Daniel Eran Dilger
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Why Low Def is the New HD.

Daniel Eran Dilger
The video industry is heavily promoting HDTV as the biggest new thing since color. While it’s uncontroversial that HDTV can deliver an exceptional picture for users of the latest large flat screen displays, sometimes a high pitched marketing message can drown out more interesting realities. In 2008, it appears that low definition video will actually have a bigger impact on consumers; Apple’s strategies in video take that potential into consideration. Here’s why Low Def is big and getting bigger–and why it’s bigger than HD.

Low Down on Low Def.
Low Definition video is commonly equated with VHS, VideoCD, the original Nintendo NES game console, and the first Sony PlayStation. All four delivered about a quarter the resolution of Standard Definition video, which is typically 720×480. On a standard TV, Low Definition video from these sources looks fair to poor.

Analog video signals don’t deliver a precise resolution comparable to a computer display; that’s why most video devices of the 80s and 90s described video quality as a number of lines of horizontal resolution. VHS provided about 250 lines. A typical TV broadcast delivered 330 lines, while LaserDisc and SuperVHS could output around 420 lines of resolution.

In addition to a lower detail resolution, these analog signals also involve a limited color resolution that makes it hard to directly compare them with today’s digital video signals. Thinking of VHS as being “a quarter the resolution” of DVD doesn’t convey how much worse of a picture it actually delivered in various ways.

Format Wars in Home Theater

Format Wars in Home Theater

The New Standard in Definition.
In the late 90s, DVD began offering high quality, low cost Standard Definition video. Sony’s PlayStation 2 arrived in 2000, and helped popularize the DVD along with much higher quality video games that also output a true SD signal with around 520 lines of analog resolution. In addition, cable and satellite providers also began offering high quality programming using digital compression. All of these used MPEG-2 encoding to provide an SD video signal that could be about as good as standard TVs could deliver.

At the same time, video quality hasn’t always just progressed forward. The compression applied to digital TV signals can result in a less attractive picture, even when it has a higher nominal resolution. While old analog equipment gradually degraded in sharpness and introduced noise with a weak signal, compressed digital video quickly shatters into blocky artifacts and can fall apart completely when the signal strength dips momentarily.

In the last few years, the display technology of TVs has jumped into the realm of High Definition. There are HD replacements to the DVD, to video games, and in broadcasting. However, the upgrade path for consumers isn’t necessarily a straight one leading to HD. The road is forking, and the technology being used to deliver HD is also finding applications elsewhere, including a boost to Standard Def and Low Def video quality.

The Tortured Path of HDTV.
Modern efforts to introduce HDTV in the US began twenty years ago. While Japanese broadcasters began analog HD transmissions even earlier, it was quickly determined that the next generation of TV should be digitally encoded. That complicated the rollout of HDTV and delayed widespread adoption. The first standards only appeared ten years ago, and HDTV has seen a glacial deployment since.

After working together to deliver the DVD as a distribution format for Standard Definition video using MPEG-2 digital encoding, the industry has splintered in the move to deliver a new High Definition video disc format.

While most major manufacturers are now selling Blu-Ray systems commonly using MPEG-2 or the new MPEG-4 AVC H.264 encoding to deliver HD video, Toshiba and Microsoft are working to establish the rival HD-DVD format, which principally uses Microsoft’s own Windows Media Video codec, published through the SMPTE under the name VC-1. Both systems can deliver HD formats in resolutions of 1280×720 or 1920×1080.

Outside of the HD disc format war, satellite and cable providers are also working to deliver HD programming, and some TV stations now broadcast an HD signal over the air. When analog TV broadcasting stops next spring, the digital TV infrastructure that replaces it may likely increase the amount of HD content being broadcast. Digital broadcasting of Standard Definition programming has already improved dramatically based on work related to HDTV.

Because HD delivers such an extremely high quality signal, many producers are worried about piracy; HD broadcasts and HD discs can serve as pristine masters for unauthorized duplication. That has resulted in an insistence upon draconian new DRM in attempts to prevent any leakage of HD content out of the direct-to-TV display chain, using the High Definition Copy Protection DRM standard to police how HD content can be used and displayed.

Blu-ray vs HD-DVD

Blu-ray vs HD-DVD in Next Generation Game Consoles

This All Happened Before.
If that sounds familiar, it should. The circumstances of the HD disc war are eerily similar the previous drive to move audio content from the CD format to new “audiophile” high definition audio formats with “unbreakable” new DRM schemes.

The DVD-Audio and SA-CD formats ended up battling for supremacy of a market that never developed. For consumers, CD was plenty good enough, and the extra bump of sound quality offered by the new formats wasn’t enough to offset the higher price and new user restrictions, including the inability to rip content for mobile use.

That’s right: while the industry was trying to herd consumers into buying “HD audio,” individuals were instead compressing their existing “standard definition” music on CDs for use in mobile applications. The use of MPEG audio compression allowed the 640 MB of raw CD data to be compressed down into 64 MB or less of MP3 files.

When played back on fancy stereo systems, elite users could certainly hear a difference in MP3 compressed audio. However, the point of MP3 wasn’t to replace CD or rival SA-CD or DVD-A, but rather to free content on CDs for use on computers, and later for use in mobile MP3 players. This compelling new product rapidly ate into new CD sales and devastated the market for the new DRM-laden “high definition audio” formats.

Did iTunes Kill the Record Store?

Did iTunes Kill the Record Store?

Why Less is More.
CD audio is very good. Not good enough to impress audiophiles, particularly given that there is some variation in the quality of CD mastering. But while it can’t deliver the full range of sound that can be captured in a studio in ideal conditions, CD audio is still very good. In many cases however, CD is not only “good enough” for consumers, but is actually too good.

Ten years ago when MP3 began taking off, raw CD audio was far too large to be used directly on computers. MP3, part of the MPEG-2 standard, compressed CD audio from 1,411 kbits/sec down to around 128 kbits/sec. While listening to MP3 audio from a computer had a limited appeal, the compression process threw out enough data to make it feasible for music originating on CD to also play from more compact players such as the Diamond Rio MP3 player.

New hard drive based MP3 players like the Creative Nomad and Apple’s iPod were not only much smaller than CD players, but could also hold the equivalent of hundreds of CDs in that compressed format, changing how people listened to their music. That change was made possible by trading off a small amount of quality for a large amount of convenience.

The Evil of Two Lessers.
Failing to grasp the needs of consumers resulted in Sony’s loss of its Walkman legacy. While the company had excelled at building miniaturized cassette tape and later mobile compact disc hardware, it didn’t understand the software business. Instead, Sony attempted to sell a smaller disc in MiniDisc (which like MP3, threw away quality to deliver portability) and a higher definition disc in SA-CD. Both found only limited adoption, in large part because of the DRM restrictions Sony imposed on both of those formats.

As a software company, Microsoft didn’t have Sony’s hardware fixation. Instead, Microsoft delivered a software-only solution that intended to replace the ISO’s interoperable, open MPEG standards behind MP3 with the Microsoft-controlled Windows Media Audio format. WMA was designed to serve labels and producers by allowing them to kill fair use rights and remotely terminate users’ music using a complex DRM architecture. That’s also why consumers rejected it.

When Sony later attempted to copy Microsoft’s DRM strategy for policing audio on CD, it was revealed that the company installed a third-party root kit to achieve the same degree of DRM power that Microsoft had built into Windows with WMA. Consumers were again angry. Ironically, when Microsoft tried to enter the hardware business with the Zune, it was similarly revealed that Microsoft had bungled things as badly as Sony, despite having a similar reliance on third parties to deliver most of the effort.

