Sometimes The Best Does Win

So finally, finally, finally, HD DVD is dead. Dead dead dead. And good riddance, too, I say. It was (GoB that feels good to use the past tense) an inferior format in almost every way. Even its karma was fucked: Microsoft and others created the HD DVD standard because it was easier on corporations, not better for consumers.

Some info, just in case you didn’t know, or were misinformed by HD DVD desperados:

  • HD DVD stores only 17GB per layer, which means that right out of the gate, the format lacked the capacity for HD movies, resulting in almost all titles being released as double-layer disks, clocking in at 34GB
  • Blu-ray, on the other hand, has 25GB per layer, meaning there is enough space for full titles plus superior audio, both in quality (uncompressed audio is amazing) and quantity (more languages).
  • Blu-ray has moved up to double-layer disks (BD-50), meaning that bit-rates for video can be much higher (meaning better picture), and even better audio with more language choices
  • HD DVD folks used to claim that HD DVD capacity was 51GB in its triple-layer disks, but those disks were prototypes and no existing HD DVD players would be able to play them anyway, so that’s just damned misleading. Or a damned lie.
  • As for future-proofing, there exist 300GB Blu-ray disks in the prototyping phase, but I’m not sure if any existing players will be able to play them. But then again, you don’t see any Blu-ray advocates pimping a 300GB capacity, either

The media has been the same old selfish culprit in not bothering to understand the stakes and the situation. Just like any computer article that includes Rob Enderle as a source isn’t worth the pixels it’s printed on, any time the media trotted out the old “Betamax vs VHS war”, you should have simply ignored it. This war was nothing like Beta vs VHS, except that Sony was involved.

But Sony was never the sole developer of Blu-ray: the credit there belongs to the BDA, a consortium of the following companies:

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Strange, isn’t it, that Universal is a member of BDA and yet it had decided to go HD DVD-only when $150 million suddenly appeared in a plain brown paper back at their doorstep with a free copy of Windows Vista inside? (apocryphal, but Microsoft did kick in the money, supposedly.) Universal is Universally Evil. Of course all of these corporations are in it for themselves and couldn’t give a shit about people (yes, even Apple is included in that list), but Universal upped the hypocrisy to new heights (and by heights, I mean depths) by such statements as “we’re putting the viewing of content in control of the user”, when really, they meant they were removing content from access by iPods and iPhones, making you watch content on a computer and not on a TV, and preventing you from being able to fast-forward through commercials. With such spin, they should be gunning for the Republican primaries.

So yes, Apple is part of the Blu-ray Association, but no Apple hardware includes Blu-ray drives (even though you can buy them from third-parties), and Final Cut Studio, an Apple Pro App for non-linear video editing includes the ability to generate Blu-ray and HD DVD masters. Maybe they were waiting for the dust to settle, or maybe some magic eight-ball settled on a “Not yet” message, I have no idea.

But anyway, maybe this all sounds like more schadenfreude against those who went Red (aka the HD DVD camp), but there are several reasons to celebrate the demise because it rings in some potential improvements for everyone interested in high-defintion titles:

  • All those consumers who’ve been waiting on the sidelines may now commit to high-definition, leading to sale of more players and more titles, bringing the prices down for everyone.
  • No more “least common denominator” disks from Warner Brothers who supported both HD DVD and Blu-ray: to save money, would put the same main title data on both, meaning they’d have to compress the data to fit on a 31GB disk to accommodate HD DVD and now they can use higher bit-rates now that they’re targeting Blu-ray only.
  • AVC (i.e., h.264) seems to be emerging as the standard compression for Blu-ray, and I’ve found that it’s significantly better than VC-1 (i.e., Windows Media), which seemed to be the de facto standard compressor on HD DVD—not surprising, given that Microsoft was in the HD DVD camp and has deeper pockets than God.

For our family’s Secret Santa at Christmas this year, I got the Harry Potter 5-movie special edition on Blu-ray. It looks pretty damned good on my TV; however, the first movie I watched was the fifth one (Order of the Phoenix) and in the first scene, there’s plenty of sky, first a blue sky then a gray, and I could spot in seconds that it was the VC-1 compressor: light blues, light-to-medium grays and all beiges are difficult for any compressor, but VC-1 is terribly noisy, meaning in a light blue sky, you’ll see MUCH darker and MUCH lighter pixels (sometimes groups of pixels), which are different with each frame, making that area look “grainy”. Nerdy, yes, but it can be distracting during scenes in films where you’re supposed to be looking at a serene landscape, for example.

