The Look and Sound of Disappointment

Early adoption involves risk.

A year ago this month I wrote about
my "free*" plasma television I received as well as an HD DVD player added into the deal. My follow-up post described the format war in high definition video between HD DVD and Blu-ray.

In the past year, I've found that most people--even those who have high definition televisions (
those wide, flat ones)--are mostly uninformed about high definition video. A friend of mine was quite proud of his new HD television that had been set up in his basement. I asked him, "Do you have a high definition video player?"

He paused, not sure what I was asking. "Yes," he said, unsure of his answer.

"What do you have--HD DVD or Blu-ray?" I asked.

Again a pause. "Well, I have an up-converter for my DVD's. Is that what you mean?"

Well... no.

A number of videos have been released with high definition on one side of the disc and standard DVD format on the other. It's a great way to show the difference between the quality of "old-school" DVD's and new high-definition video disks. It's an unbelievable difference, and once you go truly high def with a high def movie player, you can't go back to regular DVD's.

When I got my HD DVD player, I said that there were three main film or film series that I wanted in high definition: the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Blade Runner and the Matrix trilogy. As of Christmas since Kathy gave me Blade Runner (all five versions!), I have two of the three. The Lord of the Rings has been yet to be released in high definition. But it was promised to be on its way from New Line Cinema.

Nevertheless, in spite of the wonders of high def video, there's been a war going on. A war between formats. A war that harkens back in spirit to the old days of VHS vs. Betamax. This time the war has been between HD DVD and Blu-ray, with some studios backing one and some studios backing the other. For instance, Disney, Sony, and 20th Century Fox only deliver movies in Blu-ray format while Universal and Paramount only deliver HD DVD titles. The only major fence sitter left was Warner Bros who sells videos in both formats.

It's tough on the consumer because unless you have both players or unless you have one of the few dual format players (that cost upwards of $1,000), you simply can't get certain movies in high definition. When people asked me which format to invest in, I told them HD DVD, of course since that's what I had. But then I'd tell them that honestly, there was not any real difference in picture quality. I'd tell folks to make a decision so that the market could help decide things.

But I knew deep down that this could be a long war. I mentioned that in my post last January. See, when VHS and Betamax were battling it out, folks didn't have to get a whole new television to take advantage of the new technology. But for HD DVD and Blu-ray, they do. And even the change in broadcast channels to HD next February doesn't mean that everyone is going to throw away their old sets. Most will probably opt for a converter box.

Nevertheless, my collection of HD DVD movies has been growing. And I enjoy nothing more than popping in a new one and enjoying the experience.

But then there was last Friday...
black Friday as some HD DVD owners are calling the day. The day when the format war was pronounced all but over except for the shouting. If you haven't heard, that was the day when Warner Bros., the last of the fence sitters, picked a side.

And they didn't pick my side.

WB stated that beginning in May, they would only release high definition movies in Blu-ray. Although I'm sure the corporate backers of HD DVD will fight till the end, most think that HD DVD is now sunk.

It's disappointing because in this format war that had gone back and forth, I was really starting to think that HD DVD might turn out to be the winner
in the long run. With players dropping below $200 and brisk Christmas sales, things were looking up despite the fact that Blu-ray movies sell more copies at an almost 2:1 rate over HD DVD, thanks to the Trojan Horse Blu-ray player included in every Sony PS3 system. And it makes one wonder how things might have turned out differently if Microsoft, an official backer of HD DVD, had included an HD DVD player with every Xbox instead of just offering it as an add-on.

This week it was rumored that Paramount would also drop HD DVD in favor of Blu-ray. They have since denied this rumor, but I have to wonder how long they could possibly hold out. Also before the CES conference this week, it was rumored that Microsoft was going to announce a high-end Xbox with HD DVD built in. They have since denied this, but my hunch like a lot of other folks is that it was simply pulled at the last minute after WB's announcement.

