The HD DVD gang has reasons to celebrate. On the eve of its first birthday, the format passed 100,000 standalone player sales – that’s more than, say, CD did (70,000) its first year of existence. And if also counting sales of HD DVD drives for Xbox 360 and PCs, the installed base of players bumps up past 200,000, which the HD- DVD Promotion Group said is “ahead of any other high definition format.” (Okay, so we guess they’re not counting the million Blu-Ray based PlayStation 3 systems sold in the U.S.)
Quoting Nielsen Videoscan research, the HD DVD group also hailed the sell-through of 900,000 HD DVD movie discs, not too shabby. Then on the official anniversary date of the high res format’s U.S. launch, April 18, fanboys (and girls) connected via the AVS Forum staged an HD “buy-in” on Amazon.com, aiming to impress the on-line merchant with their show of support and possibly to get an HD DVD title into the Amazon top ten video sales chart, as Blu-Ray recently did with “Casino Royale.” But judging from on-line postings at AVS, there wasn’t a single title for all to rally around, and a lot of the money went to pre-orders of soon- coming HD DVD releases, like the “Matrix” deluxe sets, sales which won’t get counted until the title is actually shipping.
The most telling piece of HD DVD news came at week’s end from Warner Bros. – touting the first HD DVD title to offer (tah-dah!) on-line interactivity. If properly finessed, this unique ability and feature set could be a big motivator spurring converts from DVD. The honor of first web-connected title will go to the five-times Academy Award-nominated African war thriller ”Blood Diamond,” which will arrive July 2 on HD DVD. Yes, that’s a month after the Blu-Ray version debuts, though the latter will be significantly lacking in the “extras” department.
Reviewers will be all over this discrepancy – howling about the slow development of BD-Java software and the non-existence of BD-Live. That’s Blu-Ray’s catch-all name for “soon coming” interactive features, likewise accessible via on-line connection.
Truth is, though, most first gen Blu-Ray players don’t even have an Ethernet port for web linking – PS3 being the most notable exception. From the git-go, every HD DVD player has packed an Ethernet jack.
In comments to Consumer Electronics Daily, Warner Home Video’s usually format neutral vp Steve Nickerson said “It’s our intention to put product out at the same time and with the same features” on both Blu-Ray and HD DVD. “We’ve mostly done that, but we can’t always do it.”
Previously, WB resisted the temptation to put out a less-featured Blu Ray version of a title that was loaded with interactivity on HD DVD, so as not to underscore the differences in the formats’ evolution. This time, the studio is looking to maximize sales of a hot title, in a standard vs. deluxe editions kinda way, though both versions will carry the same, $28.99 list price. The Blu-Ray rendering of “Blood Diamond” hits retail on June 5th , same day as the standard def DVD, to capture “significant sales leading up to Father’s Day” , said Nickerson. The HD DVD version is being held back a month to fine tune and maximize its interactive potential. Users will discover on-line access to feedback polls .(Gee. would you buy a conflict diamond, even if it was cheaper?) More valuably, the connectivity will let you call up and scour maps of Africa relating to the war conflict and diamond smuggling. And maybe more.
(Other features we’ve heard promised for web-connected HD players include extra languages of streaming soundtracks and commentaries, downloadable movie trailers and video games, plus access to an on-line store for film related merch.)
Only the HD DVD version of this flick will have Warners’ In-Movie Experience which delivers picture-in-picture features in one corner of the movie – this time, director Edward Zwick’s IME tour through the film ‘s creation. And there’s more. WB will use “Blood Diamond” to introduce “Focus Points,” the opportunity for viewers to branch off from the film to in-depth features – mostly in high definition – plus production diaries.
Oh, and here’s yet another reason for WB to bide time, hold off on the HD DVD release. Every disc spinner first needs to have its operating system upgraded to pull off the web-based interactivity. To this end (and also to improve other features, including advanced audio format decoding), Toshiba recently announced a version 2.1 upgrade for stand-alone players, available via on-line download or with a mailed disc. But when I chatted up a Toshiba customer service rep about this, she let me know that version 2.1 was, um, only for second generation HD DVD units. My first gen machine could “mess up” if upgraded from 2.0, and that I should check back in “a couple weeks” to see about availability of the next version, 2.2.