Tuesday, February 19, 2008

TECHNOLOGY- The War is Over

HD-DVD is dead. Now maybe we will get the Matrix and Star Trek movies on Blu-Ray.

Format wars have been around for a long time. There’s the old story of Edison electrocuting a mouse during a government hearing on the merits of AC vs. DC power for electrical transmission in the US. (In spite of his dramatic demonstration of the dangers of AC current, it was chosen anyway.) The one that the HD-DVD/Blu-Ray has been compared to most is, of course, VHS/Betamax. The videotape format war is somewhat of a cautionary tale. Sony’s Betamax format was technically superior in almost every way and continued to lead in innovation for years. It preceded VHS by almost a year, had superior video quality and better special effects, was the first format to incorporate high fidelity audio (at the time it was the best consumer audio recording quality available), and introduced the first camcorder. Sony won the format in almost every way except one- market penetration. JVC was a virtually unknown company in the US at the time, compared to Sony. They knew that it would be difficult to advance their format in the States unless they were able to license the technology to better known companies. So they did just that, most notably with RCA. RCA was one of the largest television manufacturers in America and had dealers in virtually every small town in the nation. Soon people who had never seen a Sony Betamax machine were able to select from several models of RCA branded VCRs in their home town and often could rent movies from those same stores. (The cost of a pre-recorded videocassette was often close to $100 dollars in the early 1980s!) While this worked for JVC in the long run (the formats competed for years), RCA had less luck with their CED videodisc format in it’s competition with Phillips’ Laservision format. Though neither fomat was ever widely accepted, in this case the higher quality format did eventually win. In large part this was due to Pioneer’s unflagging support of laserdisc for years after Phillips abandoned the format to team with Sony for the development of the Compact Disk.

For those of you who are still debating the merits of high-definition television, here is a quick primer on the different extant formats (reposted and expanded from my posts on FARK re: this subject in response to a poster that continually asked for “numbers, give me the numbers”).

(Numbers approx for analog formats)

Standard TV broadcast (best case) 330 line resolution, interlaced. Approx 160-170K pixels

This is color TV which added approx 25% increase in information to BW but due to the way it was added to the signal also caused interference between color and BW info. This characteristic was referred to as Y-C interference and was reduced by comb filters and almost vanquished by the S-VHS connector. It was best noticed as a row of crawling dots at the border of a horizontal line of color. Commonly referred to as “dot crawl”. (Duh.) Comb filters get their name from the manner in which the color signal was retrofitted to the existing Black and White television transmission standard. The bandwidth used for a BW signal had unused spaces in the waveforms. The color information was broken up and placed in the low signal areas. Color televisions not only required different tuners to decode the extra information, but three electron guns (rather than one in a BW set) to display it. (A major breakthrough was made by Sony when they invented a way to have one electron gun display all three colors (the Trinitron set). This coupled with Sony’s ability to improve linearity by using cylindrical rather than spherical tubes made them the manufacturer of choice in professional equipment for a long time.) This Y-C interference was a contributing factor to the American analog TV standard, NTSC for National Television Standards Committee, being called Never Twice the Same Color.

VHS (best case) 200 lines, interlaced. Approx 60K pixels.

VHS was also burdened with being an analog format that copied an analog format, so each generation had significant degradation. This was even evident on Pre-recorded VHS tapes. Mass production of VHS tapes was accomplished by having hundreds of VHS recorders hooked up to a single Master deck and then each was turned on and copies were made in real time.

Super-VHS (S-VHS) was about 400 lines with no increase in color information which made for a sharper, noisy picture with the same characteristic color bleed that VHS was famous for.

DVD 480 lines interlaced, max resolution 480x720, approx 345K pixels (which can’t be delivered by a standard analog TV)

720P HD 921K pixels delivered at twice the rate of interlaced signals

1080I HD 2073K pixels delivered at the same rate as analog

1080P HD 2073K pixels delivered at twice that rate

So arguably 1080P as it appears on Blu-Ray has about 12 times the number of pixels, not to mention a greatly expanded color palette and uncompressed 8 channel sound compared to DVD. Also, HD in general has spurred the greatest advances in display technology since the start of television broadcasting. Many people were so shocked by how much better their DVDs looked on their new HD televisions that they thought it was the TV itself and not the source that made a program hi-def .

So the format war is over and the better format won. A victory for consumers who now will be able to start replacing their existing DVD libraries. But they had better do it quick, downloads are just around the corner. To get an idea how those formats stack up, quality wise, have a look here.

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