Universal vs Apple in the iTunes Store Contracts

Universal vs Apple in the iTunes Store Contracts

Hardware Software Integration.
Apple certainly didn’t deliver the first hardware MP3 player, nor did it offer the first software to manage or purchase music. Instead, Apple developed an integrated product that assembled open technologies to deliver a well designed hardware product paired with desktop software that was effortless to use.

Apple mopped up the pools of demand from consumers who wanted a device that worked with their existing CD collections without demanding that they buy new discs (as Sony had) or pay to download or subscribe to new audio files (as Microsoft did). Apple’s iPod didn’t take off primarily because of advertising, but because it was a product that did exactly what the market demanded.

Returning back to HD video: the market is not primarily demanding a better picture. That message is being marketed to consumers by companies with HD products to sell, like Sony and Microsoft. What consumers really want are products that just work.

  • Easy to use movies that play back on command.
  • TV programming that’s available when they want to watch it.
  • Portable video that plays in the car and on mobile devices.
  • Access to diverse, alternative content sources.
  • Commercial content that works like their own home videos and photos.

DVD became popular because it solved many of the previous demands of consumers for a more durable, higher quality replacement to VHS that didn’t require rewinding. The majority of users are not upset with the picture quality of DVD today. Certainly, anyone with a new HDTV wants the maximum quality possible. However, sales of HD discs have not been overwhelming, despite the massive marketing push devoted to Blu-Ray and HD-DVD.

Both HD formats also complicate things for users who like to rip movies for mobile playback; full sized, standalone HD disc players are still expensive, leaving mobile players as an unaddressed market. Further, HD discs really don’t offer any mobile advantage over standard definition DVDs for users who want a mobile version. DVDs are also easier to rip into mobile versions.

The Rise of Low Def.
When rumors surfaced of a video iPod back in 2004, Apple dismissed them with comments suggesting that consumers didn’t want to watch movies on a 2“ screen. However, Apple was also pioneering another market: podcasting. Video podcasts are commonly targeted to small screen playback, and fill a market need for alternative content that can’t be delivered by mainstream media supported by broad advertising.

The market for broad advertising is dying with the old model of TV being three channels delivered by three big companies. Just within the US, there are now hundreds of cable and satellite channels vying for attention, and broad advertising can’t sustain such diversity. What will increasingly happen is that smaller productions will be financed by a combination of very targeted advertising and user sponsorship, just like content on the web.

While HD obviously isn’t going to dry up and blow away as SA-CD and DVD-A did, the market for mobile devices that can play back targeted podcast content is going to outshine them. The podcast market–whether free as most existing podcasts are, or paid in the form of iTunes TV downloads, or direct broadcast feeds supported by ads as NBC is doing–commonly falls into the category of Low Def.

Low Def is below Standard Definition video, but that doesn’t mean Low Def has to be poor VHS quality. Low Def ”LDTV“ devices such as the iPhone (320×480), the iPod (320×240), and the Playstation Portable (480×272) all use a screen resolution below standard TVs, but are also much more compact and portable, too. Their accurate color, high density screens display mobile video that looks great.

These don’t directly compete against HD any more than MP3 players battled against audiophile SACD or DVD-A formats. However, the market for content–whether free, paid, or ad supported–is going to favor LD over HD in video for the same reasons low def MP3 audio won out over high def audio formats.

The Paradox of LD Competing with HD.
It is not only much cheaper to produce content for LD screens than to deliver HD content, but it’s also less expensive to archive and deliver, meaning it also costs less and is faster to download by consumers. Anything recorded in HD can be offered in an LD version at minimal extra cost. Additionally, existing Standard Definition video on DVD can already be delivered to LD devices. DVD can also be up-sampled to HD, but with less impressive results.

In addition to being cheap for independent producers to deliver, there is also fewer or no DRM restrictions on LD video, because there is no market for pirating LD content for resale on DVD or other formats. Additionally, as consumers shift toward more active, portable devices, they’ll be more likely to have access to LD content, which will interest advertisers who want to actually reach people rather than simply deliver sharp looking ads.

The iPhone already delivers early access to LDTV with YouTube, and can display live LDTV programming from direct web broadcasters via RSS video podcasts or video embedded in web pages. When Apple talks about ”near DVD quality“ in the iTunes Store, it’s describing the borderline between LDTV and standard definition video.

Of course, Apple is also delivering HD products. Consumers want HD video and HD photos and HD audio. Apple TV delivers HD home movies, HD photos, and can deliver HD audio. It can also deliver SD/LD video from the iTunes Store. More importantly, iTunes can sync the same video, photo, and audio content to Apple TV as it does to the iPhone and iPods.

Most middle class households will eventually get an HDTV over the next couple years, but many of those households will likely have multiple mobile devices. Being able to accommodate all of them with one pool of content will be important. Neither Blu-Ray nor HD-DVD currently serve that market, although Apple has tried to push both to include an LD version of movies for use with portable products.

Inside Apple TV

Inside Apple TV

Same Characters, Different Medium.
Just as was the case a half decade ago, Microsoft and Sony are in a battle to push their DRM-centric formats under the guise of delivering higher definition. Once again, Sony is ahead with real hardware products while Microsoft is waging an expensive misinformation war that suggests its software has won.

However, Apple is also again in the position of setting up the foundations for delivering what consumers really want: open, DRM-optional, alternative, user-producible content and portable hardware that plays it back. Despite the availability of HD downloads elsewhere, Apple is still selling the most video programming online. That’s because the market is demanding what LD delivers, not what HD vendors are pushing.

Last year, Apple’s share of the video downloads market rose to 90%, with Vongo in second place with 5%, Movielink at 2%, and others trailing with smaller bits of the pie. Since then, Apple’s share has increased slightly. Even when only looking at movie downloads, where Apple offers less content than other competitors and hasn’t yet matched them in offering HD content, iTunes still has a 42% share, twice as much as the second place Vongo at 21%. Movielink and CinemaNow both have 15%, leaving everyone else to fight over the remaining 7%.

While Microsoft is touting HD downloads via its Live service, the reality is that HD isn’t leading sales. In fact, neither Microsoft’s movie downloads nor its TV business are even significant in the download market. That’s why nobody ever talks about Microsoft’s market share in online downloads.

Steve Jobs and the iTunes DRM Threat to Microsoft

Steve Jobs and the iTunes DRM Threat to Microsoft
NPD Group: Electronic sell-through has slow growth – 10/5/2007 – Video Business

Looking at the Entire Market.
When physical DVD sales are considered, Apple’s ownership of the online market only gives it about 1% of all movie sales. However, the company also nurtured its current 10% share of all music sales by making online music attractive and convenient. As Apple pushes into TV playback with Apple TV and expands the installed base of video playing iPods, including the iPhone and new iPod Nano and Touch, it will expand the demand for iTunes programming.

Critics have tried to suggest that Apple’s iTunes video is terrible by comparing resolution numbers with the DVD and HD specs. In reality however, resolution numbers don’t convey how good a picture looks. Most TV watchers get their programming through cable or satellite providers, who heavily compress most content in order to squeeze in as many channels as possible. The result is that most digital TV looks no better than Apple’s current ”near DVD“ programming in iTunes, and can frequently look significantly worse.

HD discs–and certain cable HD channels–are accorded enough bandwidth to easily outshine Internet downloads. However, the relationship between LD/SD and HD content isn’t exclusive, and HD doesn’t always offer an advantage.