Although there's no perceptible difference in visual quality between the two formats, HD DVD which had an almost year long head start over Blu-ray is really a more mature technology. An example of this was in the release of the movie 300 a few months back. The HD DVD version allowed the raw footage in front of the blue screen to be viewed in a window over the final production. The Blu-ray edition allowed the viewer to see the raw footage, but not at the same time as the movie was playing. The reason behind the difference had to do with Blu-ray's unfinished Java engine. For similar reasons, Warner Bros. has yet to offer the Matrix Trilogy on Blu-ray even though it has been out on HD DVD for a while.

So I look upon what was a nicely growing collection of HD DVD movies with disappointment. No, I'm not concerned about being stuck with a dead technology. VHS is dead, but I can still watch my video tapes. Vinyl records are a dead medium, but I can still listen to them if I want to. But I am hesitant to further buy anymore HD DVD movies, just as I would not want to buy any VHS tapes or LP's. And for that matter, I can't stand to purchase a standard DVD format as it is not truly high def, up-converted or not.

But my reticence to purchase any more HD DVD titles, just like most others out there in the same condition, will help to drive the nails in the coffin of the technology and allow the Blu-ray format to gain an even speedier victory.

At the same time, who can afford a Blu-ray player? This would be the solution to the HD DVD owners--to simply go out and switch sides with the purchase of a new machine. But Blu-ray players start between $350 and $400 for the low-end models. They are still simply way too high.

So we wait. I wish it weren't so, but I can't see how the HD DVD format can recover from Warner Bros. decision--which they admit was made to help end the format war. And in that regard, I reluctantly admit that it's for the best. I mean deep down, I'd prefer to be able to buy any movie I want in high def, not just ones that will work in my player. But I'm disappointed nonetheless. I picked the wrong side!

HD DVD, rest in peace. Long live Blu-ray (he says with resentment).


In the Mouth of the Gift Horse: An Extended Rant in High Def

I'm still enjoying the plasma TV and HD DVD player that I essentially got for free last week. In fact, I've been amazed at the world of wide screen high definition movies and television and still feel like I have my own personal movie theater. No complaints there. But I do have some thoughts about the peripheral issues that come with venturing into such worlds that some of you might be interested in.

Ahhhh...the Cable Company

1. Do I really need that set-top box to receive the HD channels?
Apparently not. I got $100 off the purchase of my LG plasma television for signing up in the store with Insight Communications for the HD channels. Now, this is a deal that I could have cancelled the moment I stepped into the parking lot. The problem? Both Best Buy and Insight told me that I absolutely had to have the set-top box in order to receive the HD channels.

I bought the television on Monday, but Insight wasn't coming to my house for the installation until Thursday. In the meantime, I plugged in the same cable that had been in my older RCA set into the new LG plasma. I then set the LG to scan through the available channels. First it registered all the regular cable channels that I'd been used to. Then I noticed that it was scanning through something called "Digital Cable." What do you know--it found the HD channels!

When the cable guy arrived on Thursday morning, I showed him that I was already receiving the HD channels without a set-top box. He emphatically told me that I was mistaken--that I was viewing the channel stretch out to fill the screen. To demonstrate that I was not doing that, I switched to the regular NBC affiliate and then I switched to the HD version. The latter even had an "NBC HD" logo in the bottom right. After still protesting a bit, he finally conceded.

I'm not a fan of set-top boxes. I think they are an extra way for cable companies to get more money out of its customers. When we first moved into our house the Cable company said we had no choice but to take one. After keeping it two or three weeks and not being overly excited by it, I determined that the cable plugged straight into the television worked just as well, except that I now couldn't order Pay-Per-View or Movies On Demand. Who cares. I forced the issue, took back the box and got my bill reduced by $10 every month.

For right night I'm keeping the set-top box that was supposedly necessary for my HD channels, but only because it has a DVR in it. I may decide to give it back and find my own personal DVR that I wouldn't have to pay an extra $13 every month.

2. Why didn't the cable company give me a manual with the set-top box/DVR?
I suppose because they don't want me monkeying with it. But it's got firewire and USB ports, a smart media reader and no telling what else. This device is just asking to be connected to my computer. Fortunately, I found a copy of the manual on the Motorola website, but it looks like they've changed the firmware. Regardless, the monkeying will commence as soon as I have some free time. I'd love to be able to remove HD video recorded on it, edit it on my Mac and burn it to DVD. I'll let you know how that works.

