HD DVD and Blu-ray at CES 2006

Shane Buettner covered developments in the HD DVD and Blu-ray format wars at this year's CES. This is his report. And for our wrap-up of all the other goings-on at CES, watch this space for our final report on CES 2006 this coming week!—TJN

What a strange brew of excitement and fear and loathing this year's trip to Las Vegas for the annual CES brought, courtesy of the war between next generation HD optical disc formats. If the announcements at CES 2006 hold (admittedly a big if), this little format war is going to be a shootin' war in just a few months time. Yes, we saw hardware and mock software and loops of clips from both formats. We even got some sense of what the enhanced interactivity features will mean to us (and yes, it's good). Yes, the first titles are scheduled to ship in March. And yes, it certainly appears to be a lock that there will be two formats shoved in the face of consumers, who, at least in a mass-market sense, probably don't want either one and will probably sit on the sidelines and avoid both.

That's not to say I'll sit this one out, or that I'd recommend that course of action to anyone else. I'm dying for HD on optical disc, and the only thing tempering my excitement is this nasty little format war. I'd prefer to be jumping up and down about HD on a silver disc right now, but the specter of the consumers sitting it out (which has been recommended by every mainstream publication I've read so far, including my local newspaper) and protracting acceptance of either format gives me cold feet and frankly, is the kind of thing that makes me feel plain embarrassed when I explain it to my friends. It's never fun to see your industry kick itself in the groin by screwing up such a good thing, but historically speaking, nothing about the rocky, hurry up and wait evolution of HDTV in general suggested it could be otherwise. Without any further bellyaching, here's what happened last week at CES 2006.

HD DVD Now Playing- In March, Anyway
I rolled into Sin City just in time to gussy myself up and hit the big HD DVD press event held on Wednesday night. How big? So big that many members of the press, including me, were shuffled off into an "overflow" room to watch the presentation on closed circuit TV instead of live in the flesh. The HD DVD group made up for this slight with a SWAG (Stuff We All Get) bag including not only a couple of current generation DVDs that will be obsolete in a few months, but also a hybrid DVD/HD DVD disc. While I can't confirm anything about the HD DVD layer of this disc until I get a next-gen player, the DVD layer certainly plays, and yeah, that's a strong statement about the readiness of HD DVD. And indeed, the theme of the evening was HD DVD, "Now Playing."

The event was hosted by Access Hollywood's Nancy O'Dell, who quickly reminded me why I don't watch her show and also introduced Toshiba's first two production HD DVD players, the $499 HD-A1 and the step-up $799 HD-AX1. Both are slated for delivery to stores in March, along with the first waves of software titles. The latter is a nice piece of kit for eight bills. And a big point was made that Toshiba's players at CES were not prototypes in any way, shape or form, but production players right off the assembly line.

Toshiba's HD-XA1

Coincident with the player launch in late March will be the beginning of the rollout of software titles from Paramount, Warner, and Universal (Studio Canal is also signed on with HD DVD, but no title information was given). The number of titles will ramp up to 50 titles between March and June, and expand to nearly 200 titles by the holiday 2006 shopping season. All the announced HD DVD and Blu-ray titles are listed below. In addition to some classics and some very recent catalog titles, there are a few hot titles here and there that will, in a good news/bad news scenario, be day and date releases with the standard DVD.

Since HD DVD is capable of being produced as a hybrid disc with a standard DVD layer, it's hoped that these day and date releases will be hybrids and not separate releases, but that's not the way the press materials read as of now. Also, while you'll read below that the Blu-ray titles that have been announced are clearly specified as 1080p, I was told that HD DVD titles almost certainly will be 1080i.

The nailing down of a March date for launch is at least a little bit daring given that the AACS copy protection standard is not completely finalized, and HD DVD has already blown its previous launch targets in the US and Japan. But the group feels confident that the standard is close enough to completion to make the launch, which according to the software press releases will in fact begin in the last week of March,

After the player announcements the first two speakers were from Microsoft and Intel. HD DVD will be fully supported by the next-gen Windows operating system, Vista, and Microsoft also announced that its Xbox 360 gaming console will be made HD DVD compatible by a connected external drive.