Some content, particularly sports events and new movies with heavy CGI or dramatic cinematography–look awesome in HD. The problem with assuming that HD is the only future is that most content isn’t or wasn’t recorded in HD, or looks no better in HD. We don’t listen to music in recording studios; we listen in outdoor concerts, in bars, over loudspeakers, and using earbuds. Similarly, there’s a lot of TV, movies, and other video content that doesn’t benefit from greater than SD resolution at all.

Apple happens to be positioned to ride the sweet spot of LD/SD content right now, and has the infrastructure and hardware to deliver HD content using the same iTunes ecosystem with Apple TV in the future. Apple has bet on the mainstream 720p HD format as the best balance between high quality content and downloadable file sizes.

That will enable the company to transition to offering HD programming from iTunes as consumer’s bandwidth availability increases and the demand for HD expands. Until that happens on a large scale, Apple will continues to sell the most content because it has targeted what consumers want–convenient downloads–not what other vendors are all trying to sell: high end, high priced HD.

Movie Studios vs. Consumers in Home Theater

Movie Studios vs. Consumers in Home Theater

The Proof of HD’s Slow Progress.
In October, DisplaySearch reported that both of the rival HD disc formats combined only held a 5% share of the market when compared to Standard Def DVD players. Up-converting DVD players, which output a pristine digital signal designed to look better on HDTV sets, are actually growing faster than HD disc players.

The significant difference in price between the two is greatly overshadowing the slight difference in visible resolution that Blu-Ray and HD-DVD offer over up-converted DVD for users of HDTVs with a 48” or smaller display. Moving from DVD to HD discs is no huge leap comparable to the chasm between VHS’s 250 lines of analog resolution and DVD’s 520. Many consumers haven’t even yet seen how good of a digital picture DVDs can produce when unhampered by the constraints of the old NTSC TV standards and simple composite video cables.

While TV salesmen are trying to label the high end 1080p HD signal format as “true HD,” very few HDTVs even support it. There are no 1080p broadcasts, leaving practical HD at either a sharp 720p display or the interlaced 1080i standard. Despite being a bigger number, the interlaced display of 1080i typically means there will be more motion artifacts. That reality leaves HD only a minor improvement over the top of what DVD delivers. For viewers who sit ten feet away from their display, there isn’t a real difference.

Estimates suggest that by the end of the year, there will be an installed base of about a million standalone HD-DVD and Blu-Ray disc players, besides the 7-8 million PlayStation 3 consoles that can also play Blu-Ray discs. That makes less than ten million HD players in total, compared to around 40 million video playing iPods, and hundreds of millions of iTunes installations capable of playing back iTunes content directly from a computer or through an Apple TV.

There are also only about 330 and 360 titles available on HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, respectively. Despite Apple’s challenges in lining up movie partners, it now offers about 1000 movies from major studios and nearly 100 independent films. So while there is a lot of money and marketing behind HD, the commercial market for Low Def, portable video content and playback is simply larger than HD, even before adding in alternative content from podcasts.

High-def adoption ‘will roll’, albeit slowly, say panelists – 10/10/2007 – Video Business

Why Nobody Else Points This Out.
Without considering the real numbers involved, it would seem nonsensical to pit Low Def programming against HD. The facts simply buck conventional wisdom in a way that no commercial information source has any reason to highlight.

While iTunes already leads the delivery of LD/SD video, there are two new video-related businesses Apple is rumored to soon be pushing into. The next article will explore the first one: rentals.

How Apple Could Deliver Workable iTunes Rentals

What do you think? I really like to hear from readers. Comment in the
Forum or email me with your ideas.

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  • mkrus

    Apple did partly blow it with the Apple TV though. It’s great to play non HD video but can only easily be connected to an HD TV.

    A basic composite connector would have been welcome…

  • OlivierL

    YEAH !!!!! The REAL RDM is BACK !
    Sharp and, above all, ahead of anything else.

  • Brau

    You took the thoughts right out of my head and wrote them down!

    Over the last decade we have seen the CD fail to the MP3 and most kids I know download their movies which indicates clearly that content and access is king, not playback quality. They have no use for discs and want downloads. Period. The DVD is falling to the same forces as internet speeds increase (Thank god for Handbrake!). Seeing this happening, it is conceivable that the current HD format wars could fizzle before they even become a standard, ultimately losing out to LowDef downloads – which will certainly improve as time goes by. As they are now, they rival DVD quality.

    And you are sooo right about HD content not being available. A friend of mine just bought a 58″ HD plasma TV, but even the HD channels look blocky (I saw a square-wing eagle soaring over saw grass) leaving me to conclude I simply won’t buy a big TV until broadcast quality improves a lot!. It also makes the viewing experience much more aggravating as each channel broadcasts in a different format, meaning the user has to adjust the aspect ratio every time the channel is changed or sit there and look at stretched-out short fat people. In the end, the only time I really want high def is to watch a movie, which I only do a couple times a month. The bulk of my TV watching doesn’t require HD and is completely unnecessary when watching a series like “The Office” or “Heroes”.

    Like you said, Apple is well positioned to step into this new frontier and yet I puzzled as to why the TV remains so limited by not giving users direct access to third party content (IE: recordings via EyeTV, full Quicktime playback) *without* the added hassle of re-encoding via iTunes. If their ad said “If it’s on your *Mac* (instead of iTunes) it’s on your TV”, I would have bought one yesterday.

  • John Muir


    Have a look inside EyeTV … it integrates with iTunes quite well. Indeed there are buttons for Apple TV, iPod and iPhone in the titlebar! Once it encodes a recording for any of those, it can automatically set iTunes to import them. Almost an integrated Apple experience, only as always with 3rd parties just not quite.

    Now if only that app wouldn’t bork every once in a while and give me zero second zero k recordings!

  • brett_x

    I second OlivierL’s note… No Zoon awards, just the facts and insightful interpretation / analysis. These are the articles I share with people.

  • chefmitch


    IMHO, this is the worst article I have ever read on your site.

    I think you do your readers a disservice by trying to make the case that broadcast HD is not a huge improvement over SD (standard definition). The quality difference between HD and SD is as noticeable as VHS to DVD.

    The HD transition (broadcast not pre-recorded discs) is very far along and is of great benefit to TV watchers. It is very difficult to even buy a TV that will not show HD.

    Sure, Apple TV uses 720p but that doesn’t mean you need to take a shot at 1080i. 1080i looks equally as good as 720p.

    The amount of HD content is increasing rapidly and is easily available no matter how you choose to receive your TV signal (Antenna, cable, satellite).

    High prices, format war and the fact that DVD still looks very good has definitely led to a poor rollout for pre-recorded HD. The success (or failure) of pre-recorded HD content has little to nothing to do with the success (or failure) of broadcast HD.

    I witnessed the triumph of portability over quality in the MP3 vs SACD/DVD-Audio drubbing. There are many differences for Video vs Audio.

    1. Audio is best while you are doing something else. Audiophiles are probably the only people for whom listening to music is an activity unto itself. For everyone else, listening to music is best while we are doing something else (driving in the car, jogging, talking with friends, eating a meal, walking, hiking, etc.). Music needs to be as portable as possible. Not so much for Video. Watching Video is an activity unto itself – portability is less important. Consumers understand that consuming video is best done in a designated place with high quality equipment. People want big screens with surround sound. They want high quality video with great sound. They are willing to pay thousands of dollars for HD flat screen TVs with surround sound stereo systems. Sports, comedies, dramas, documentaries, movies, news, weather – EVERYTHING looks better in HD. Music is ideal for listening to over and over and over. Video is much more about watching what is new. Most people get their new video via broadcast TV where there is a LOT of HD.

