Blu-ray Wave: State of the Technology

Not since Beta versus VHS has a format war been so hotly contested. When the dust settled, Blu-ray Disc won against HD DVD. So the war is over… now what?

When Toshiba announced in February that it would no longer develop, manufacture or market HD DVD players, Blu-ray Disc emerged the clear and undeniable successor to DVD. With the death of HD DVD, many expected great developments in Blu-ray Disc accessibility and prosumer authoring tools to pop up at NAB in April, but those were few and far between. With so many companies on the fence, waiting to see which format would prove itself on the market, few were ready even to hint at the future, let alone make a promise to deliver so soon after the announcement.

What is Blu-ray Disc?

Blu-ray Disc is a next-generation optical disc format developed to enable recording and playback of high-definition video and high-capacity data storage. Developed by the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA – www.blu-raydisc.com), it has the support of more than 170 of the world’s leading consumer electronics, personal computer and media manufacturers, video game and music companies and major movie studios. This doesn’t mean they are offering support of Blu-ray Disc, just that they back the format and have some intention of developing for it.

Blu-ray Disc’s name comes from the blue laser technology used to read the discs. DVDs use red laser technology, which has a much longer wavelength. The longer the laser wavelength is, the wider the ultimate beam spot that contacts the disc will be. The shorter wavelength of blue laser makes it more precise, which in turns allows for more data to be stored on a disc.

Blu-ray Discs are available now in two capacities: 25GB single-layer disc and 50GB dual-layer discs. At 25GB, Blu-ray Disc offer 5 times the storage capacity of a conventional 4.7GB single-layer DVD. A 50GB dual-layer Blu-ray Disc offers 10 times the storage of a single-layer DVD and over 5 times that of an 8.56GB dual-layer DVD.

The data rates are far beyond that of conventional DVD. The 1x data transfer rate of DVD is 11.08Mbps, whereas the 1x transfer rate of Blu-ray Disc is 36Mbps, reflecting a more than 300% increase in data transfer speeds. On the video side of things, standard DVDs max out at about 10.08Mbps for playback on DVD players (9.8Mbps being allotted for video and .28Mbps for audio). This has always been a limiting factor to take into consideration when authoring a standard-def DVD: the combined audio and video bit rates could not exceed 10.08Mbps without serious risk of dropping frames, or worse, being totally unwatchable.

Authoring

Currently there is a limited selection of Blu-ray Disc burning software on the market. Another downside of this fledgling technology is that most of the available Blu-ray Disc burners are coming in at price points beyond the consumer market range.

Sony has developed its own professional Blu-ray Disc authoring software, Blu-print. This is a Windows-only software solution, marketed to professional high-volume Blu-ray Disc production. It is one of the few currently-available authoring solutions that take full advantage of the interactive features made available by Blu-ray Disc technology. Most of these merely offer Standard DVD functionality with high-definition content. The key features of Blu-print that others lack are high-level scripting capabilities and interactive menu layers. These make all the bells and whistles of Blu-ray Disc possible.

Blu-print is available directly from Sony on an enterprise-class level. The system is available for base price or subscription service fee.

Another professional solution is Sonic Scenarist. Like Blu-print, it is Windows-only. It lets users take advantage of the Blu-ray Disc Java (BD-J) functionality that Blu-print uses to further a viewer’s interactive experience. Scenarist is the only other current offering that allows full access to interactive benefits of the Blu-ray Disc standard.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you’ll find applications like Roxio Toast Titanium 9, which boasts a $99 price tag. For a Mac person like me, Toast is a valuable disc-burning utility. Toast 9 has improved Blu-ray Disc authoring for data burning and creating simple HD videodiscs for playback in a Blu-ray Disc player. Toast’s authoring tools are limited, in that you have about a dozen pre-made menu styles to pick from, and you don’t have the interactive control and java scripting that come with a high-end authoring solution. Toast also allows creation of a hybrid disc, which is made by burning high-definition content to a standard DVD without down-converting the footage for standard-definition playback. Hybrid disc support is limited, as only certain players recognize the disc. Depending on bit rates and the codecs used, you can fit 30 to 50 minutes of HD footage on a standard DVD for playback in a Blu-ray Disc player. Toast provides basically a drag-and-drop approach to Blu-ray Disc creation. It meets the needs of delivering playback of HD video without offering the bells and whistles or the price tag of a complete authoring application. The Toast 9 HD/BD plug-in is available as a separate upgrade straight from Roxio for $20, and it is required for Blu-ray Disc authoring.

Another Sony application, Vegas Pro, touts Blu-ray Disc support, but it is an extremely limited offering. Vegas Pro allows you to burn your timeline to a Blu-ray Disc, as a play-only movie. This is a great option when you just need a way to get video out of the computer in HD to play for a client or showing, but, without a greater accompanying toolset, it is only a means of sharing video without presenting it within an authored format.

Apple surprisingly has no Blu-ray Disc authoring available at this time, and, even more surprisingly, has not offered a tentative application or release date for such support. Apple has been a member of the Blu-ray Disc Association for quite some time, and there have been rumors since 2006 about exactly when Apple will integrate Blu-ray Disc support. DVD Studio Pro has supported the creation of hybrid HD DVD discs for some time now, though it lacks in Blu-ray Disc support. Compressor, part of the Final Cut Studio package, definitely supports the creation of the proper codecs; it’s just a matter of time before all the pieces are there. As another side note, you can burn Blu-ray Discs on a Mac using Toast, but as of yet there is no way to play back commercially-made Blu-ray Discs on a Mac.