AVC also has some trouble with those same skies, but the noise is far, far less: the darker pixels and lighter pixels are much closer to the true color, and the areas which vary are smaller clusters of pixels and usually square-shaped regions.

Good old MPEG-2 is also one of the compressors used for HD DVD and Blu-ray, just as it is for regular old DVDs, but the bit-rate is much higher (on Blu-ray, it’s usually between 18 and 35 megabits per second and on DVD it’s about 3 to 8 megabits per second).

All of this may seem like minutiae only a geek could love, but overall it does make a huge difference in the experience. And you’d be surprised at how much audio matters: most people think of the audio as an afterthought, but when I switch the audio from standard Dolby Digital 5.1 (compressed) to uncompressed PCM, the entire room opens up broadly and finely, making the content less like watching it and more like experiencing it.

MT4 and AmazonMP3

The reason I got into all this “trouble” with the blog layout is because Movable Type 4 (the collection of scripts from SixApart that I used to create and maintain this blog) was too smart. Too smart for my own good, really.

If I hadn’t been poking around at CSS—in particular, the structural/layout aspects of it—I wouldn’t have recovered anywhere near as fast as I did. And while it was much easier to get up and running than previous versions, there’s still so much lacking in web apps that it sends me scurrying back to the comfort of native-application bliss (as always, I’m using ecto as my blogging editor).

I’m biased here, but that doesn’t mean I can’t objectively (and subjectively) justify myself when it comes to native applications. I avoid doing any form of creation within a web page if I can help it. Lots of people trundle along quite happily using LiveJournal (EL-JAY! ugh) or TypePad or Blogger or—eek!—MySpace, typing their blog entries into a web form and clicking that Submit button.

But all you have to do is click the wrong button once, or worse, go visit another website while you’re in the midst of writing a blog entry totally forgetting that to leave the page often times means losing the contents of that page.

So here I sit on BART (the train, not the man) typing away. Yes, I have an internet connection, but I’m not sure I’ll finish this entry (you know how I get) before it’s time to disembark at Union City for my weekly visit to the Korean Herb Doctor. Yes, I could close the MacBook Pro and when I opened it later, the webpage would likely be there, but perhaps not. Perhaps Safari will try to connect to the web before I have a chance to reestablish an internet connection and its display of an error message will be enough to lose whatever I type. Probably not, but the best software is that which removes doubt from the proceedings and provides a sunny path to your goals.

Which brings me to Amazon MP3. Yuck.

I tried. I really did. I spent a half hour trudging through the site in search of my old standbys. I was fully prepared to shell out the $8.99 or whatever to repurchase an album I already had just to compare things.

Well, there’s two million songs, and then there’s two millions songs you’d bother with. In searches for “Billy Joel”, I ended up with cover-band albums and tribute albums, and even some weird Asian group of tweens listed only by their Americanized first names. Among Kay and Bobby and Tom was a boy called “Billy Joel”. The sad part is that it was better than most of the alternative listings which were primarily karaoke tracks. At least the kids were singing original material.

Searching for other well-established artists turned up similiar disappointments. I finally ended up with an older Sufjan Stevens album, “Illinoise”, but not after downloading an ironic client application which was required for downloading an entire album at a time.

The client application was the best part of the experience, though. After downloading that and installing it—which required quitting Safari and relaunching it—the purchase started a download of a .amz file, which was the album’s bundle of resources: artwork, songs encoded as MP3s, but at 256kbps and with no DRM.

iTunes Store songs are encoded as AACs (MPEG-4) at 128kbps. Don’t go thinking that the Amazon downloads are twice as nice because they’re encoded at a higher bit-rate because AAC is a much more efficient codec than MP3.

You also end up with a song file that’s 60% larger than an iTunes song of a similar length. That means that if your iPod normally can hold 10,000 songs from iTunes (or your own CDs encoded with AAC), it can only hold 6,250 Amazon MP3 songs. If your iPod is a classic or “classic” iPod with a hard disk, that also means significantly poorer battery life because the hard disk has to spin up more often to access the larger song files.

But I saved a whole $1.00 and the music I have has no technical restrictions on copying as much as I want. But then, I have yet to bump my head against the technological restrictions of the FairPlay (iTunes) DRM, so that doesn’t mean anything.

What a chore. I suppose they’ll get better, but then so will iTunes. Yes, I’m once again biased, but my biases are out in the open.

At the end of the day, that half hour could have been better spent—on fixing the CSS & HTML of this blog, for instance—and I’ll take the comfort of a ⌘S and a local file anyday.