    I live in the SF bay area and Comcast is the local HD provider. Here is what they offer in HD:

    KRON (local channel with very little original programming)
    National Geographic
    Discover Channel
    Discovery Theater
    History Channel
    VS/Golf Channel (split programming)
    Universal HD
    Music HD

    I hope your readers will judge for themselves the value of HD.

    Unlike music, I believe both the high end (HD) and low end (portable video) will both increase in popularity.

  • chefmitch

    Oh, I forgot to add the pay channels – HBO, Starz, Cinemax & Showtime are also broadcast in HD by Comcast.

  • OlivierL

    To chefmitch : “EVERYTHING looks better in HD” Well, porn is not : in HD, you realize that too much details is a bit too much and that the actresses aren’t so perfect …

    About “anyone wanting a brand new flat HD TV”, actually, this is more a brainwash than a real demand as it occured with CD (direct access to music track) over tape and DVD over VHS (you didn’t need a brand new TV set to see the difference).

    I think here that what DED wants to say is that the electronic companies want us to buy very expensive and shiny flat TV set. And we do because those TV set are so gorgeous. But what WE want is not bigger and more expensive TV for bigger and more expensive content. What we want to have is the ability to take our video portfolio in our pocket as we were doing with our music portfolio. With one CD, we can play the music in a standalone CD player, in our car, on our computer, on our MP3 player. What we want now, it is with one DVD being able to rip it and play it in our computer, in our Portable Media Player, in our car media system for the kids, in a hard-drive based media center.

  • chefmitch

    To OliverL: People want a brand new flat HD TV as much because of the ‘FLAT’ as the HD. Flat screens are desirable because they give you a large (Americans like things bigger) picture without a giant cabinet – they can hang on walls – they are cool.

    HD adoption has benefited greatly from the desire of consumers for flat TVs – Flat screen TV adoption is benefitting from the availability of high quality sources (DVD, broadcast HD, Video Games & pre-recorded HD).

    It’s a win-win.

    No brainwashing here.

    It’s almost comical to see a big fat TV in people’s living rooms. Wait a second – I still have big fat TV in my living room ;-)

  • chefmitch

    To Oliver – I have no comment on your Porn comment except that I might think harder before using the word ‘Everything’ again.

  • OlivierL

    About HD and porn, the actresses actually complained about programmed “introduction” of HD broadcasting of porn content. They didn’t want their fans to see every single one of any of their wrinkle and especially their scars from breast enlargement or any other cosmetic modification.

  • OlivierL

    The “flat TV is thinner than CRT TV” argument is the one I used with my wife. I know why I bought mine : it is big, it is beautiful, the cool people on TV have one, the neighbor has one also and I want to show him whose the boss around. I also happen to watch a lot of movies and the image on a bigger screen is priceless.

    But I watch much more movies using VOD than bought or borrowed DVD. And here is the catch : to me, the important thing right now is not improving my content quality (going from SD to HD, even if I have a HD display) but improving the simplicity : being able to watch a movie from a rich VOD portfolio anytime I want for a reasonable fee, being able to watch movie from my personal portfolio on my TV, my laptop while traveling, on my Archos while commuting or by my parents when I’m in holidays. And this is what I can not do right now how hard I try while staying legal.

    Apple, with its iPod line, AppleTV included, with Movie rental and purchase is providing the kind of integrated and complete user experience I’m looking forward.

  • PerGrenerfors

    Man, I’ve been waiting weeks for an article like this!

    Just as someone already said, no zoon awards, no ad-hominem attacks.. just a great analysis and some great ideas. That’s the RDM I like.

    Great job!

  • gus2000

    Ummm, Oliver are you speculating about HD porn, or is this first-hand knowledge? :)

    So is this Daniel’s best ever, or worst ever? The room is divided. I do think it’s important to differentiate between broadcast video and pre-recorded video (i.e., movies). I can’t stand watching NTSC anymore now that I’m picking up the locals in HD. But, I will say that anamorphic DVD on a HD screen though progressive-component connections is damn close.

    How close? Close enough that I don’t care. Close enough that I’d rather have the convenience of DVD rather than the high-priced DRM of HD-DVD. But DVD quality is now my bottom-end format, “near-DVD” just won’t do.

    I’ve been catching up on “24” though the DVD boxed sets, and they look as good as any HD. (I’m sure HD would have more detail, but it’s not missed.) When one of the discs turned out to be bad, it was iTunes to the rescue as I downloaded the missing episode. Unfortunately the quality difference was quite noticeable, which is why I still haven’t taken the plunge on AppleTV. To be fair, the AppleTV’s connections would look better than the analog s-video connection I used between my Mac and my TV.

    Personally, I’m waiting for IMAX-DVD. :)

  • duckie

    Excellent article.

    Regarding broadcast versus pre-recorded – While we appear to be as much in love with big flat screens as anybody, I suspect the take-up here in the UK and the other countries that use the PAL system may be a lot slower. Not because nobody’s started to broadcast in HD – they have – but the leap in quality is not so far as it is from NTSC (we’re starting from 576i, NTSC is 480i) and what we see right now on SD, even on digital aerial received broadcasts, looks damn good.

    I would go so far as to say that on some non-HD channels the quality can be comparable to DVD. I like HD, but not enough to bother paying for it unless it just happens to come as part of the equipment I was going to buy anyway. And on previous evidence I only buy a new TV every 15 years or so.

  • http://www.roughlydrafted.com danieleran

    @ chefmitch: If you reread the article, you’ll note that I never argued that “broadcast HD is not a huge improvement over SD.” Instead, I pointed out that HD is particularly impressive in certain applications: notably sports events that can afford to record content using high-end HD cameras, CGI movies, and I’ll add nature films and documentaries that similarly show off HD.

    But HD broadcasts compete against regular broadcasts, not DVD. You haven’t been watching sports events and other TV programming in DVD quality, but rather near VHS quality. Digital broadcasts are an improvement, and HD is obviously also an improvement over basic TV, but that has nothing to do with comparing DVD+upconverting players with the new HD discs. That comparison is much less noticeable.

    Go to Best Buy and look at their before/after screens: they either fake the differences completely, or they’re only noticeable on a 70″ screen from two feet away. There is no VHS to DVD difference.

    The problem for HD broadcasts however is two separate factors: first, there is limited content. Watch the news in HD and you see a nice HD picture of the anchors (whoopdedo) and the same SD live shots captured by newscasters in a 4:3 square against a background. It’s no improvement at all–its a distraction.

    The majority of other TV is not broadcast in HD either. Of the minority that is, a lot of it isn’t really benefitted much by being in HD. It will be nice when more content is made available in HD as the common standard, but things aren’t there yet, for the second reason:

    It’s very expensive to capture and edit HD.

    I’m not arguing that HD is a bad thing, I’m pointing out that HD is being oversold. It’s a great niche product. It’s going mainstream, but the sweet spot of that will be 720p. All broadcast content will be 720p or 1080i.

    You’re right that 1080i doesn’t look “bad,” but that’s the point–it also doesn’t look that good. It’s not a real improvement over 720p because it introduces motion artifacts and jitter due to the interlacing, just like our old TV standards did.

    I watch the same HD cable as you. If you actually scan through your channels, you’ll find that most HD feeds are either showing SD content regularly, or are compressed down to the point where they offer only a very good improvement over broadcast TV. Few are even really comparable to DVD quality, which is the high end of SD.

    That’s why I noted that the technology going into HDTV is also improving SD, and that’s where the content is. With new portable devices, high quality “Low Def” resolutions will deliver more content with less DRM at better prices to a wider market.

