To paraphrase an old joke about programming languages (and many other things), new data storage form factors are created to solve old problems and create brand-new ones.
This is unmistakably the case with HD-DVD and Blu-Ray Disc, two new storage formats that are nominally being pushed for prerecorded consumer content. However, because of their storage capacities, they're also potential replacements for existing DVD formats: single- and dual-layer DVD+/-R and +/-RW.
Sony's new Blu-ray Disc format has turned more than a few heads with its ability to store at least 25GB on a single disc. But the cost is still high: Individual drives run at least $699 and blank 25GB media $15 a pop, while the process of burning individual discs is still quite slow.
But once costs come down and the burn speeds go up, the format offers a promising successor to burning archival data to DVD.
Even though the rival HD-DVD format is fundamentally incompatible with Blu-ray Disc (it uses a modified version of the existing red laser, rather than a blue-wavelength laser) and doesn't offer as much storage (15GB single layer, 30GB dual-layer), it's been pushed hard by its supporters as a quick and versatile successor to DVD.
Microsoft is mainly supporting HD-DVD. They were one of the key members of the steering committee to produce the format, and recently rolled out an add-on external HD-DVD drive for the Xbox 360 (which, as you might guess, also works on a PC with a little tweaking).
Both formats can be used for data storage. Data burned to both disc types is stored in UDF format, the same as conventional DVD. UDF is pretty much universally readable: Pop in a UDF-formatted disc and it should show up on any operating system that supports UDF, such as Windows XP or Windows Server 2003. Many existing CD/DVD-burning applications, such as Nero Burning ROM, support burning to Blu-ray Disc and are adding HD-DVD support as well, and the burning process is no different from creating an existing data CD or DVD.
What's less clear to many people is how to use pre-recorded Blu-Ray Disc/HD-DVD content. Merely adding the appropriate type of drive will not work, for the same reason that adding a DVD drive to a PC doesn't automatically make it a DVD player: The proper decoding software needs to be present. With Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD, this is doubly important due to the strong cryptographic scrambling used to encode pre-recorded content.
To that end, the video hardware—both the display and the video card—also need to be compliant with the HDMI standard, which encrypts and protects the pre-recorded content all the way to the output device. If the video is played back on non-compliant hardware with titles that mandate it, the output is automatically down-sampled to something only a little larger than standard-definition NTSC video.
To this end, all of the following ingredients need to be in place to make use of pre-recorded HD content on a PC:
- The media itself (i.e., pre-recorded HD-DVD or Blu-ray Disc content)
- A drive capable of playing back the content. Currently, HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc can only be played back by completely different pieces of hardware, but at least one company, Korean electronics manufacturer LG, is reportedly going to be producing a hybrid drive that can handle both formats interchangeably.
- An HDMI-compliant video card that also has hardware acceleration features specifically designed for HD playback. Note: Not all HD content is encoded to require HDMI hardware; many of the titles being published right now do not. But for the sake of future compatibility, it's fairly hard to avoid.
- Playback software. As was the case with DVD drives, playback software for HD (albeit in a minimally functional edition) is starting to be bundled with the drives themselves, and usually pre-loaded onto a PC that comes with HD playback as a factory-added feature.
About the author: Serdar Yegulalp is editor of the Windows Power Users Newsletter, which is devoted to hints, tips, tricks, news and goodies for Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Windows XP users and administrators. He has more than 10 years of Windows experience under his belt, and contributes regularly to SearchWinComputing.com and SearchSQLServer.com.
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