Your guide to high-def entertainment PART II

Which do you choose? HD? Blu-ray? We have some answers...

You’d be surprised at how many people are still in the dark about hi-def. In part two of our guide to all things HD, we debunk the myths about the new disc formats, show how to pimp your DVDs and reveal the super spinners of the future! You can find the first part of this feature here . Our advice today comes in four parts:


a/ Upscaling your DVD collection
b/ HD
c/ Blu-ray
d/ Combi players

Take a deep breath...

STANDARD DVD: THE MAGIC OF UPSCALING

So you’ve got yourself an HD Ready telly. Nice work. You’re considering buying a high-def player of some sort (we’ll get onto all that "Blu-ray" malarkey shortly). But first, you might be thinking about your already-extensive DVD collection? Is it going to have to go the way of VHS? Nah. You can still watch that stuff. The answer is upscaling. In simple terms, upscaling is a way of making your DVDs raise their game for the latest screen tech.

As for the science bit, it’s a process that matches the pixel count of the output of the DVD signal to the physical pixel resolution of a screen by ‘creating’ the missing pixels – a process known as interpolation. It might not sound like much, but a good upscaler can really give your discs some welly. It’s not hi-def exactly, but you can expect vivid colours and more detail than plain old DVD, taking advantage of your big, fancy new HD TV. Chances are if you have an HD Ready screen you might have already been upscaling material from your old discs without even knowing it, as many new screens come kitted out with built-in video scalers. However, the built-in jobs don’t really have the tech muscle and the processing oomph to do away with jagged edges, shimmer and fizz. So even if your HD TV features an internal scaler, this shouldn’t put you off investing in a new DVD deck that can upscale your spinners at source.

So if it feels just too much to make the leap to a newfangled type of player just yet, or you may be hunkering down until the dust settles to see which format dominates, you’ll be pleased to hear upscaling tech is becoming more commonplace to get more from your current collection. While you won’t find it in the DVD players sitting next to the baked beans in Tesco, the big names in the world of DVD are knocking out upscaling players and not demanding ridiculous money for the privilege. Once you’ve grabbed a capable player, you simply set the output resolution of your DVD player to match the resolution of your screen (720p, 1080i, 1080p), hook them together via either a component or HDMI lead, and that’s it.

Indeed, video scaling has become so ubiquitous these days that even VHS is getting in on the act! Panasonic’s recent £300 DMR-EZ47 combi DVD/VHS recorder not only upscales DVD to 1080p via the HDMI output, but will also do the same with VHS cassettes played through the deck and direct signals from the integrated digital TV tuner. Admittedly, the results of upscaling VHS material ain’t exactly pretty, but it does go to show that video scaling is becoming a common feature in the majority of home-cinema equipment.

And for those who want to take the plunge with either HD DVD or Blu-ray, the good news is that all existing players for both formats offer video upscaling. So, thanks to this technology, the arrival of the new HD formats doesn’t mean you should be junking your DVD libraries. Instead you can go on watching them, with more colour and detail than ever before, until you do decide to upgrade to true high-definition versions of your favourite films. Good eh? Even Hawk the Slayer looks the business.

GET THESE!

Upscaling DVD players...

SHARP DV-SH97H
£80
www.sharp.co.uk

Cheap and somewhat aesthetically challenged, this budget Sharp deck doesn’t exactly make DVD transfers sing when hooked up via Scart. But connect to a screen through the HDMI output and the picture quality redefines what you should expect from a sub-£100 player, especially when upscaling to 720p or 1080i.

DENON DVD-1930
£250
www.denon.co.uk

Powered by the latest iteration of the highly regarded Faroudja chipset, Denon’s mid-range player excels at upscaling to 720p via its HDMI output, resulting in sharper imagery with noticeably improved detailing from standard-definition discs. Upscaling to 1080p is also offered, although improvements over 720p aren’t as striking as you might hope for.