Further, not only was there not a manual with the set-top box/DVR, there weren't any instructions for recording television shows. Now, I've since discovered that it's quite easy--all I have to do is find the show I want to record on the online schedule, highlight it, and hit the record button on the remote. But why don't they just tell you that? I wasted a good bit of time trying to figure it out and making it a good bit more complicated that was necessary.

3. Why are the advertised HD channels so misleading?
On the HDTV page (click the HD Channels tab) of Insight's website, they offer this lineup of HD channels:

Now, the first set of bullets are what supposedly comes with the $13/month set-top box (which I've already determined that I don't necessarily need to get the HD basic lineup). The second set of bullets, called the HD Pak, comes with yet another $8/month fee. A lot of people opt for this HD Pak I've been told because it has ESPN HD with it. I'm not a big enough sports fan for this to matter to me; I'd probably be more interested in the movie and Discover HD channels.

However, I quickly noticed that I was not receiving the bottom three bullets in the first list: ESPN 2 HD, TNT in HD and MHD. Now, it's not that I necessarily wanted these channels, but it was the principle of thing thing since it was advertised and I was not getting them. But I had failed to note the little asterisk after the word "lineup" in the screen capture above. So I scrolled down and read this disclaimer:

* HDTV set, Basic Service, HD receiver (or Insight CableCard) required to receive all HD channels. Subscription to Classic service and at least 1 Digital Programming Pak (or Digital Standard/Choice) is also required to receive MHD, TNT in HD and ESPN2 HD. Not all programming available in all areas. © 2006 Insight Communications Company, Inc.

So I called the company up to ask about what I saw as misleading advertising. I mean doesn't it say, "You'll automatically get local broadcast channels and the most popular networks like..."? I suppose the key word here is like which can mean "similar, but not the same as." The woman I spoke to said that for me to get the three missing channels I would have to sign up for yet another package that would cost another $20/month. I asked her if she realized how misleading the Insight website is. She replied that she had not seen the website. I asked her if I could give her the URL, to which she replied that she had no desire to see it, I suppose implying a total apathy on her part that her company is misleading customers. I realize that often I should really just back down from a useless argument, but sometimes such deliberate obtuseness merely makes me push back more. So I asked to speak to her supervisor. After keeping me on hold for well over a half-hour, she came back on and said that if I would give her my phone number, one of her supervisors would call me back as they were all currently busy. That was two days ago and I've still heard nothing from them. I'm not sure if I can hold my breath much longer.

Are HD Channels Really That Great?

Yes and no. I've complained for years about the crummy picture offered by cable television. I've said over and over that if you live within range of a television station, a simple rabbit ear antenna on your television will give you a better quality picture than what cable can deliver. You just want get hundreds of other useless channels. Well, the six or so HD channels that I get are excellent quality, especially on my 42" screen. All of the other regular channels are still lousy, of course and now that I have comparison of the two on the same set, it just makes me a bit more resentful about the poor quality of standard cable television channels. I'm no television/cable technology expert, but I can't help wonder why it is that if they can deliver crisp HD pictures, they can't make all of them with quality images since they're all coming through the same cable.

If you've been having HD television envy realize a couple of things. First, most channels are not HD ready, and even if they are, not every television show is in HD. Even on the tradition three big networks, only two out of the three morning shows are in HD and none of the evening news shows are yet. And it seems that only the most popular of television shows are in HD, and sometimes I'm surprised to discover which ones are in regular 4:3.

Second, although the HD shows are very sharp and somehow it seems nicer to watch them in 16:9, you're not really missing out on a whole lot. All the action is still kept in the center of the screen for the benefit of the majority who still do not have HD sets. When are all channels supposed to move to HD--by 2009? I suppose that only after that deadline, directors will start to take advantage of the whole screen.

What's the Deal with HD DVD Movies?

