In the last installment of this column
, I wrote about the 10 ways HD-DVD falls short, and not surprisingly, I was contacted by a couple of PR reps with clients who'd been mentioned in the piece. For starters, the folks over at the HDMI Licensing, the developers of the HDMI standard
, e-mailed to say they were concerned about any compatibility issues that the Toshiba player might have and wanted to help investigate the problems we encountered. Also, a rep from Warner Brothers Home Video called to suggest I speak with an executive at Warner to get a better understanding of where the company was going with both its HD-DVD and its Blu-ray offerings.
While our HDMI conference call didn't yield any tangible information yet--they're going to get back to us after they attempt to duplicate the problems--the Warner conversation proved more enlightening. I spoke with Stephen Nickerson, senior vice president of market management for Warner Home Video, and one of the first things we discussed was the sound issues on Warner's first three HD-DVDs, The Last Samurai
, The Phantom of the Opera
, and Million Dollar Baby
. In case you missed it, Warner's initial HD-DVD offerings didn't appear to have been mastered correctly. As noted at the DVD enthusiast site The Digital Bits
, if you go from watching one of the Warner discs to, say, Universal's Serenity
, you'll notice the latter disc is much louder--to the point that, if you haven't had the intuition to lower your system's volume accordingly, you might damage your speakers.
Will hard-core gamers actually be interested in playing Blu-ray movies on their new PS3s?
Nickerson clarified the problem for us. One of HD-DVD's interesting features is that you can hit the menu button on the remote and the disc's menu system will pop up over the movie as you're watching it--with standard DVDs, the movie pauses, and you go to a separate menu screen. Well, studios have the option of adding audio, such as button sound effects, to the menu; Warner did, Universal didn't. Warner's engineers mastered the audio so that the total volume of the feature plus the menu didn't exceed the HD-DVD spec, which resulted in quieter audio during the feature compared to releases, such as Serenity
, that have silent menus.
All of Warner's new HD-DVD releases going forward should be at standard volumes--the company specified that they'll be just 2.5dB lower than their DVD counterparts. Nickerson also mentioned development on a bit of new code that dynamically lowers the volume of the feature when an audio-enabled menu is engaged. We can also expect to see more of the interactive features in upcoming titles that both HD-DVD and Blu-ray promise.
Like all the major studios with the exception of Universal, Warner is publishing titles on both HD-DVD and Blu-ray. And it was pretty clear from our discussion that--at least publicly--the company doesn't favor one format over the other. It's waiting to see how the war plays out in the marketplace, just as we are. And no, while I wrote a column called "Ten ways HD-DVD falls short," I don't favor Blu-ray--that format will get its own column once I actually get some hands-on time with it in June.
The big question, of course, is when will studios decide it's not worth making discs for both formats? Nickerson didn't have an answer for that one, but it did lead to a discussion of what the tipping point might be for either format. I've maintained that HD-DVD players have to get cheap fast ($200) or risk being overwhelmed by consumers gobbling up Blu-ray-equipped Sony PlayStation 3s
in November--though it's more likely that the PS3 will not ship in large quantities until 2007.
Nickerson had a good counter for that argument, however. How could I be so sure that hard-core gamers--those early adopters willing stand in line at midnight in a driving rain for the chance to be among the first to pay big bucks for a new system--would actually be interested in playing Blu-ray movies on their new PS3s? Playing devil's advocate, he pointed out that most of the people who bought the PS2, which came out more than three years after the launch of DVD, already owned a DVD player and didn't really use the PS2 to watch movies.
What's the bigger draw for the PS3: watching Blu-ray movies or playing games?
I argued that the situation was a little different this time. For starters, the PS3 will be coming out within months of Blu-ray's launch, and Sony has taken a huge risk by including a brand-new optical disc technology along with its brand-new Cell processor. It's banking on the PS3 to carry Blu-ray to victory, so it will do more to promote the PS3 as a great gaming and
movie machine. Furthermore, the PS3, now officially priced at $499 for the basic model and $599 for a deluxe version, will almost certainly cost a few hundred dollars less than any of the first stand-alone, nongaming Blu-ray players
, which today start at $1,000. I wouldn't describe myself as a hard-core
gamer, but my plan is to buy a PS3 and use the opportunity to upgrade to a next-generation movie player at the same time. I may buy only a handful of Blu-ray titles, but I'll certainly rent whatever new Blu-ray releases Netflix has available. I doubt I'll go back and rewatch movies I've already seen, however.
Again playing devil's advocate, Nickerson cited UMD movies' checkered career with the PSP
. At launch, Sony had championed the PSP as both a gaming device and a movie device, and the movie end of things seemed to look pretty good at first. But as more games
have become available for the PSP, there's been less interest in the movies. You can partially attribute UMD's waning popularity to the relatively high price of the movies; they cost as much as regular DVDs and sometimes more. But you can also argue that people primarily want to use the PSP to game, not to watch movies. I personally think the PSP is a great portable video device. But do I watch movies on it? Not so many.
In the end, Nickerson says, it's all about managing expectations. Yeah, the PS3 may give Sony an advantage with Blu-ray, but don't go around saying it's a sure thing until you really see how PS3 buyers use their systems. In fact, chances are good that a lot of people who'll buy PlayStation 3s won't even own the HDTVs necessary to enjoy Blu-ray movies at their native high-def resolution.
Point well taken, but I'm getting my PS3 preorder in at GameStop as soon as I can. And most likely, at first I'll be watching more movies on my PS3 than playing games on it; I have an Xbox 360
for games. How 'bout you? Are you interested in buying a PS3 because it's got a high-def DVD player in it? Click the TalkBack button to get your two cents in.