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Blu-Ray Wins, the Internet Doesn't Care
February 24, 2008
Thomas Mennecke
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Last week Toshiba, developer of the HD DVD format, finally acquiesced in the lengthy high definition format war. Sony, and its high definition Blu-Ray format, emerged victorious. Many heralded this event as not only a victory for Sony, but one for the consumer as well. The consumer, apparently befuddled by the multiple HD formats, can now rest easy as Blu-Ray is the heir apparent in the high definition war.

But those who survived the high definition format war will live only to face a new conflict, the war against online distribution.

Long before anyone knew the emerging party in the HD format war, both standard and high definition movies and TV shows were already traded online. Not too long after the advent of Napster, other P2P networks liberated their trading policies and allowed users to trade movies and TV shows. The earliest incarnations of these types of networks were Scour Exchange, iMesh, and Gnutella. Later protocols such as eMule and eventually BitTorrent took over the role of trading larger files.

Only recently, however, have high definition movies made their way online. The next generation of optical disc encryption failed to hold back individuals like Muslix64, who discovered a means to bypass the copy protection. Once this encryption was bypassed, it was only a matter of days before HD movies started showing up online. Because high definition content contains significantly more information than a standard XviD movie, many people were shocked to learn that a full length action movie might easily consume 25 gigabytes or more.

The difference in size has much to do with the actual definition of a movie file. True high definition is defined as 1,080 vertical lines of progressive scan resolution. Hybrid HD/computer monitors are slightly better than this standard, and have 1,200 lines of progressive scan resolution; however only PCs, Macs some game consoles can advantage of this higher definition format.

From there, the smaller the file size, the less “high def” the movie is. 1080i, or 1,080 vertical lines of interlaced resolution, is a lesser standard than 1080p. To save bandwidth, cable companies and TV stations interlace their broadcast. In other words, your TV or HD monitor only refreshes every other vertical line of resolution. The bandwidth hungry progressive scan format refreshes every line. Although the human eye generally can’t decipher interlace from progressive scan, it becomes more of an issue with larger screens. Interlacing is a short cut, and like a stretched HD image, small faults like this become magnified.

There’s a more manageable version of HD known as 720i and 720p. The resolution isn’t nearly a superb as 1080i/p, however it’s a dramatic step forward from standard definition television. In North America, NTSC standard definition is 320 lines of resolution. Most hour long HDTV shows are in the 720i format, which equates a file size between 1 and 2 gigabytes. This file size is generally small enough to make for a tolerable download time wise. Since Muslix64’s accomplishments, HD has become one of fastest growing facets of the file-sharing landscape. To gauge the growing popularity of HD sharing, one only needs to visit MiniNova’s statistics page to see that the NBC sci-fi drama “Heroes” in 720p HD format is the most downloaded torrent.

Remarkably enough, despite the lack of a standardized format and the astronomical price tag associated with Blu-Ray recording media, HD content delivery and trading has become an established niche in the file-sharing world. Like the digital music revolution, the activities of file-sharing community often predict the future of content distribution. In the late 90s, file-sharers renounced their dependency on the CD. Napster, and the P2P networks that came after it, forced the establishment of authorized music stores such as iTunes. Today, the importance of the CD is waning, and digital distribution is becoming the industry standard.

File-sharers today are predicting the future of HD content distribution as well. The ever useful USB flash drive is becoming the de facto transference method, and with their ample capacity, can store several 720i HDTV shows. The more expensive and capable flash drives can store 1080i/p content. However, not everything is cohesive and organized at the moment, as the technological limitations associated with USB and flash memory technology make these methods acceptable to only the more computer savvy crowd.

In fact, most people can’t take advantage of true HD content. With the average broadband speeds in the United States at a disgraceful 2 Mbits/sec, downloading and transferring HD content can take enormous periods of time. And worse yet, unless you’re running a dual core or quad core system, expecting that legacy Pentium 4 to play 1080p HD content is a pipe dream.

Technological limitations will, for now, keep the HD content revolution simmering. The average USB flash drive, broadband, and processor speed inventory is simply too slow to accommodate a market on the scale of iTunes or LimeWire. This is changing fast, and with the upcoming arrival of USB 3.0 with its fiber optic transfer rate of 4.5 Gbits/sec and dropping dual and quad core prices, consumer thirst for HD delivery will only expand.

The demand for HD content will accomplish many things. Perhaps most importantly, it will propel the US’ disgraceful broadband average from the depths of mediocrity and launch it into competition with the rest of the industrialized world. At an average speed of 2 MBits/sec, it would take at least overnight to download a 1080i/p movie - way beyond the patience of the average consumer. Until this improves, a stop-gap technology, in this instance Blu-Ray, is required in order to buy time.

The burgeoning HD content delivery mechanism is already having a noticeable impact on the consumer market. For perhaps the first time, the duration between format shifts (VHS to DVD, DVD to Blu-Ray, Blu-Ray to Internet/Flash Memory) has shrunk so much, the smart consumer can afford to wait on the sidelines. Many consumers, particularly the file-sharing community, already have the hardware infrastructure in place: a 1200p monitor, fast dual/quad core, and a fast broadband connection. This type of consumer placed little importance on the victor in the HD format war, and knows in the end, the Internet always wins.


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