IT'S NEW: HD DVD

Time to get down to the real nitty-gritty, and move on to pastures new. There are two types of actual, new-format "high-definition" discs, Blu-ray and HD. Let's look at the latter first. Developed by a partnership between Toshiba and NEC as the natural successor to standard-definition DVD, HD DVD stores around three times as much data per layer as its predecessor (15GB as opposed to 4.7GB). Fully compatible with CD and DVD files, hardware to date has been considerably cheaper than that offered by the Blu-ray format, while offering identical high-definition performance up to 1080p picture resolution, as well as support for high-resolution audio formats such as Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

The result (as with Blu-ray) is a massive leap forward in home cinema when combined with larger HD Ready screens and projectors - the advantages only really start to show in screen sizes above 32 inches. In addition to the 15GB single-layer HD DVD disc, the format has also seen the introduction of a 30GB dual-layer disc (the most common on the market) and the HD DVD/DVD Combo Disc. The latter is a curious hybrid that should have served as a fine crossover point from one format to the other. The simple idea is that one disc contains the standard-definition DVD version on one side of the disc, and the high-definition version on the other – the Star Trek original series box was one of the first that we’ve seen. Consumers yet to make the upgrade can buy a disc for the DVD version, knowing that they can get more from it when they upgrade to HD.

However, what should have been a key selling point for mainstream consumers has been derailed by occasional playback problems on players (particularly the Xbox 360) and, more crucially, a higher price. However, there’s still a lot about the format that does impress. First and foremost is the advanced iHD technology in all players, allowing advanced features such as interactive picture-in-picture viewing modes, something that can’t be said about Blu-ray and its competing BD-Java tech (which is still in a state of flux at the time of writing, and won’t be mandatory in players until October). The other key factor is that all HD DVD titles are region-free. At long last you can import titles from anywhere in the world, safe in the knowledge that they will play in your machine without the need for any of that pesky hacking or chipset modification.

And this doesn’t just extend to getting titles before they’re launched in the UK – it also helps ease the limited support the format has from big film studios (Warner Home Video, Paramount and Universal Pictures are the only American majors supporting HD DVD, and the first two of those also support Blu-ray). Different studios release films in different territories – so, for example, while Hollywoodland is a Blu-ray-exclusive title in the UK, it’s HD DVD-exclusive in America, and it looks like the Blu-ray-exclusive Fantastic Four will be coming to HD DVD in Germany later this year. So no matter what the Blu-ray supporters say, thanks to the lack of region coding, there’s a much greater amount of support and a larger library of software than the format is given credit for. At the time of writing, HD DVD is also the cheapest way to get on board with hi-def. Across the pond the prices of HD DVD players are being savaged as the kit manufacturers go all-out to win the hearts and minds of HD buyers. At present, a Toshiba HD and DVD deck can be picked up for as little as $299 (£150) compared to Sony’s cheapest Blu-ray machine, the BDP- 5300, which retails for $499 (£250). We can expect to see similar price cuts in HD DVD over here. So even if HD DVD doesn’t end up overturning Blu-ray’s current 3:1 software sales advantage, there’s no doubt that it’s still taking the fight to its rival in the hardware stakes...

GET THESE! HD DVD players...

TOSHIBA HD-EP10
£350
www.toshibahddvd.co.uk

An enhanced version of the Toshiba’s first unit, the EP10 adds full support for outputting 1080p for the very best HD DVD picture quality. Sadly, the deck still lacks the Dolby 5.1-channel analogue audio outputs, but as an entry-level player it can’t be beaten right now.

TOSHIBA HD-XE1
£650
www.toshibahddvd.co.uk

Flying the flag for HD DVD, the fantastic XE1 offers everything you could hope for from a standalone player, and it won’t bankrupt you. The sturdy yet stylish machine offers superb playback performance and provides full support for 1080p as well as a full complement of 5.1- channel outputs.

MICROSOFT XBOX 360 HD ADD-ON
£115
http://tinyurl.com/2oredd

An add-on to your Xbox 360 enables you to play HD discs on your Microsoft gaming console. It was revealed in November 2006 and became available in 2007 – it connects to your machine via USB 2.0, making this an affordable solution if you already have an Xbox 360 under your telly. If you don’t, that will set you back about £250. But you’ll have a device able to play games too! Compare with the Sony PlayStation 3, below.

