Blu-ray set to hobble component outputs with standard-def picture

It's soon going to be much more difficult to use the Blu-ray player you paid for to do the things you thought it could do when you bought it. We're outraged, and here's why.

Ian Morris
3 min read

Since the launch of HD DVD and Blu-ray there have been two ways to watch HD video on your TV: HDMI, and the lower-quality but much-loved component. Starting this year, Hollywood wants to phase out the latter and force consumers to use HDMI -- to the extent that it will prevent component outputs on the Blu-ray player you've already paid for from pumping a hi-def signal to your TV. 

The ability to output 1080i HD on an analogue connection is a legacy arrangement informally known as the "analogue hole". Hollywood sees it as a way for pirates to illegally distribute HD video -- although illegal copies virtually never originate from this capability.

The analogue hole harks from a time, particularly in the US, when HD TV transmission started and HDMI wasn't widespread. The US has been migrating to HDTV for as long as us Brits have had Sky Digital and digital terrestrial. So high-definition video being piped over analogue component cables was commonplace.

When Blu-ray launched, HDMI arrived with it. This was an all-digital way for the signal to move from your player to the TV without being converted to a format that's more susceptible to being degraded by poor-quality cabling. It meant that everyone could get 1080p, and it was important for Hollywood, because it enabled secure video to be transferred from device to device with no way for those nasty pirates to intercept it, and post the results on that naughty Internet.

Now, in 2011, the march of technology means analogue outputs on Blu-ray players will start to disappear. New players, marketed from this month onwards, will not be allowed to have component video outputs that deliver a 1080i video signal. Instead, new players must downconvert it to 540p.

"Ah," you're thinking, "but my old player can still send 1080i via its component?" Here's the rub: not necessarily. There's also another technology that's now "allowed" by the Blu-ray security system AACS, called the Image Constraint Token. The ICT allows any new Blu-ray to force your player to downconvert its analogue HD outputs to 540p. The only stipulation appears to be that users are warned on the disc packaging that this token is present.

So if you've spent money on a Blu-ray player but have connected it to your TV via component for whatever reason, you won't see the HD picture on the disc you've just paid extra for.

Why is all this necessary? The AACS, which exists at the behest of Hollywood, is clearly intended to stop piracy. There are several elements to it, but the whole stream is locked down so you can only watch on a TV that's HDCP-enabled, and you can't rip a copy of the movie to your computer to watch on a flight, for example, and you can't put a bit-for-bit digital copy on the Internet.

It's an incredible success story -- since AACS was implemented, there has been no movie piracy whatsoever.

Except that's not true, is it? Because no pirate in his or her right mind would use the analogue hole to rip a Blu-ray for 'scene' distribution. The 'rips' that are distributed via the Internet are all-digital and are a result of a digital rip of the video on the Blu-ray. Any pirate who ripped a movie via an anlogue HD output would be a laughing stock in this cutthroat and impolite society.

Removing the ability to output HD via component connections doesn't hurt pirates, it hurts people who have older equipment -- often loyal, early adopters. Pirates, on the other hand, are still ripping video with few problems and certainly not doing so via analogue outputs.

While we were planning this story, we contacted Sony, Samsung and the Blu-ray Disc Association for comment. Samsung told us that this was an industry matter, and implied that it was following the licencing rules as legally required. Sony and the BDA have yet to come back to us with a quote of any kind. If that changes, we'll let you know via an update to this story.

How do you feel about this? Is your equipment likely to be affected? Did you know this was going to happen? We're fascinated to hear your thoughts, so hit us up via the comments below.