It's hard for me to believe that some development isn't going on at Microsoft in case Blu-ray, which enjoys much broader support from hardware manufacturers and studios alike, wins the format war. It would in fact be downright foolish, and I seriously doubt Microsoft would be so shortsighted. As soon as it becomes apparent Blu-ray is the winner, expect a very quick service patch for Vista and other Windows operating systems.

Moving forward, another fella from Microsoft came out, and as I'd expect from the company that wrought Windows, his first attempt at a demonstration of HD DVD was aborted as the disc refused to load. Rather than reboot, he went to the next, and most effective part of the demonstration.

We've all heard that the next-gen formats will boast enhanced interactivity, but if you're like me you don't consider things like increased copy protection as benefits to the consumer. Well, a demo of some of the features on an HD DVD copy of The Bourne Supermacy offered a glimpse at the future of optical disc extras.

Performing a chapter search on the current DVD platform requires exiting the movie and entering a new screen, and often having to shuffle through sets of scenes before finding the one you want. With HD DVD, the movie plays in full motion while the chapters superimpose over the video at the bottom of the screen. Scroll to the scene you want and click on it, never leaving the movie screen.

While DVD's commentary tracks are voice only, the HD DVD of The Bourne Supremacy had several talking-head style filmed commentaries. After choosing the commentary stream you want, you then choose whether the talking head is a translucent one in the corner of the screen, like a TV network logo, or the main video fades into the background and the commentary video becomes the main image on screen. Pretty cool.

In a further display of bravado, Amazon.com's Greg Hart came out and said the online outlet is so big on HD DVD that it's already taking preorders on titles. Indeed a visit to Amazon revealed an HD DVD store within the store. So, HD DVD must be for real if it's for sale on the Internet!

Blu-ray or Blowhard? Blu-ray has always enjoyed broader hardware and software support, and while the Sony-backed format didn't have production players and discs abounding the show floor, the number of players and movie titles (from Disney, Fox, Lion's Gate, Paramount, Sony, and Warner) clearly outpaced rival HD DVD. But the showroom floor was full of mock-up software boxes, and Blu-ray "demonstrations" played loops of clips, not finished discs. Even at Blu-ray's gala event on Thursday night, there was a noticeable shortage of specifics and anything resembling an effective demonstration.

While Toshiba is offering an HD DVD player at $500, stand alone Blu-ray players announced and shown so far have all been at $1000 and up. The spiffy-looking Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1 is a heavy at $1800, with players from Samsung and Panasonic slated at $1K each. Of course the PlaySation3 will cost only $300-$400, when it comes, but Sony's stand alone BDP-S1 isn't priced as of yet. And unfortunately Sony didn't shed any further light on PS3's arrival or the exact launch date of Blu-ray players and software, even at their gala press event Thursday night.

Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1

Blu-ray's Thursday press event was nowhere near as informative as HD DVD's. The first announcement, met with cheers by attendees working for Blu-ray manufacturers, was the format's specifications are now complete. Note though that AACS copy protection is spec'd for Blu-ray as well as HD DVD, and those specs are not yet finalized, which might explain the Blu-ray group's reticence to offer a hard launch date.

Film director Barry Sonnenfeld, Michael Dell, and others spent a lot of time telling us how awesome Blu-ray is going to be, and how it's going to be better for consumers, and yet no one offered a single specific feature or spec for the format or the announced titles. We can assume that Blu-ray's Java-based interactivity will be at least as slick as HD DVD's, but that's all it is for now- an assumption. So, the Blu-ray press event was an hour and half of my life I'll never get back, its only lingering effect being the risk of permanent hearing damage caused by the dangerous SPLs of the demo clips blasted out over the night club's PA system.