HD DVD TIMELINE

April 2006 First HD DVD players and software launch in America, making it the first next-generation disc format on the market
November 2006 First HD DVD player and software arrives in Europe, shortly after Samsung’s debut Blu-ray player has touched down on these shores
November 2006 Worldwide release of Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on drive, the cheapest way to enter the next-generation format war to date
January 2007 Following the launch of the PS3 in America in late 2006, Blu-ray software sales surpass HD DVD for the first time with a 3:1 margin
April 2007 Former Blu-ray backer Samsung announces that it’s working on a hybrid HD DVD/Blu-ray player offering full support for both formats
May 2007 The HD DVD of Blue Planet sets a new record, becoming the highest placing to date for a next-gen release in the amazon.com chart
May 2007 The Matrix Trilogy comes to HD DVD with the release of two box sets in America, but is outsold by the Blu-ray Pirates Of The Caribbean releases
June 2007 HD DVD becomes the first next-gen format to sell over 150,000 stand-alone players, giving it around 60 per cent of the standalone player market

GOING HD DVD?

Start your HD DVD collection with these…

THE ULTIMATE MATRIX COLLECTION
5 discs; £50 approx (US import); Warner Home Video
IT’S BETTER ON HD DVD BECAUSE...
It’s the ultimate high-def movie box set. Consisting of three dual-sided HD DVDs and two dual-sided DVDs, The Ultimate Matrix Collection not only features stunning transfers of The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions but also throws in the 30-plus hours of bonus material produced for the epic 10-disc DVD box set. Each of the movies has been completely remastered for this release and the results are spectacular, looking sharper, more colourful and more detailed than ever before. Meanwhile the new Dolby TrueHD soundtracks accompanying each of the films pack enough punch to shake the foundations of your house. And that’s not the half of it. Each movie is also accompanied by a new picture-in-picture In-Movie Experience video commentary, and the original Matrix is accompanied by an additional commentary and a music-only track from the film’s original standard-def release that were not included in the DVD box set. And despite being an American release, the format’s region-free nature means it’ll work a treat on any UK player.

CHILDREN OF MEN
1 disc; £24.99; Universal Pictures
IT’S BETTER ON HD DVD BECAUSE...
The beautiful 1080p transfer is a major step forwards from the earlier DVD. Retaining the film’s gritty visual style, this disc shows how well HD DVD can cope with even the most difficult video information. Fans can also explore the film’s world in greater depth thanks to a new interactive U-Control mode that looks at the set dressing.

KING KONG
1 disc; £19.99; Universal Pictures
IT’S BETTER ON HD DVD BECAUSE...
No other title does such an outstanding job of demonstrating the difference between standard- and high-definition video. Sure, the disc isn’t without its problems (like an absence of extras), but when it comes to finding a demo disc for the format’s qualities there’s nothing better. The picture is pin-sharp and vibrantly detailed in a way that plain old DVD could never hope to match, and the Dolby Digital Plus sound mix is just out of this world.

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE
1 disc; £24.99; Warner Home Video
IT’S BETTER ON HD DVD BECAUSE...
The boy wizard’s big-screen adventure is even more magical this time. Goblet of Fire’s 1080p visuals breathe fresh life into the movie’s myriad CG effects. Even better, as well as all of the extras from the two-disc DVD, this HD DVD includes a new picture-in-picture commentary.

IT'S NEW: BLU RAY

Now entering its second year on the market, it’s no surprise that Blu-ray has finally overcome the early hurdles it faced, such as apparently limited software support during the early months of its life. After all, would you really bet against a new high-definition video format that happened to be supported by the makers of the PlayStation? Clearly Hollywood wouldn’t, and given the number of studios backing the format (including Sony Pictures, Warner Home Video, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate and Buena Vista), once the PS3 touched down the uptake of the format has been practically unstoppable.

Citing the advantages of the amount of disc space over its competitor (25GB and 50GB for single-layer and dual-layer respectively), but more likely motivated by supposedly superior copy protection, film studios followed the release of the console by unleashing a flood of high-profile titles. Within a matter of months the tide turned and Blu-ray began to establish a significant lead over HD DVD in software sales, culminating in March with the blockbuster success of James Bond’s return in Casino Royale. However, the road to glory isn’t always smooth, and it’s clear that there are still a number of hurdles that might prevent Blu-ray becoming a sure-fire winner.

After disappointing launch titles such as The Fifth Element and Into the Blue, consumers were finally made aware that the condition of the original high-def masters and the encoding technology employed for the discs would be key in how films looked. In both of these instances, you would arguably have been better off with the old standard-definition DVD and upscaling to 1080p rather than investing in the appalling Blu-ray releases. Thankfully, those days are long behind us, and picture quality is now consistently on a par with that offered by the best HD DVD titles – and sometimes even better. The stunning Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is sure to shiver your timbers (the picture will, at least...)

