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Blu-ray and HD-DVD: crippled HD analog output option

Blu-ray and HD-DVD: crippled HD analog output option

Thanks to an overzealous copy-protection scheme enforced by content holders (read: movie studios), forthcoming next-generation optical disc players, including Blu-ray and HD-DVD models, will give studios the option to hobble the resolution of the players' analog outputs. In a decision reached earlier this week, the eight-company consortium behind AACS (Advanced Access Content System), the mandatory copy-protection system used by both formats, has decided to let each studio choose whether to "downconvert" the output of the players' component-video outputs to 960x540 resolution--exactly one quarter of the potential 1,920x1,080 resolution of true high-def.

"Huh?" you ask. The effect of the downconversion is that HDTVs whose only HD-compatible inputs are component video or analog RGB, including thousands of HDTVs sold before digital DVI and HDMI inputs were available, will not be able to display the full resolution that next-gen players offer. People who bought those HDTVs won't see nearly the full picture detail that they would otherwise.

Under the finalized version of AACS, studios can elect whether to engage a "flag" in the disc that tells the player to allow or disallow full-resolution analog signals. According to an excellent summary of the decision from Video Business (via Dark Horizons), no studio has yet stated whether it plans to take advantage of the downconversion option. According to unnamed sources in the article, Warner Brothers has been the strongest proponent of the system, and Disney, NBC Universal, and Paramount are also likely to take advantage of it. Other sources said that it's unclear whether Sony Pictures would take advantage, while Fox has been an opponent of the system. Studios will be required to state on the disc's packing material whether downconversion will be forced for that particular title.

Other interesting notes from the Video Business story:

  • Proponents of downconversion argue that people have a hard time telling the difference between downconverted and true HD resolutions in the first place.
  • They also say that since many HDTVs have limited native resolution anyway, the downconverted resolution isn't that bad. For example, if you own an EDTV plasma, you won't miss the lost resolution.
  • Players will still have the capability to upconvert the downconverted output to 720p or 1080i. There's no way to reclaim the lost picture detail, however.
I think this decision makes no sense from a copy-protection point of view, and I hope the smart studios realize how important it is to allow full-resolution component-video output and set the flags on their discs to Off. First, large-scale copying will take place regardless of whether the analog outputs are crippled--professional pirates will undoubtedly find a way that doesn't involve recording an analog signal in real time. Second, enthusiasts who bought an HDTV two or three years ago are among the few people likely to want one of the early next-gen players (PS3 notwithstanding), and alienating them is never a good idea. Finally, HD-DVD and Blu-ray face enough hurdles already: two warring incompatible formats, high prices, competition from standard DVD and future downloadable options, and customer confusion, to name a few. They don't need another red flag.