcast HD still spotty, and streaming was barely a mote in Google's eye, the market was ready for a disc format with higher resolution. But was the public on board? Even today, with physical media fighting to retain its market share against the onslaught of streaming, vanilla DVD still appears to outsell any physical HD format (fun fact: even today many consumers appear to believe that DVD is HD — it's digital so it must be!).

Toshiba and Sony fought on, along with other hardware and software vendors taking sides. In many ways the two formats' were roughly comparable. Both discs were the same size and used 405 nm blue-violet lasers to read the data from a single or double layer disc. Both offered a resolution of 1080p, though some HD DVD players were 1080i. Both offered similar audio capabilities.

But there were significant differences. HD DVD's storage capacity was 15 GB /30 GB (single/double layer) while Blu-ray offered 25/50. Blu-ray offered longer playing times; the maximum data bit rate was 36.55Mb/sec for HD DVD vs 53.95 Mb/second for Blu-ray. Both the maximum capacity and bit rate would be significant years later for Ultra HD, but in 2006 this wasn't a concern!

But there were also other differences that ultimately helped decide which format would win. Primary among them were Blu-ray's stronger copy protection along with its three distribution regions. HD DVD had no regions —l; great for consumers, not so great for the film studios and their pirating paranoia. Nor did it hurt that Sony Playstation 3 included Blu-ray capability. There was also a little economic thingy that began in late 2007 (The Great Recession), which might have nudged the decision to the side with the deepest resources. Toshiba, the major supplier of HD DVD hardware at the time, caved in February 2008 and discontinued its player production. Other HD DVD supporters, particularly on the software side, soon followed. Blu-ray had won.

But that's not the end of our story here. Before the cookie crumbled I had two different Toshiba players on hand for review, together with nearly a hundred HD DVDs. The latter were freebies in an era when studios would flood every publication with the latest titles, hoping for reviews (an era long gone!). I bought both of the players to have a way to play the discs; my Blu-ray collection was still in its infancy and I needed a reliable HD source for review purposes.

I still have both the HD DVD players and the discs; they've been gathering dust for 14 years. So for no other reason apart from nostalgia, I pulled one of the players out and viewed a few of the titles. I plugged the player's HDMI output directly into a Samsung 65-inch OLED TV to check out the picture (the audio was simply whatever the display offered).

The results were mixed. The disc load times were painfully slow — up to a minute! The lettering on the player's remote was difficult to read (and not backlit, or perhaps any backlighting it once had was now gone). But it did load and the discs played. The titles I chose were Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (free of artifacts but not a cheerful film), 12 Monkeys (ditto, but the best looking of the five titles and the most dramatically involving), plus Elizabeth, Notting Hill, and Evan Almighty.

The only one of these five that I watched from beginning to end was 12 Monkeys. I don' have any of these titles on Blu-ray, but an in-depth comparison, at this point, would be of little value. The last three titles, while watchable, had significant motion artifacts. Whether or not I noticed this 14 years ago (on very different displays!) is lost in my memory hole and more than a little irrelevant, but in general the color and resolution of all of the discs listed (as seen today and apart from the relatively soft-looking Sleepy Hollow were comparable to modern (SDR) Blu-rays. If HD DVD had won, I suspect that with time and some refinements here and there we'd be happily living with HD DVD today, though as mentioned earlier its more limited capacity might not have transitioned as well into an HDR format.

But that's not the end of the story. When I replaced the new and Samsung QD OLED (review coming soon) with my older, resident LG E7 OLED, the images from all the sampled HD DVDs were squeezed to 4:3 and awash in red, rendering them unwatchable. But when I then replaced the LG with an "ancient" 65-inch Panasonic plasma I bought over 10 years ago after reviewing it (the TC-P65ZT60, the last and best plasma Panasonic ever marketed), the picture was fine again. Both the Samsung and LG set are 4K (and should easily and correctly play 2K sources by upconverting them to 4K) and the Panasonic, of course, is native 2K. So that doesn't explain the conundrum with the LG not playing the discs correctly. It could be an EDID issue (the digital code that triggers a given display to recognize and correctly play a source). I offer no solution here, but if you happen to run across a used HD DVD collection (along with a player!) at an irresistible price, be aware that the discs will not play properly on some displays but might work fine on others.

trynberg's picture

Tom,the HD-DVD player will produce a normal picture on your LG E7 if you switch the input to HDMI 1.4 instead of 2.0. I forget what LG calls this setting.

3ddavey13's picture

I threw out my Toshiba HD-DVD player because it wouldn't work on any of our TVs (they're all 4K). I thought something had gone wrong with it after sitting around for 10 years without being used. Anyone need some used HD-DVDs?

Compeau's picture

I had the Xbox 360 HD-DVD add-on drive back in the day, though my 360 died years ago. Recently in a thrift shop I bought a Toshiba HD-DVD player for $5. After bringing it home I plugged it into my system, got out one of my old HD-DVDs, and it worked perfectly. It was a real trip down memory lane, now I know how Beta owners felt.

Erika911's picture

HD-DVDs brings the best experience like smash karts. I want to buy one.