However, Pirates raises the major issue still facing the format. Unlike HD DVD and its iHD technology, the final spec for Blu-ray’s BD-Java technology wasn’t laid out until very recently, meaning that many early players shipped without the ability to handle upcoming features. At present the Pirates of the Caribbean discs represent the most advanced BD-J titles available, and players struggling with them can be aided by firmware upgrades, but there’s still a possibility that future features might be impossible to realise on these players even with firmware upgrades – rendering machines obsolete which, in many instances, cost £1,000 or more. Another bone of contention for many is the situation with region-coding on the format, which is left entirely in the hands of each individual film studio. At the moment, titles from Warner and Paramount are always region-free; those from Sony Pictures, Lionsgate and Buena Vista are sometimes region-coded and sometimes not, while those from Fox are always region-locked, meaning that when it comes to importing discs, unless you do your research first, you could easily end up with a disc that simply won’t play on a UK machine.

A final fly in the ointment for Sony is a pair of impending lawsuits regarding technology involved in the creation of the discs and parts of the copy protection. While it’s unlikely that either will result in Sony stopping production of players and discs (which the claimants are asking for in both cases), if found guilty Sony could end up paying out a lot of money in settlements.

GET THESE! Blu-ray players...

SONY BDP-SE1E
£900
www.sony.co.uk

Sony has leaned heavily on the PS3 to take Blu-ray to the masses, but this is its first full-strength Blu-ray player. The SE1 boasts 1080p playback and the 24p True Cinema mode, promising an unparalleled HD movie experience.

PANASONIC DMP-BD10
£1,300
www.panasonic.co.uk

Panasonic’s pricey player at least has the virtue of being the best on the market at the moment. Picture and audio performance is first-rate, and it also handles BD-J-enhanced discs with ease. But then the PS3 manages the same, and costs less than half the price...

SONY PLAYSTATION 3
£300
http://uk.playstation.com/ps3/

The third generation of Sony’s popular games console comes not only with a line-up of top games titles, it also has a built-in hard drive and plays Blu-ray discs straight out of the box. It became available in Europe early in 2007, and also supports DVDs and CDs. Not bad value for a device that plays high definition movies and next generation games. Compare with the HD add-on for the Xbox 360, above.

Blu-ray TIMELINE
June 2006 The first Blu-ray player, Samsung’s BD-P1000, is released in America, two months after HD DVD touched down and retailing for around twice the price
November 2006 Samsung’s BD-P1000 hits shelves in Europe, beating Toshiba’s first HD DVD player by a matter of weeks
November 2006 The Blu-ray-supporting PS3 launches in the US and Japan, giving software sales a much-needed boost, overtaking HD DVD by a margin of 3:1 within a couple of months
March 2007 The delayed PS3 finally arrives in Europe, igniting the sales of Blu-ray software here as well
April 2007 Blu-ray becomes the first next-gen format to sell more than one million discs, also noting that the format accounted for 70 per cent of high definition software sales during the first three months of the year
April 2007 The Blu-ray Disc Association gives a deadline of 31 October for mandatory BD-Java support in players. Although a positive step, it’s not great news for existing players...
May 2007 Buena Vista releases the most advanced BD-J-compliant Blu-ray titles to date in the form of the first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies. They outsell The Matrix Trilogy box set on HD DVD, but the BD-J tech causes some playback issues
March 2007 Casino Royale launches worldwide on Blu-ray and sets a new record for next generation disc sales

BLU IS THE COLOUR

Start your Blu-ray collection with these...

CASINO ROYALE
1 disc; £24.99; Sony Pictures
IT’S BETTER ON BLU-RAY BECAUSE...
Bond has never looked this good before. The first real hi-def blockbuster, Casino Royale truly shines on Blu-ray thanks to a transfer that easily handles everything the film throws at it (no matter how fast-paced the action gets) and a soundtrack that’s way more bombastic than anything DVD could deliver. And don’t forget about the extra features, where everything (except the ancient ‘Bond Girls Are Forever’ doc) is also presented in full HD. In the main feature, Daniel Craig’s debut as 007 is full of poise, danger and attitude, while director Martin Campbell perfectly reinvents the franchise for the 21st century by adding copious grit to the usual Bond glamour. We’re not sure we like seeing the beating of Bond’s unmentionables in hi-def, though...