  • HendersonD

    I do agree that portability is very important in many users minds. There is a segment of the population that have home theaters where quality is king. I am not talking about looking at content on a 42″ plasma or lcd display from a distance of 10-15 feet with a low end surround sound system. For those serious about home theater only a front projector will do with a screen size somewhere in the range of 90″-120″ diagonal. This is what gives somebody a true home theater experience. On a screen this large it is quite easy to tell the difference between upconverted DVDs and HD content, particularly from HD-DVD and BluRay. Once you see HD content from a disc in a well setup home theater, there is no going back to LD/SD content in this type of venue.

  • pecos.bill

    Correction: Broadcast TV isn’t mandated to shut down until Feb 2009 — a full TEN years after the conversion was started.

    Personally, I see video demands forking in two. For the majority, people will buy or rent DVD/HD disc to watch at home on a large screen. There will still be some significant demand for viewing mobile video when you’re not able to be home but have time to kill. It seems that bundling an mp4 with a DVD purchase (on disc then later an HD disc) seems to address need the best.

    As for HD discs, the Format Wars and pricing are killing adoption. I don’t want to be stuck with a dead end player AND CONTENT that I spent a ton of money on. With what happened to Betamax and VHS, I am stunned that anyone would jump into either platform without a clear winner of the war. Another caveat: we bought our HDTV in 2001 which only accepts analog HD content. There is a risk that either HDDVD or BluRay can shut off analog output and thereby kill my investment. (AACS on both can do just that!) I’d need a guarantee that would not happen (and how would I verify it?).

    As for HD content, each video piece either lends itself to HD or it doesn’t. Sure, it’s fun watching Dirty Jobs in HD (just got DirecTV in HD this year), but it’s a novelty. Having it in HD doesn’t really add to it even if it is Dirty. Same for past movies. “The Trip” would hardly benefit from higher def. It’s the emotions and character interaction that matters. Like Daniel said, some content lends itself to HD. Like Nature shows, Planet Earth, Sci-Fi, etc. So, can someone tell me why (US) football games look so good in HD? Is it that they spent more money on premium cameras for it?

  • Albert

    What a timely article!
    The way I see it happening is merging HD and LD together in one file, name it 720p+. What I mean is we all want to download an episode of Heroes for example, in HD 720p, and watch it through AppleTV on our HDTV; however that file will not play on iPod, iPhone…. what I foresee as a ideal solution is to download this 720p+ file, which could be like 2-3% bigger than a regular 720p file BUT you will able (or iTunes will be able) to extract an LD version from the same file, and sync it to iPhone. That solution, IMHO, will be the perfect middle ground between watching HD movies/shows on an HDTV AND and LD on iPhone or iPod.

  • pecos.bill

    Correcting my correction: I meant to say ANALOG Broadcast shutdown is Feb09.

    I think your high def quality issues may be skewed to recompression done by cable systems. Every HD cast I’ve watched on DirecTV has been pristine unless there’s signal problems (rare). I’ve not tried comparing 720p v 1080i shows as our receiver is set to upconvert to 1080i. (I doubt it does true line-doubling like the DVD players you mention but just copies the line.) That way, our TV isn’t constantly re-synchronizing to the signal.

    Maybe the compression factor or which MPEG standard is used on a channel explains my football question….

  • http://www.roughlydrafted.com danieleran

    @ HendersonD: yes, if you have the spare theater room with a 90″ – 120″ (that’s a seven – ten foot screen!) lit up by a projection system, then yes, you’ll certainly see a difference. The reality is that most people don’t have a home theater of those proportions, just as most people didn’t have a sound system that replicated a recording studio. That’s why I compared HDTV to SACD.

    @ pecos.bill: US football looks amazing because they have the budget to actually use high resolution cameras and equipment. A lot of HD programming is done using limited resolution cameras, and then downscaled, converted, or compressed several times on the way to the TV set, by distributors, cable boxes, and in the TV itself. Sports programming sells HD Cable and Sat systems to the point where it receives more bandwidth per channel (less compression).

    Other cable/sat content is heavily compressed because consumers want lots of channels more than they want a slightly better view of sitcoms, news, garden shows, and similar content. That mirrors the market demands I outlined–even HD providers are compressing their content down to where its only nominally HD. The majority of it is really DVD or less.

    I’ve compared HD movies broadcast over cable with DVDs I’ve ripped and scaled down by ~10x to play over Apple TV as an H.264 file, and the rip looked better than the supposed HD cable. In reality, both were “near DVD quality,” just like iTunes downloads, which is plenty good enough for most movies and TV content played on an HDTV that costs less than $3000 – 5000.

  • josh

    well done, dan. i’ve spent my entire career in video post-production (20+ years) and i couldn’t agree more. hd has been way oversold. basically, it was created to enrich the hardware manufacturers and more importantly give the broadcasters an enormous chunk of the over the air spectrum for free.

    i remember trying to explain succinctly to my mother what hd was ten years ago and her only response was “so you’re telling me there is something wrong with my picture.” faroudja perfected line doubling twenty years ago and there is plenty that could have been done to improve the picture quality by extending the ntsc and pal standards without creating this medusa we call hd but improving the picture was never the real goal.

    one additional point. creating proper lofi isn’t as simple as downconverting hd programming. there are a lot of decisions that the content makers have to tailor to the output medium. for example, you can use small type on a large screen that will become illegible in lofi. the composition of the frame and the sound dynamics should be adjusted for the output medium. all this means that my job isn’t getting any easier!

  • josh

    one additional point. for all the commenters who are writing about how much better hd is than sd, i doubt very many of you have actually seen sd properly displayed. you need to see it played from a d1 player on broadcast monitor. it’s much better than a dvd. this is prohibitively expensive (actually impossible) for a home viewer. my point is that it we could have achieved a broadcast system that exceded dvd quality without dumping sd.

  • cubeeggs

    720 by 480 (DVD at exactly 4:3 or 16:9) = 345,600 pixels
    1920 by 1080 = 2,073,600 pixels

    1080p has exactly 6 times the number of pixels that 480p does. Proper HD is much higher quality than a DVD. Even 720p has about 2.6 times the number of pixels a DVD has, and it looks far, far better on a computer screen than a DVD has. If you’re watching an interlaced DVD on a computer, unless you’re using a really good deinterlacer, you only really get about 720 by 240. I don’t think I’ve ever really seen what an up-converting DVD player outputs, but I seriously doubt it can recover all of the fine detail that is thrown away when down-converting to DVD quality.

    On a good quality TV, the difference is really obvious. I don’t really see the reason behind the obsession with flat-screen TVs because they’re far more expensive and the picture on many of them (at least the ones they dry to dump on people at Target, I’m sure there are better ones) is absolutely awful. It’s completely absurd. They have a Blu-ray ad on, and then they show this “HD” picture, and it’s really blurry with really bad edge enhancement. I can see why many people think that HD isn’t a big leap, but on a large TV such as a DLP or other rear-projection TV, high-quality HD looks far, far better than a DVD does.

  • vicsandr

    Ok, a rehash of a couple of DED’s ideas for future reference: Yesterday I saw a 4K video file played back in 512p, 720p, and 1080p; each played back as a wavelet (is est a reference QuickTime). Put the 4K source in the cloud, view it via the appropriate wavelet on your iPhone, AppleTV, MacBook, ProHDTV, whatever. Good looking out: be good, good work, vers.

  • John E

    well, folks, with respect i think you’re missing the forest for the trees. the big news is:

    1. analog is (almost) dead! at long last we are seeing universal consumer deployment of digital video technology from start to finish. capture (pro and consumer), broadcast/CATV, internet, DVD, DVR, home theater, PC’s, and HDTV’s. this includes both SD and HD formats. and LD for portables, sure.