Currently, I only own about three HD DVD movies. My regular DVD collection is fairly large, so I doubt that I will ever attempt to completely replace it with HD movies, unless that's just a multi-year goal. Regardless, from now on, I would prefer only to buy movies in HD. Also, I would consider replacing some of my favorite movies because HD DVD really is significantly more impressive than regular DVD. However, having said that, if I were to replace any movies, it would definitely be some of my favorites. What I've noticed though about a number of the HD movies (both HD DVD and Blu-ray) that have come out in the last few months is that they are movies only with no extras. Part of the reason I enjoy buying a DVD (as opposed to what will not doubt be an increasingly popular method of downloading them through legitimate sources) is the bevy of extra features such as deleted scenes, making of featurettes, etc. But take King Kong, for instance that came with my HD DVD add on drive. It contains only the movie with no extras at all. And if any movie ever called for extras, it would have to be King Kong. And although I know that HD movies take up more space on the disc than regular DVD movies, I'm assuming that there's lots of wasted space left on a disc that comes with only the movie.

As an aside, I said in my previous post about the HD format wars that I didn't have a clear format--that both HD DVD and Blu-ray technologies were superior to regular DVDs and I suggested that if anyone is torn, to merely flip a coin if HD movies are wanted now. However, to be honest, I suppose that now that I have an HD DVD player (which was bought not because I thought it was superior to the Blu-ray players, but simply because it was cheaper), I am rooting for that format to win. Universal's recent announcement of 100 planned exclusive releases for the year from both it's own back catalog and new movie releases concurrent in HD DVD and standard DVD is really a shot in the arm to this format.

Also, if you're holding out for the LG BH100 dual format player, keep in mind two things. (1) It's still cheaper to buy a regular HD DVD player and a regular Blu-ray player separately than to get the BH100. And (2) the BH100 won't access the HD DVD interactive features. It will essentially only play the movies. If you want a dual format player, I'd recommend waiting until the next round or until prices come down.

Why Is There Really No Such Thing as a Universal Remote?

I find it highly ironic that it takes me three remotes--all claiming to be universal remotes--in order to use all the features of my new HD setup. If I want to watch HD DVD movies, I have to use the Microsoft remote. If I want to use the DVR features, I have to use the remote from the cable company. If I want to access input modes or audio and video features of the plasma television, I have to use the LG remote. All three will change volume and turn my television on and off. But that's about as universal as it gets.

Okay, rant over. I originally thought this post would only take a couple of paragraphs. I'd be glad to entertain any conversation in the comments.


HD DVD vs. Blu-ray: In the End the Consumer Wins, But That Victory May Be Further Off Than We Imagine

I have to admit that I don’t have a personal stake in the HD DVD vs. Blu-ray format wars. In the end, I believe that we the consumers will win with a better experience in the movies we watch. However, that end may not come as soon as some think it will. More about that below.

With the gift card I received recently (see previous post), I bought an HD DVD drive that plugs into my Xbox 360. The drive is not for games, but simply for watching HD DVD movies. I didn’t buy it because I thought that HD DVD was better than Blu-ray; I bought it simply because as a $200 add-on, it is the cheapest way to watch high-definition movies today.

But my apathy toward which format is best surely puts me in the minority among high-def movie aficionados. If you ask people who care about this, they usually have taken a side and have a very strong opinion. This is on the level of Mac vs. Windows, Chevy vs. Ford, Democrat vs. Republican or Sunni vs. Shi'a.

According to who you ask either format has the superior picture and either format is outselling the other. Truthfully, it’s a great picture either way, and I don’t know if the human eye can tell a difference. One thing that Blu-ray discs have going for them is that they hold more data (50 gb) than the HD DVD discs (30 gb). But the truth is that no movie really needs the amount of space that either holds, even in high-def. At best, the promise of these new technologies means that we shouldn’t see as many multiple disc sets as we used to. A whole television series ought to fit on one or two discs for instance. But if anyone thinks bigger is better, Toshiba announced at CES a few weeks ago that they had developed a triple-layer HD DVD disc capable of holding more than the Blu-ray. Of course whether or not this triple-layer disc can be read on current HD DVD players is anyone’s guess because Toshiba didn’t say.

As I said, in the end the consumer will win because the picture quality really is significantly better than standard DVD drives. To compare, I played the HD DVD version of King Kong that came with my HD DVD drive. Then, I placed the regular DVD version Superman Returns in the player. I've always been pleased with the qualities of regular DVD's. But now I had seen "the look and sound of perfect" (the HD DVD slogan). I immediately put my copy of Superman Returns on eBay since there is a high-def version of it. The difference is that dramatic.