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST
2 discs; £24.99; Buena Vista
IT’S BETTER ON BLU-RAY BECAUSE...
It’s the very best high-definition transfer available on any format. The sharp imagery blows every other title out of the water, while the 5.1 soundtrack adds plenty of depth. Not only that, this two-disc set also features a boat-load of extras, including a taste of what BD-Java features have to offer.

HELLBOY
1 disc; £17.99; Sony Pictures
IT’S BETTER ON BLU-RAY BECAUSE...
It does a much better job of capturing the film’s visual style than DVD ever managed. Juxtaposing areas of vibrant colour with deep, inky blacks, Guillermo del Toro did an excellent job of translating Mike Mignola’s art to the big screen. Blu-ray brings that home, thanks to a 1080p transfer that replicates the intended look of the movie perfectly.

STRANGER THAN FICTION
1 disc; 24.99; Sony Pictures
IT’S BETTER ON BLU-RAY BECAUSE...
It just goes to show that it’s not only glossy blockbusters that benefit from being revisited in HD. With its clean lines and slightly dour visual style, this Blu-ray disc does a far superior and much more authentic job of revealing the director’s intentions. Additionally, while the uncompressed audio isn’t any more dynamic than the plain old DVD 5.1 mix, movement around the surrounds feels much more natural and convincing.

THE UNIFIED THEORY?

While Blu-ray and HD DVD continue to scrap it out, don’t wait for the dust to settle — there is another way...

Everyone expects a clear winner to emerge from an already drawn-out format battle. But what if both formats stick it out? Some very influential people in high places reckon this will be the case, and instead of getting behind just one of the new discs they are exploring ways of giving both formats an equal footing.

Leading the charge is Warner Bros. There’s been much talk of combo format discs – essentially combining an HD DVD movie with a DVD on one disc – but Warner has potentially exploded the HD rivalry by introducing yet another format into the fray: Total HD. Warner will be releasing its catalogue on both formats (The Matrix collection and 300 will be appearing on both flavours of discs) but they have also planned number of discs, with Superman Returns as the frontrunner, that play on both formats.

How does this work? The disc offers Blu-ray on one side and HD DVD on the other. While you don’t get full-capacity discs (at the time of writing Blu-ray offers 25GB of storage on one side, HD DVD 12GB on the other), Warner is promising the same content on each side and an identical HD experience no matter your preferred format. While this is rather neat, it is not without its problems – as storage space on the disc is limited, your precious souped-up HD extras will be curtailed, and having the same movie twice carries with it an additional cost – expect to pay a boatload more cash for the privilege of a multi-purpose disc.

Warner has hinted at New Line and HBO releases, but it is highly unlikely that any other studio will adopt the Total HD model; Sony is Blu-ray right down the middle, and a number of other studios have pinned their colours to their respective masts with little sign of changing. Kit manufacturers have also recognised the peril faced by consumers when it comes to supporting the HD formats, so LG and Samsung have come up with the best solution yet: players that support both – a real draw for disc-lovers who just don’t want to go through the pain of choosing a format only to find out they backed the wrong horse. While the new players don’t offer the full monty – you miss out on some of the extra features and BD-Java functions – you do get the benefit of all your favourite flicks available to you in HD without having to fork out for two players.

However, at this stage there is still a bit of forking to do, as the multi-format players don’t come cheap. Expect to pay around £1,000 to get the benefit of a streamlined home cinema set-up and HD in all its guises...

GET THESE! Multi-format players...

LG BH100 SUPER MULTI BLUE PLAYER
£1,000 (approx)

The first multiplayer out of the blocks, LG’s effort will output Blu-ray and HD DVD 1080p content, but the prohibitive price tag means you could actually buy both a Blu-ray and an HD DVD player for the same money, and not lose any of the functionality. Still, it’s a neat one-box solution.

SAMSUNG BD-UP5000 DUO PLAYER
£TBC

Samsung’s Duo player has the edge over the BH100 as it is rumoured to support BD-J and iHD functions – the magic that makes those glorious interactive features possible. It will be a while before we see it round these parts, though, and by the time is does arrive there is a strong likelihood that player prices will tumble.

Thanks again to our chums over on DVD Review for helping compile this guide to new technology. Read the latest reviews of SF, fantasy and horror titles available on DVD in SFX every month.

Topics

SFX
We recommend