    2. digital video processing has dramatically improved too. the powerful chips now inside HDTV’s, DVD’s, and PC’s of course, greatly enhance perceived SD quality compared to analog SD – giving a new generation of life to SD DVD and CATV video. digital SD is not obsolete and will be with us for years.

    3. full HD – bluray and HD, etc. at 1080p – still eat too much bandwith for internet IPTV or CATV distribution or broadcast. that will change in maybe 5 years, but for now it is impractical. so today they are just a niche product for videophiles, not a mass market.

    4. thus 720p (or 1080i equivalent, but that takes an extra step to deinterlace) is the good workable HD comprise today. it is being used now for CATV, OTA, and IPTV hi-def, and this will continue for the next several years at least, which means it will quickly become the norm. (that’s why Apple has settled on this standard for iTunes and Apple TV hi-def, no fools they).

    executive summary: analog is dead, enhanced digital SD and 720p HD now rule for practical reasons, consumers are thrilled, further consumer applications of the digital technology are coming.

    that’s the forest.

  • addicted44

    Great article Dan. This is the kind of stuff that I look forward to when coming to roughlydrafted.

    @cubeeggs, Like Daniel says in his article, and multiple comments, HD is higher quality than SD. However, there are 2 factors in play, that makes this not that important to consumers. 1) There is very little high def content. Like Daniel mentions, a lot is just SD repackaged as HD. 2) There are not that many videos in which HD makes the viewing necessarily any better, and far lesser things where it makes it better to justify the additional expense. For example, all those tweens watching Jackass on MTV wont laugh more because the picture is clearer.

    And as you have observed yourself (but dont seem to realize) is that for more people their TV not taking up half their living room, and not looking ugly when they have visitors is worth a LOT more than a clearer picture. Besides sports, and maybe some CGI intensive movies and shows, how many times do you think people go, if only this picture quality was even better, I would have laughed so much harder at that Scrubs joke, or been taken aback so much more by that plot twist? People are not entertained by the quality of a video, but rather by the content. They do however, expect a certain base quality, and as time passes, this base increases. Daniel points out that HD is not at the point where it is the base, while LD is well above that base. He does agree however that in the future HD may become that base, but there is a long time to go for that.

    In such a situation he argues, IMO very presciently, that all the hoopla about HD is currently a waste of money. The bigger money lies in portable video, and the studios are not recognizing this fast enough, and are wasting money on their High Def ventures, while they can easily make a lot more money at far less cost in low def ventures.

  • http://www.giveyourbrainachance.com jeromec

    Excellent article.

    A few details I do not agree with, but excellent article.

    I might want to add a comparison with the mobile phone industry:
    While the mobile phone industry has been exceptionally successful globally, there’s been a tremendous gap between:
    – the services/ features pushed by mobile network operators (and OEMs), including 3G, 3G+, Wap services, music track recognition, video calls, proprietary content, Office readers etc.
    – what people wanted, and finally used : mainly voice calls, and text messages, then email, now the real internet/web
    (It is good to remember that nobody believed in text messaging when it was introduced…)
    Just as RIM, then Apple changed the rules in the mobile phone industry by targeting products directly at what consumers (incl. business customers) wanted, and not what the industry wanted them to buy, I believe there is space for industry-changing initiatives in the video industry.

    Keep up with such brilliant articles Daniel!

  • http://www.roughlydrafted.com danieleran

    @cubeeggs: yes when you compare spec pixels, you do see more numbers with the HD resolution. However, reality involves more than spec numbers, as you point out in in describing the wide swath in quality among HDTV sets.

    At any resolution, compression can turn an excellent picture into something bad, regardless of the number of dots that are supposed to be there.

    There are no 1080p broadcasts sending 2,073,600 pixels 60 times a second. There are few HDTV sets that can accommodate that, and even the best Blu-Ray discs aren’t sending you 1.2 billion pixels per second.

    The reality is that TV makers are pushing sets that do 720p/1080i, and take some liberties with interlacing and other factors. Cable, sat, and broadcasters also use a variety of different camera resolutions, compression factors, and other processing that simply don’t deliver the pixels that spec math suggest are there.

    The biggest problem is that most consumers don’t care about quality as much as convenience. If they did, we wouldn’t have suffered through VHS for 20 years, and we’d all buy $10,000 projectors rather than ~$1000 or less flat panel displays. We’d also have bought SA-CDs.

  • chefmitch

    I think y’all are cuckoo for downplaying how much better HD is over non-HD (For broadcast – I am only talking about broadcast for this entire post).

    I view HD on a 55″ rear projection CRT and on a 26″ LCD and the HD-SD difference is huge. When I talk about HD, I am referring to HD shot in HD and shown in HD (1080i or 720p). Sure, there is lots of upconverted content shown on HD channels, but this will change over time.

    Not only is the picture noticeably better but the picture is formatted to fill the entire screen. Sure, we are still in a period of transition so the 16×9 format is not being used to its full potential but that day will come.

    Even things like the news are much better in HD (yes, I know, only the studio shots are in HD with the mobile shots being framed with bars – but this too will change).

    I don’t care what SD could have been (professional equipment on studio monitors) – I only care about what it is.

    I don’t care how much cameras and other equipment cost. I only care about the quantity and quality of HD being offered in my area.

    I don’t care how much video is consumed away from traditional TVs because for the foreseeable future that only creates a bigger market for content. It is not an either-or situation. Both HD & LD can succeed – it is not a zero sum game.

    I don’t care if companies are making a profit (gasp!) from selling me an HDTV.

    Let’s not forget that NTSC was created in the 1950s. There were lots of technical compromises (interlacing of images) made to overcome limitations of the day.

  • Brau

    @ John Muir

    Thanks, but I have used the automated import features inside EyeTV and I don’t like using iTunes as my media player because it doubles all my recorded files. At 2.8GB per hour long program that can be substantial. It is also unacceptable to me that in order to view an already recorded show I have to re-render it to H264, taxing the processor for another hour or two and making my G5 blow like a wind tunnel for hours. If MS can make an XBox that plays media without recompression then Apple can make their TV play third party content as well but instead chooses to artificially strangle the unit.

  • Nicky G

    No offense, but I think Dan should keep his commentaries limited to the computing space, not video/broadcast. So much incorrect info. here! For example:

    • DVDs that are 480p over component cables are EDTV (enhanced-definition), not SD (standard def.) NTSC, the standard def. broadcast standard here in the USA, is inherently limited to 525i, or 525 interlaced frames, of which 486 are picture lines if memory serves.

    • HD is simply way better than SD, if you think otherwise you are nuts! Maybe the source video you are watching is highly compressed, or the particular monitor is bad? I would rather take 720 lines of progressively-scanned video over the 480 lines that DVDs offer, when watching on my TV.

    • Mobile devices are a whole other argument! Those screens are so small with such dense pixels, you don’t need HD content on them, they still look really sharp!

    • I dunno where Dan’s idea that most TV content is filmed with sub-par cameras, so watching that video in HD is not worth it. This is simply not true! Much on TV is shot with HD cameras that actually exceed the HD capabilities of the ATSC (Digital TV) broadcast spec. Lots of other content is shot on film, then transferred to HD — film is WAY higher resolution than HD. And very high-quality HD cameras are being used by smaller production companies these days, tons of them are shooting HD even if they are delivering in SD.

