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The Truth About Total Hi Def Disc (THD)

At a flashy press conference a month ago to promote its new Total Hi Def Disc, Warner Home Video invoked the heroic image of Superman rescuing a crashing airliner. Expected later this year, Total Hi Def disc (THD) will combine HD DVD on one side and Blu-ray Disc (BD) on the other side, thus delivering consumers from the disaster of having to choose. But, with all due respect to the Man of Steel, salvation doesn’t come that easy.


The Truth About Total Hi Def Disc (THD)

Hugh Bennett
EMedialive, Feb 14, 2007

At a flashy press conference a month ago to promote its new Total Hi Def Disc, Warner Home Video invoked the heroic image of Superman rescuing a crashing airliner. Expected later this year, Total Hi Def Disc (THD) will combine HD DVD on one side and Blu-ray Disc (BD) on the other side, thus delivering consumers from the disaster of having to choose. But, with all due respect to the Man of Steel, salvation doesn’t come that easy.

By way of background, there’s a popular misconception that THD (or any variety of double-sided or combo BD disc for that matter) somehow contravenes BD and HD DVD specifications. Well, quite simply, this isn’t the case. Something to keep in mind about optical disc standards and specifications is that they typically don’t define anything they don’t have to and, by extension, don’t prohibit anything they don’t include. This means that as long as a disc meets all relevant criteria (signals, physical dimensions, robustness, etc.) and is compatible with playback or recording devices, it can be fabricated in any way and may consist of any material.

Obviously, practical and cost considerations come into play but producers have considerable latitude. For example, a BD substrate needn’t be transparent or even possess optical properties of any kind (unlike a CD/DVD/HD DVD). Similarly, since a monolithic substrate isn’t mandated, composite or laminate construction may be employed—as is the case with THD, where separate prerecorded (pressed) BD-ROM and HD DVD-ROM sides are bonded together.

Putting THD into perspective, such double-sided or “flipper” discs are nothing new. In fact, the heady days of DVD saw adventuresome experimentation by studios groping around for the best way to package their movies and music. This included incorporating, on opposite sides of the same disc, everything from standard and widescreen movie versions or the main feature and its extras to DVD music videos with Red Book CDs or high-resolution DVD-Audio albums and concert footage. And, most recently, even the marrying together of DVD and HD DVD movies.

Ruthless as it is, the market found its level and, for the most part, has rejected double-sided flippers in favor of good old-fashioned single-sided discs. Even the latest DVD/HD DVD combos are curiosities, representing but a fraction of shipping and announced titles.

Why? Let’s face it, flipper discs are a nuisance. For instance, they have next to no labeling area, making it difficult to identify their contents let alone indicate which side faces up. Full surface decoration is far more helpful, prettier, and enhances the perceived value of the disc-something of greater importance to HD DVD and BD as they fight to justify themselves as worth the switch and extra money.

And anyone who has handled a flipper disc knows how difficult it is to keep it in good condition. Plenty of dust, debris, scratches, and greasy fingerprints are inevitable and all play havoc with reliable reading. HD DVD and BD are potentially even more affected by these irritants.

Flippers also face brutal cost realities. For THD, publishers will be condemned to perpetually pay double patent royalties (for video and audio codecs, content protection, applications, physical design, manufacturing processes, etc.) and incur the price of authoring and testing two formats, not to mention the increased manufacturing outlay. By its very nature, THD is intrinsically tricky to produce, and with far lower yields resulting in greater expense—all in a penny-pinching business reliant upon long-term cost reductions.

Beyond physical and fiscal matters, I’m concerned about THD’s feasibility. Is it, in fact, realistic to expect every prerecorded movie and music publisher, great and small, corporate and indie, to offer all its material on THD and buy into it for all time? Or even to distribute HD DVD and BD versions simultaneously no matter the product or market? Or forever limit BD features to the same as HD DVD? Or live with the disparities of Regional Playback Control where the HD DVD side may play in a given country but not the BD side or vice versa? And so on?

More fundamentally, I question the naïve premise that THD (assuming rapid and unanimous adoption) magically solves all compatibility woes. What about writable technology? Undeniably, the most compelling feature of recordable and rewritable CD/DVD is near universal interchangeability with hundreds of millions of recorders writing billions of discs that can be read almost anywhere. But THD eliminates this possibility for blue laser by assuring that both HD DVD-only and BD-only devices will survive in the marketplace, thus damning everyone to the perpetual purgatory of incompatibility.

In the past, content publishers might be forgiven for being oblivious or hostile toward writable technology, but there’s simply no excuse today. Beyond the obvious personal, corporate, and commercial applications for all things writable, studios should, at the very least, comprehend that the market for movies, music, and other commercial content is far larger than just that distributed on prerecorded physical media. Download-and-burn, managed-recording, retail kiosks, on-demand production, and the like are now taking root. But THD fouls their ecosystem before they can bear fruit.

It’s important to see THD as a dangerous gimmick that could lure many unwary consumers into the market by creating the false impression that the purchasing choice between HD DVD and BD hardware doesn’t matter. If Warner and other major studio officials are indeed concerned about the conflict hampering consumer adoption, perhaps they should stop playing both sides against the middle, make a choice, and exclusively publish movies in only one format.

To my mind, the industry can resolve the current HD DVD/BD mess in only one of two ways. Sell hybrid devices that play and record both formats (an option fraught with its own perils and the subject of a future column) or give the market enough time for nature to take its course and eventually pick one over the other—callous, and, perhaps, even unheroic, but far better for all in the long run.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hugh Bennett, editor-in-chief of Hugh’s News, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems, a reseller, systems integrator and industry consultant based in London, Ontario, Canada. Hugh is author of The Authoritative Blu-ray Disc (BD) FAQ and The Authoritative HD DVD FAQ, available on Hugh’s News, as well as Understanding Recordable & Rewritable DVD and Understanding CD-R & CD-RW, published by the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA).

Copyright © Information Today / Hugh Bennett

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