Earlier this week, we looked at the performance impact of playing back H.264 encoded Blu-ray titles on a modern day PC.  We explored the necessity of graphics decode acceleration for systems with CPUs less powerful than a Core 2 Duo E6700. The capability of different graphics cards was determined by looking at CPU overhead while decoding movies.

The final verdict on HD content on the PC indicated that high performance CPUs and GPUs would both be needed, especially considering that our test movie, X-Men III, is not likely to be the most stressful movie to be released over the next few years. With the titles available right now, we would recommend at least an E6600 with an NVIDIA GeForce 7 Series graphics card that runs at 450MHz or higher.

Today, we would like to look at the state of HD-DVD playback on the PC. The importance of looking at both formats rest mainly in the types of codecs and bitrates used. Currently, most Blu-ray movies are MPEG-2 and most HD-DVD movies are VC-1. Both Blu-ray and HD-DVD support H.264 as well, and this is the codec in which we are really interested (as it is the most difficult to decode). In addition to the recent release of Blu-ray titles that use H.264, there are also a couple HD-DVD titles that employ AVC: The Interpreter and U2: Rattle and Hum.

Our first article on HDCP compatible graphics cards looked at the performance of an MPEG-2 Blu-ray movie (Click), and our article earlier this week focused on one of the first H.264 movies released in the U.S. for Blu-ray (X-Men III). This time we will be looking at Serenity (VC-1) and The Interpreter (H.264) to try to get an idea of performance characteristics of HD-DVDs.

Our only dilemma thus far has been the lack of availability of PC HD-DVD drives. But not to worry: we have a solution. Microsoft's add-on HD-DVD drive released for the Xbox 360 will work with any PC that supports USB 2.0. Not only can 360 owners use it to extend the capabilities of their console, but PC users now have an affordable external HD-DVD drive available. Let's take a look at the drive itself before we get into HD-DVD performance.

Xbox 360 HD-DVD Drive


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  • DerekWilson - Friday, December 15, 2006 - link

    We would be using retail players if any were available, but they aren't. Currently the only way to get a copy of a player that supports HD-DVD or Blu-ray is to buy a system or a drive that comes with it. Cyberlink is currently only offering their software through OEM channels. Reply
  • ssiu - Friday, December 15, 2006 - link

    Does VC-1 look worse than H.264? (If they are comparable, then why use H.264 when VC-1 takes so much less power to decode?)

    Are these 720p or 1080i or 1080p videos?
  • DerekWilson - Friday, December 15, 2006 - link

    All of our HD video tests so far have been done using a 1080p tv with 1080p movies.

    It's hard for us to do a direct image quality comparison right now because HD movie players don't allow any image capture or video clips to be saved. From what we know about H.264, it has a high potential for image quality, especially on Blu-ray where disks are currently up to 50GB in size.
  • therealnickdanger - Friday, December 15, 2006 - link

    Given the current releases on both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, VC-1 has superior sharpness - H.264 tends to soften the image more than VC-1 at any given bitrate (hence the Blu-Ray nickname in some circles "Blur-Ray"). The implemetation of H.264 is more currently more complex and less efficient in many cases. Many argue the VC-1 codec to be superior only because it has the backing of Microsoft, who is working much harder behind the scenes to improve its functionality and efficiency, whereas H.264's support and tools are not as advanced. If and when H.264 receives the same treatment as VC-1 in terms of financial investment and support, then the more advanced features of H.264 can be realized. It's way too early to make a call on which codec will "win" in the end, but I don't think we'll know for a very long time. Lucky for us, Blu-Ray and HD-DVD support both... so the consumers win either way. Reply
  • plonk420 - Saturday, December 16, 2006 - link

    where, pray tell, did you hear about this superior sharpness of VC-1? in reviews i've read, H.264 is pretty much identical PQ. the technology pools between VC-1 and H.264 overlap a good percentage, as well as even prosumer solutions having existed for at least year before the first BRD (or even HDDVD) players came out .. well, besides the piss-poor Quicktime.

    i can't say i can compare VC-1 vs H.264 on a standalone, but i've worked with both, including H.264 encoder betatesting and playing around with VC-1 a little bit as well...
  • rcabor - Friday, December 15, 2006 - link

    I doubt its selling at a loss, since you dont need one for gaming, I cant see where microsoft would make any money with software. Reply
  • Xorp - Friday, December 15, 2006 - link

    Good review cept, H.264 will probably more towards being equal with VC-1 in terms of releases. I don't think it's going to replace VC-1 in the long run. Reply
  • nicolasb - Friday, December 15, 2006 - link

    Doesn't the fact that the XBox 360 has no digital video output rather limit its safety as a long-term investment for video playback? What happens when the disc publishers decide to switch on the protection flags that prevent output in any analogue format at any resolution beyond 960x540? Something with an HDCP-enabled digital output would surely be safer?

  • ajira99 - Friday, December 15, 2006 - link

    I think that by the time any content-protection flags are enabled (if ever), there will be affordable, standalone players that will do a better job than either the Xbox 360 or PS3. I'm pretty satisfied with the HD-DVD addon -- the 360 is an adequate DVD player when I'm away from my computer, and the PC compatibilty of the drive is a definite plus.

    Of course, Microsoft could just wait and put out an updated 360 console w/CPU die shrink and HDMI in a year or so.
  • Furen - Friday, December 15, 2006 - link

    I believe the HDCP-requirement was scrapped from the spec, which is why MS can get away with having a non-HDMI solution.

    More importantly, I wonder if MS is in anyway subsidizing the cost of the drive... If so then Microsoft may be getting screwed pretty badly by people who buy the drive to use it on a computer.

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