    • Anyone who “can’t tell the difference between SD and HD” is not doing an accurate A/B comparison, where two screens playing the exact same content are right next to one another. In this scenario you’d have to be BLIND to not see how superior properly-produced HD material is over SD.

    • A HUGE advantage of HD over SD is the inherent 16:9 aspect ratio of the picture frame, versus the 4:3 frame of SD. 16:9 is WAY more compelling — yes it shows more of the football field, etc., but it also better accommodates the way humans tend to see and process visual information (horizontally, versus vertically.)

    I could go on and on, but I think this article is off-base. I used to really love RD, but more and more it seems like a pro-Apple anti-Microsoft rant blog, and less of the technical Apple-oriented blog I came to really enjoy. Even this article is really only “quasi-technical” and more of an excuse to bash any electronics manufacturer OTHER than Apple, and promote all of Apple’s decisions, which, guess what, are not ALWAYS perfect!

    To be fully open here, almost 100% of my income is based on Apple products and technologies, especially as they relate to the video industry. I am a consultant for an Apple video VAR, and work with people in the production, post, and broadcast spaces. I deal with this stuff all day long. :-)

  • tmay

    Nicky G,

    I’m in complete agreement on 16:9. I also convinced a friend to get a 1080P screen last year and a Panasonic BD-30 Blu-ray player (HDMI 1.3) last week. This gives them, via HDMI, about the best possible viewing hardware. Rave reviews!

    Biggest issue is finding A/V receivers with enough HDMI inputs. I searched for quite awhile, and the best value is the Sony STR-DG810 with three input and one output (cable, blu-ray and future Apple TV) with one input left on the screen.

    They also picked up a Panasonic HDC-SD5 (1080i, 3 chip, SD flash) which can be ingested and edited in iMovie, FCE/FCS, also with HDMI out.

    HD isn’t quite mainstream, as many have noted, but for people that like watching movies, its the only way to go.

    HD to mobile, all I want is the ability to buy once, and scale to whatever device I own.

  • http://www.roughlydrafted.com danieleran

    @ Nicky G: you are reacting to what you expect the article to say, not to what I wrote. I didn’t describe HD as a minor advancement that doesn’t improve significantly upon existing video, and made that clear from the first paragraph.

    What I’m pointing out is that technical potential and reality are not the same, particularly NOW and in 2008, not at some point in the future when HD content becomes more common.

    HD cable/sat/broadcast content is not very good because of excessive compression used to pipe in channels (ie what consumers want) rather than deliver the HD spec.

    Cameras and HD editing are still extremely expensive, which limits content to big budget productions: top movies and sports.

    I never argued that you should be denied access to HD, I’m pointing out that the market is not desperate for 1080p HDTVs, and therefore there will be scant content. What will happen instead is that people will recycle their existing DVDs with upconverting players to watch them on nicer entry level sets that deliver “HD” typicallly based on enhanced SD content.

    You can talk about EDTV as a separate standard, but there’s no much point in doing so unless you just want to create noise to drowned out the facts. DVD’s don’t become recorded in EDTV when you plug them into a higher quality set with better cables.

    Another factor you seem to dismiss as irrelevant is cost. I assure you that the market does not agree. Nobody is doing a taste test between SD and HD and branding SD the winner. We’re talking about reality in the market. You can dismiss my opinion as Apple infatuation, but that won’t make you correct.

  • Nicky G

    But Daniel…

    DVDs are NOT SD, in that SD implies the NTSC broadcast spec, and DVDs are not related to broadcast. EDTV is an actual term, I did not make it up. DVDs are “halfway” between SD broadcast, and HD broadcast. They are not standard def. or NTSC, they ARE better than that.

    I beg to differ that HD production and post equipment is MUCH more expensive that SD equipment, that has really ceased to be the case in the last year or two, and it just keeps getting cheaper. Unless you are really bottom of the barrel, there no no major cost limiter to producing and posting in HD. I sell these systems for a living, and work with a very diverse clientele. I see the actual numbers literally daily. I’m not just making this up. The biggest expense with HD is decks, and many new formats are tapeless, and huge investments in VTRs are not required.

    As for the price of TVs, yes, HD sets are still more expensive, but come on, they are getting so much cheaper by the MONTH! You can get a pretty nice HDTV for a thousand bucks or less these days! The HDTV cathode ray tubes, like Sony’s Trinitrons, are gorgeous, and pretty cheap! They are not as cheap as yesterday’s-news SD sets, but they are getting there, and will be there within a year or two (when nobody will sell analog SDTVs anyways.)

    Consumers ARE willing to buy HDTVs, because they are buying them in growing record numbers. The HD optical disc format war is a DAMN SHAME, and is holding many people, myself included, from buying. I’m actually in boycott mode, I find it so disturbing that some idiots allowed VHS/Beta to happen AGAIN. But this does not mean consumers do not want HD — they want it more and more, for good reason!

    Getting back to the cost of the equipment, on the post side, you want to know how much more it costs to build a Final Cut System that can post HD, versus SD? Maybe $500 to $1000 for the capture card, maybe $1500 for the broadcast monitor for video monitoring. Maybe a few hundred extra bucks for storage, but with high-quality low-bandwidth compressed post-friendly formats like ProRes and DVCPROHD abounding, that is quite minimal. Any Mac Pro w/ 4GB RAM is powerful enough to edit HD in realtime and give you plenty of realtime fx and transitions. It’s really not that much more expensive, not sure where you’re getting that idea?

  • Nicky G

    I should add that cable/satellite/over-the-air broadcasters are using MAY too much compression on their content, and yes, it is seriously degrading the full value of HD. But they ALSO compress SD to ridiculous degrees, and it makes SD content look crappier than it ought to, as well! SO that’s not really an anti-HD argument as far as I can see. Also, it is consumers who drive the broadcasters to do this I would reckon, as they apparently demand “more content” over “best possible quality of existing content” when they can. It is a free market after all (well, not really, but let’s not digress…)

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  • John E

    @nickyG you’re being real picky. back up and look at the big picture.

    a couple of years ago, not long, we would watch a DVD on a tube TV. the DVD was a digital source at 480i resolution our tube could play only after it was converted to analog. at best we had component cables to transmit the signal. that was then known as “SD”. the original source material was probably a movie filmed at 24 frames per second that had to be digitally converted to NTSC 29 fps somewhere early in the process too. hi-end “digital” tube TV’s would then re-digitize the signal and process it further, deinterlacing it one way or another like line doubling to a ‘false’ 480p.

    we all remember that picture quality. it was ok, better than broadcast/cable analog 480i TV, but nothing special.

    today, our DVD is instead piped digitally to our HDTV where it can be played in 480p directly. the deinterlacing is much more sophisticated. and the original movie might have been filmed, or at least converted, to 60 fps. right off the bat. this setup is going to visibly look a lot better. i know this is called “ED” by technophiles, but the rest of us don’t bother with that jargon hair splitting.

    today our HDTV probably also has an internal processor chip that will further upconvert that DVD picture to a ‘false’ 720p or 1080p, and for top of the line now (Sony XBR), up to 120 fps. some brands are better at this trick than others, they all use proprietary software for it. this can make a noticeable difference as well. it especially helps when you expand a letterboxed image to full screen, which everyone likes to do for a movie.

    and by the way you now have full 5.1 or better digital surround sound blasting out of your home theater to go with it.

    so you can call this SD, ED, or upconverted (UC?) DCD. but jargon aside, the picture quality is a very big improvement from the old analog SD – which is what many consumers still have been watching up to now! hence that is their point of comparison. and it is good enough PQ to keep conventional 480 DVD’s selling in large numbers for years to come.

