Feeling Sorta Blue, Ray

It’s the great next-generation DVD format war: Blu-ray or HD DVD, which will win? After the past couple of weeks, I think we all know which will be victorious, and it worries me a trifle. But I get ahead of myself.

If you’re a network geek like I am, your main interest in all this HDTV stuff concerns the fate of the old analog TV channel band. That band represents some pretty nice neighborhood. Consider: a wireless network frequency range that lets us run data and can also penetrate most house walls better than most current wireless technologies—sweet! But that’s not what I’m concerned about this month. Instead, let’s talk about DVDs.

Perhaps it’s my aging eyes or, more likely, the quality of content on most DVDs, but I admit that I’ve never really felt a burning desire for higher-resolution video DVDs. (Now, bigger data DVDs is another desire altogether—25GB on a little optical disk? Yes! Finally I’d be able to archive my photo collection with fewer than a thousand disks!) Besides, I’m not about to forget my purchase of a 42” plasma monitor a few years ago so that I could watch DVDs in higher resolution. I popped Galaxy Quest into my DVD player with feverish hands and, well, I can’t say I was all that impressed, even with my glasses on.

(If that doesn’t make sense, here’s a primer for those of who can never remember what’s up between the different monitors. Old-style analog TVs and similar monitors can display 480 lines of resolution from top to bottom, but to get their slow hardware to do it, they alternately display the 240 even-numbered lines and then the 240 odd-numbered lines, which is called interlacing. Such a picture has a “480i resolution.” Some better monitors can show all 480 lines at a time and are said to be progressive, which gets abbreviated as “480p.” I’d been told that pairing a 480p monitor with a DVD player that produces 480p output would make for dramatically sharper DVD viewing. It didn’t. Anyway, HDTV complicates things by supporting more lines (more lines equal sharper image) in two formats: 720 lines progressive and 1080 lines interlaced, abbreviated “720p” and “1080i.”)

Anyway, nothing I’d seen at the local appliance store in 1080i seemed all that exciting. I mean, it’s not like we’re talking about laptop or server hardware here, you know. Now that’s exciting!

Well, that complacency ended recently when I visited some friends for a few days. They’d purchased a snazzier-than-normal HDTV monitor that displayed 1080 lines as required in the HDTV standard. But this display went a bit further by displaying those lines in progressive rather than interlaced scan. (About a third of the HDTVs seem to do this at the moment.) They matched the display with a Sony Blu-ray player and put on the amazing BBC/Discovery Channel program Planet Earth, and if you’ve seen that program on Blu-ray, then you know how impressive it is. (If not, go find some friends who have a 1080p monitor and a Blu-ray machine and ask them if they’ve got a copy of Planet Earth in Blu-ray. It’s the official eye-candy disk of Blu-ray, trust me. They’ll gleefully put it on and watch as you realize that Nothing Will Ever Be As Good Again.)

Anyway, that was my HD epiphany, and about a week later the International Consumer Electronic Show (CES) took place, where, according to reports from those on-site there, apparently Blu-ray is beating its only possible competitor for “successor to DVD” status.

Here’s my worry about Blu-ray’s ascendency: A lot of firms worked on the Blu-ray standard, but the one that keeps showing up in the press is Sony. You know, the folks who brought you “the music CD that comes with malware.” (In case you missed it, in 2005 Sony sold music CDs that could be played only on PCs with a special program, and that program installed a root kit on the music buyer’s computer. Sony has backed off from it, but the company has never apologized or recognized wrongdoing by planting “invisible” software on the PCs of honest music buyers without their knowledge.)

So what’s up for Blu-ray, I wonder? If Sony is in the saddle for this new and seductively prettier (and higher-capacity) disk format, what will I really be getting the first time I try to run a Blu-ray disk on my PC? Given that Windows Vista is hard-wired to run only HD content in an encrypted fashion that can’t be spied on by debugging programs, I’d wonder if I should fear that Planet Earth could be an unwittingly beautiful wooden horse—carrying a cargo I’d rather not receive.

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