Often HD DVD vs. Blu-ray is compared to the VHS vs. Betamax format war of the late seventies/early eighties. I've always heard that Betamax was better, but I have no way of testing this assertion myself, so I'll just take everyone's word on it. In the end, even if VHS wasn't as good as Betamax, the consumer still won because we were now no longer tied to the airtime schedule of programs we wanted to watch. The consumer will win again this time because our entertainment experience will be increased; but contrary to what you might hear, it's not going to happen over night. If you've been putting off buying a player because you want to see which format will come out on top, you might just want to flip a coin and get one now.

Here's what I've noticed in my short-lived experience (less than a week) as an HD DVD owner: it's hard to find the HD DVD discs (and Blu-ray, too). The largest selection I've seen so far is at Best Buy, but you pay full price. At discount stores, they're few and far between. Wal-Mart doesn't carry them yet--at least not locally. Target has a small selection of a minimally equal amount of HD DVD and Blu-ray discs. Clubs like Columbia House don't carry either format yet. And you can't seem to rent them either. I went by both Hollywood Video and Blockbuster and neither one of them carried high-def discs. The guy at Blockbuster said that the chain was waiting to see which format came out on top. I told him it may be a long wait.

I've read a number of reports that say the format war will be over by the end of 2007. I have my doubts--let me explain why. What we're talking about here is the adoption of not just a new technology, but a replacement technology for video entertainment. In the VHS vs. Betamax war, I suppose a lot of it had to do with supply, price and marketing. But either technology worked with the televisions everyone had at the time. If I remember correctly off the top of my head, the DVD player was introduced around 1997, but because of its expense, folks didn't start buying them until around 2000 when they rushed to buy DVD copies of The Matrix on the sets that had come down in price.

Right now the price for a Blu-ray player is somewhere around $500 on the low end and about $400 for the HD DVD players. The cheapest way to get the latter is to get a $200 add-on drive if you already have an Xbox. The $600 PS3 comes with a Blu-ray drive, but it's unknown how many PS3 purchasers are buying the systems for its ability to play Blu-ray movie discs. Obviously, it would just be cheaper to get a plain Blu-ray player.

But it's more complicated than price alone, and I don't see too many folks talking about this. When someone bought a VHS (or Betamax) player or a DVD player, it worked on their existing television. But high-def players require high-def televisions. Owners of high-def TV's are still clearly in the minority. The only way for sales of HD DVD and Blu-ray discs to increase is for more people to buy high-def televisions. But for that to happen, the prices must come down--significantly down.

Therefore the success of the new high-def formats are dependent on more than quality alone. They are dependent upon the adoption of high-def televisions. This isn't going to be solved anytime soon. It make take years.

This is why I've said that if you're undecided, flip a coin and pick a format. Many are touting LG's new combo HD DVD/Blu-ray hybrid player (BH100) as the answer to the problem. Actually it doesn't solve the format wars at all. Further, I'm not impressed with the machine. Besides its ridiculously high price (around $1200), recent word is that it cannot display the HD DVD logo because it is not fully compatible. Evidently, although it plays HD DVD video, it cannot access any of the interactive content on the discs.

Am I worried that the HD DVD format will lose and my investment in discs will be lost? No, not really. I would expect that I'm fine for at least five years or more, especially since Bladerunner, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the Matrix Trilogy (some of my favorite movies) are all slated for release on HD DVD. With that in mind, I'm good. And considering that it's still possible to buy old technology such as VHS players and even LP turntables, I'm not worried that I'll get stuck with a technology.

However, I'm very glad that I never got into Laserdiscs...