    (question for the experts – are any DVD’s pressed with full 480p resolution now?)

    HDTV has it own jargon problems. you got 720p, 1080i, and 1080p. you got 29 fps, 60 fps, and now 120 fps presentation. sure they all look better than DVD, no one is denying that.

    but due to bandwith limits, video HD content right now is all piped into the home from all CATV/IPT/OTA sources at 720p/1080i 30 fps – the ‘low end of hi-def’. so in market terms, not for technophiles, that is the “sweet spot” for hi-def today and the next few years. and yes local news and live sports do look great – at 720p. that’s what going to sell a gazillon HDTV’s this Xmas.

    technophiles will hunt out 1080p content – their ain’t much – and plunk down 4 grand for that XBR at 120 hertz. more power to you!

    then there is price. watching a netflix DVD costs me $1-$2 each. and i can rip ’em if i were so inclined for fair use. buying the same DVD is now about $8-$15 depending, and i like to pay artists for their work (if it’s good). but bluray/HD movies are $20-$30 each, luxury products entangled with DRM. once again, it is the studios’ greed that is blocking technological progress.

  • Nicky G

    I’m not sure we disagree about much, John. A few more points:

    • Many DVDs do indeed get pressed with 480p “native” content as far as I know. Most of my clientele is broadcast-oriented, not so much authoring DVD content, so I’m not as certain as I probably ought to be, but yeah, I am almost positive many DVDs have 480p content on them. Definitely not SD, when being viewed over component cables on a set that can show actual 480p content.

    • 720p broadcast content is almost always 60fps, not 30 or 24. This is why fast-moving sports video is so well suited to 720p, so many full frames of video per second.

    • Almost all cinema content that I know of is shot at 24fps, whether it’s being shot digitally or on film. I don’t think too many people who are shooting with theatrical distribution in mind are shooting in 30p, 50p, or 60p.

    • I wouldn’t call a $20 to $30 high-def. disc a luxury item — a few years back (not long ago) most DVDs cost this much. Many still do. HD-DVDs and Blu-ray discs will likewise fall in price — they’d be more likely to if there was not this idiotic format war occurring.

    I guess I’m not sure where this “anti-HD” vibe is coming from. It’s getting cheaper every month for producers, post-houses, broadcasters, and consumers to embrace HD. No, it’s not as cheap as ten-year-old technology, much less decades-old technology. So what? No new(ish) technology ever is. But being stuck with SD, and certainly sub-SD quality video, is craziness, it’s a 50-year-old standard! Imagine if computers were still based on 50-year-old technology!!! We’d never get anywhere! The HD optical disc format war never should have happened, and it is clearly hurting the wider adoption of HD, especially in some sectors (industrial video, consumers who rent/buy tons of movies and TV shows on optical disc.) Likewise, broadcasters are compressing content so much these days, the video they distribute looks pretty crappy compared to how good it could be, if they cut back their number of channels. But none of those things IMO have to do with the inherent value of HD over SD, and the fact that HD gear keeps getting better AND cheaper.

  • Church


    I’ve been saying this for a while now. Sure, partly because my available storage space makes SD more attractive. Once you get over goggling at the grass during a football game, it’s not that important. As always, it’s the story.

    The up-and-coming content producers now are looking at youtube, not Blu-Ray.

    HD is the FLAC of the future. Only with DRM.

  • OlivierL

    I think many of us went off-topic and targetted for the easy troll : SD vs HD.

    The point DED wanted to make (as I understood) wasn’t that SD is enough for everyone. He said that between FullHD adoption and ubiquitous content access, the latter will have more impact on the way we handle our content and is closer from what we are expecting.

    The simple fact that we can not legally rip our DVDs to use their content in ways that suits us (make back up copies so the kids don’t scratch the master copy of their Disneys, rip it to H264 so you can store it on a central media server or play it on you iPod) is not acceptable.

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  • nelsonart

    I appreciate the effort that has to go into writing such informative and interesting articles.

    We bought a beautiful Aquos LCD from Sharp this year. I love the quality and richness of color from the HD broadcasts from DirecTV. Dan is right in that Specs don’t tell the whole story.

    I’ve enjoyed up-converted content, AppleTV videos and podcasts, DVDs, streamed content from youtube, etc.

    With the exception of youtube, it all looks very impressive to me. Some of that content is viewed on iPods and the iPhone as well and other than the small size, it’s a perfectly enjoyable experience.

    I’ve played various iTMS content with my AppleTV and everyone just assumes it’s an HD Broadcast. Lacking side-by-side comparisons, most would be hard pressed to distinguish near-DVD quality from HD.

    People tend to fixate on the various specs that define this industry. They won’t buy an AppleTV because it’s not ‘true HD,’ yet they are missing out on a high quality product that adds to the content pool for your HD TV.

    I certainly enjoy HD on the Aquos, but Low Def sources certainly don’t dinimish my joy when viewing such content on various portable players from Apple.

  • chefmitch

    @John E –

    ED was a term coined to help consumers know what type of Televisions they were buying. A TV could not be called HD unless it show a minimum of 720 line of vertical resolution (720p). A TV that was digital, widescreen (16×9) and could show 480 lines with interlacing (480P) was called ED.

    Many consumers were faced with the choice of a high quality ED plasma (better colors, blacks and scaler) vs a mediocre (or worse) HD plasma.

    Fox actually broadcast ED for a while. Does anyone else remember Nascar & NFL games being broadcast in 480p 16×9?

    Using terms correctly (HD, ED, SD) correctly is not nit-picking.

    720p IS 60fps. 1080i IS 30fps.

    Every DVD pressed is digital and is non-interlaced. If it is delivered interlaced it is done when converting source to output chosen (composite, S-Video or Component).

    Even the most generous definition of fair use does not include ripping a disc that you rented from Netflix.

  • chefmitch


    I know you are in the Bay Area – do you get your TV from Comcast? What display are you using? Do you watch the major networks during prime time? Sports?

    I am trying to understand why you seem to be so down on the quality of HD.

  • cubeeggs

    Every DVD pressed is digital and is non-interlaced. If it is delivered interlaced it is done when converting source to output chosen (composite, S-Video or Component).

    This is not true. Most DVDs are progressive, but MPEG-2 supports encoding interlaced video. That’s why computer DVD players need a deinterlacer.

  • Nicky G

    This link, assuming it’s correct, goes into a LOT of info. on DVDs, whether they are interlaced or progressive, etc.

    [Link changed the original source rather than the pirate rip off version:]

    The (excellent) DVD FAQ

    What’s a progressive DVD player?

  • worker201

    Nicholas Negroponte slammed HD over 10 years ago for being the wrong answer. And he was right, because no one was asking the correct questions. People have a lot of complaints about video entertainment (especially TV), but concerns about screen resolution are pretty low on the list. What people want is less commercials and more of what they want to see. HD addresses none of these concerns. All that bandwidth devoted to making a television program look nicer when you sit 3 feet from the screen is depressingly inefficient. One could just as easily serve reruns and stock prices and movies and data and radio in the same diameter cable.

    Oh, but giving the consumers better programming doesn’t necessarily mean greater revenues for the hardware manufacturers, does it? If everyone owns a 25″ screen, there’s nobody left to sell screens to. The next logical step is larger screens, with hi-res screens right after that.

    Television would make a lot more sense if it was run like iTunes video – programs on demand, delivered quick. DRM and overpricing are a problem now, but I at least like the direction Apple seems to be going with this. TV is ready to be revolutionized, not resolutionized. Visionaries who can accurately predict where things are going will be the winners here, not paradigmatic hardware dinosaurs.

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