Last, but certainly not least, is Adobe Encore. Encore provides Blu-ray Disc authoring tools, but it doesn’t provide support for interactive layered menus, as Blu-print and Scenarist do. With Encore you can author a Blu-ray Disc with high-definition video and menus, but you are mostly limited to the same functionality of standard-definition authoring.

Encore is available for both Windows and Mac, a definite plus in many regards. One downside is that it is available only with Adobe Premiere Pro CS3, which (even though good news for Premiere Editors) can be a drawback for those using other video-editing applications. The plus side is that you don’t need to install Premiere to run Encore. The Premiere Pro CS3 bundle includes Premiere Pro, On Location and Encore, all for $799. Pretty amazing, considering you end up with enough software to walk your way through the entire post-production process.

Another thing that Encore has going for it is integration and compatibility with the Adobe CS family. Adobe does a great job of letting bits and pieces flow from application to application, and Encore is no exception. You can easily import and use menus and buttons you create in Photoshop into Encore or even motion menus created in After Effects. You can even send video from your Premiere timeline straight to Encore. The user interface has the familiar appearance of Premiere or After Effects, and anyone who uses Adobe products should be able to quickly pick it up. Overall, it’s sleek and easy to use. I was able to make a beautiful Blu-ray Disc in just a couple of hours, with no prior experience with the program.

Encore offers high-definition Blu-ray Disc authoring with a standard-definition set of tools. It’s limited in its ability to take full advantage of the bells and whistles of the Blu-ray Disc format, but at its price point and with the toolset it provides, it clearly sets itself in its own class. Currently, it stands as not only the best prosumer authoring solution, but also pretty much the only solution at this level.

Media

Picking up a blank 25GB single-layer at my local box store cost about $22. A quick web search of various media vendors showed blank 50GB dual-layered Blu-ray Discs coming in at $35 to $50 apiece, depending on whether or not you purchase in bulk. A bit pricey for blank media, but costs will drop as they always do. It’s also a good way to crack down on the Blu-ray Disc pirating market. With burners that come in around $700 and blank media getting up to $50 a pop, it is suddenly not cost-effective to bootleg a $35 film.

When it comes to backing up data, it’s still quite a bit cheaper to purchase additional hard drives than to back up to 50GB Blu-ray Discs, as the current price averages out to about $1 a gigabyte, and reliable hard-drive storage can be found for less than 25 cents a GB. On the other hand, for archiving purposes, even at the current rates, Blu-ray Disc isn’t so bad. Consider the ability to back up a client’s entire project onto a single Blu-ray Disc, keeping all that related data together but isolated from other projects. Consider not having to dig through and connect half a dozen hard drives when you have to find that project again. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?


Burners

So you’ve shot your HD movie, designed a drop-dead gorgeous Blu-ray Disc and picked up some blank Blu-ray Discs, now how do you get what you dreamed up onto that disc?

A variety of internal Blu-ray Disc burners has been slowly popping up on the market, though, depending on your system configuration, you may or may not be ready for that upgrade yet. Another possibility is that drivers for some brands just may not exist for your system. An internal burner from a major provider will run you upwards of $500. I definitely encourage you to do a little research or wait before going this route; you could end up saving yourself some money and headaches in the end.

External burners are a popular solution, because they don’t require installing anything into a computer, and you know that, if you have the proper connections and meet the requirements, it’ll work. Usually the downside is that the external burners are often more expensive than internal.

During researching, I used the new LaCie d2 external Blu-ray Disc drive for all my testing. The LaCie d2 offers both FireWire 400 and USB 2.0 connections, works on both Windows and Mac computers and retails for $649. The burner supports both 25GB single-layer discs and 50GB dual-layer discs, which is great for future-proofing your setup. It also supports BD-RE discs, which are re-writable Blu-ray Discs. The d2 is also backwards-compatible with practically every CD and DVD standard you can dream up, so it’s a great solution for all your burning needs. Another bonus is that it ships with Toast Titanium 8 and Easy Media Creator, so regardless of whether you’re running on Windows or Mac, you’ll be set up for data burning and basic Blu-ray Disc authoring right out of the box.

The d2 doubles writing speeds of previously-available burners, clocking in at 4x write speed. The d2 also supports playback of commercially-made Blu-ray Discs, as long as your system supports it. Similar to Encore, the LaCie d2 is proving itself to be not only the best external burning solution but also one of the only currently-available solutions.

The State of the Technology

With the format war ending only months ago, there are few options in the Blu-ray Disc creation market. It is an incredibly young technology, and those companies who took a risk supporting it now stand out as forerunners in the new medium. Expect there to be leaps and bounds in the development of Blu-ray delivery. With HD DVD now fading out of sight, developers will speed down the Blu-ray Disc path with nothing distracting their view.

Nathan Beaman is an Apple Certified Final Cut Pro 6, Level 2 Apple Certified XSAN for Pro Video and Apple Certified Motion Graphics Trainer.

Side Bar: Blu-ray BD-J

Features

  • GUI framework ideal for remote control user interface decoding and displaying JPEG, PNG and other images
  • Vector-based text rendering from disc or network access
  • Java 2 security module for permissions
  • Java network package with TCP/IP support including HTTP protocol

Advantages

  • Highly interactive games and menus (frame accurate event handling)
  • Downloads: new media, current movie previews, foreign subtitles, etc.
  • Online shopping: new and related titles
  • Read/write to local storage
  • Access other Java applications for further interactivity

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