My FREE* Plasma TV

A few months back, I reported that my former student Josh Clark had pursued one of those internet ads to get a free MacBook Pro. He researched the ads and found a company that had a good reputation for actually giving away these kinds of gifts. In order to get a free iPod, computer, television, etc., one has to respond to a number of offers from various companies. These range from things such as movie clubs like Columbia House, Netflix, or Blockbuster to various weight loss products or even real estate programs. All of the "offers" are for free trials for one or two weeks or sometimes longer. The main company can afford to give away these gifts because the average person isn't disciplined enough to stay on top of the trial periods, let alone cancel them on time. This is similar to rebate programs in stores. Companies make money on rebates simply because the average person doesn't send them in.

For Josh to get his MacBook Pro, he kept extremely detailed records in Excel spreadsheets regarding when he signed up for offers, how long the trial period was, when they confirmed his cancellation, etc. In the end, if a person sends back everything and participates in the offers only to the barest of minimums, he or she should be out somewhere about $100, which is not a bad investment that returns a $2,000 value (the price of Josh's MacBook Pro). I won't go into all his details, but I will point you to two very significant posts of his (especially if you want to try this yourself):

"How I Got a Mac for Next to Nothing"
"The Free Mac, Part II"
"Counting the Macs"

So, anyway, I decided back in the middle of November to try this myself. I didn't want a new laptop though--I'm still delighted with my black MacBook. However, if there's any luxury item out there that I'd never pay for on my own, it would have to be a high-def television. So I ran a google search for "high-def television" and found an ad from the same company Josh with which Josh participated for a "Gift Card for a $2,000 Plasma TV" (I'd give you the link, but it's now expired). I had to complete 18 offers, which although seemed like a lot, turned out in the end to be pretty manageable. Although I didn't keep a spreadsheet like Josh's, I did record all the same kind of details in a MS Word file that he had done. Plus I made PDF files of all agreements and emails confirming cancellations as I returned items. It took me about three weeks to complete all 18 offers. Then I was given a link to download a PDF file which I had to fill out with where to send my gift card and also tax forms since the card is worth $2,000.

The whole time I was working on this, I referred to it as "my scheme to get a free plasma TV." Kathy simply referred to it as my "scam" because she was skeptical till the end that it would actually work, especially with so little investment. Nevertheless, last Saturday I opened the mail to find a $2,000 Visa Gift Card in my name. Yeah, I know...I couldn't believe it either!

I talked it over with Kathy. Although the offer was for a gift card for a plasma television, technically we could do anything we wanted with the money because it was a generic Visa gift card. Heck, we could even withdraw the money from an ATM. Obviously, I knew there were lots of things we could do with $2,000 but Kathy (wonderful wife she is) said that I had wanted a television to begin with, I had worked hard to stay on top of the offers, and that I should stick to my original plan. So I set off Monday to get the television.

After some shopping at about three stories, plus research online, I settled on the LG 42PC3D, a 42" high-def plasma flat panel. The picture on the left actually doesn't do it justice. The frame is actually black with a gray/silver bottom and base. I knew that I couldn't get a television that actually costs $2,000 because I would have to pay sales tax. Plus, a buddy had told me that I had to get a special HDMI cable to receive HD channels and a special surge protector. Originally, I was looking in the $1,500 range, but Best Buy had the LG listed for $1,599 with an instant $200 rebate bringing it down to $1,399. Further, if I signed up for the HD channels from my cable company while in the store, I could get it for another $100 off for a new lower total of $1,299. Isn't life grand. I was getting such a great deal, I added the HD DVD player that plugs into the Xbox 360 (which I already own). With the television, a new stand (the TV wouldn't fit in our old entertainment center), the HD DVD player, the HDMI cable, surge protector and all applicable sales taxes, would you believe that I still had $100 left over? Isn't America wonderful?! Kathy and I took the remaining money and bought a few things that we actually needed around the house.

I'm absolutely delighted with the way everything has turned out. The television is great for high-def movies, games on the Xbox 360 and the handful of HD channels our cable service offers. I don't have surround sound, but the television has an audio mode that emulates it, and at the just right volume, our living room feels like a movie theater. This is the first television that I could honestly use to double as a CD music player as well.

In the end, I don't think I could have ever justified paying for something like this with hard earned money, even if I saved for it over time. But when someone says, "Here's $2,000--go get a plasma TV... Well, I just can't turn that down.

This really does work if you stay on top of it. See the links to Josh's posts above if you want to pursue it.