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HD DVD Combo's - What Went Wrong?

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Old 09-14-2007, 04:50 PM   #1
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Arrow HD DVD Combo's - What Went Wrong?

By Joshua Zyber

Although it may be one of the greater issues of contention among HD DVD buyers, in principle I have no objection to the Combo format, those discs with a primary HD DVD version on one side and a Standard-Def DVD on the other. Some owners think they're great. Many outright hate them. To me, they just seem mostly redundant. In some ways, I like the idea of having the movie in regular DVD format so that I can watch it in a portable DVD player when traveling, or loan it to a friend not yet equipped for High Definition. But realistically, how often do I need the disc for either of those purposes? Hardly ever. Frankly, when I buy an HD DVD, I want to watch it in High Definition on my home theater screen. That's kind of the point, isn't it?

Still, the idea of the Combo disc doesn't offend me as it does some. I mainly just ignore the DVD side. I've heard complaints from people upset that the dual-sided configuration prevents artwork from being screened onto the top surface of the disc. To me, that seems a little silly. The disc is going to spend most of its time either resting inside the HD DVD case or spinning inside an HD DVD player. Opening up the case to look at the disc itself isn't something I'm going to do often. On the other hand, as a collector who has often complained about ugly case cover art (and been called petty for it), I can sympathize with the desire for nit-picky perfection even in so minor a concern.

Of course, that's not the main argument against the Combo format. The larger issue is that the studios that use them (Warner Bros. and Universal) charge extra for them, considering the regular DVD edition on the flip-side of the disc to be a premium feature worthy of a higher price tag. For HD DVD fans, this especially stings in the case of Warner, who will simultaneously release a cheaper Blu-ray edition of the same movie, with the same quality and the same features, just lacking the redundant DVD copy. It feels like they're pushing dual-format owners to buy the Blu-ray version, and sticking a big middle finger in the air to exclusive HD DVD supporters.

The studios will tell you that their marketing research indicates that consumers are very concerned about backwards compatibility and are willing to pay a little extra for that peace of mind. Let's be very clear about this, Combo discs were never really intended as a bonus feature for HD DVD owners. The real point and purpose of a Combo disc is to lure new buyers to the format. The reasoning goes something like this: If you can convince the average movie buyer to "future-proof" their collection by purchasing Combo discs to watch even on their standard DVD players, eventually the person will have enough discs with HD DVD content on them that they'll want an HD DVD player to start using the discs to their fullest potential, and from there will start collecting other HD DVDs as well.

There is some logic in such a "Trojan Horse" strategy, and in fact it's similar to the way Sony markets its Playstation 3 console (if you give video game players Blu-ray capability in the console they were going to buy for games anyway, many will also purchase some Blu-ray movies to watch on it). The ploy has worked to some extent for Blu-ray, yet hasn't had nearly as much success for HD DVD.

In order for a Trojan Horse to work, you have to get the Horse into people's homes in the first place. Sony was clever enough to not give consumers a choice in the matter. Every PS3 has Blu-ray capability. They didn't release a cheaper model without Blu-ray and a more expensive model with it, thus pushing many people to the more affordable option. No, if you want a PS3, you get Blu-ray automatically. That isn't the case for Combo discs. As it stands, average movie collectors are faced with the choice of buying a standard DVD version of the movie that they can watch in their regular DVD players for $20 (street prices, not MSRP), or a Combo disc that includes an extra HD DVD side they can't yet use for $30 or more. It's an easy decision for most.

But what about all that marketing research claiming that people wouldn't mind paying extra to future-proof their movie collections? Frankly, what people say in a focus group isn't always how they act in real life. When presented the option with a series of leading questions, Combo discs probably looked pretty appealing. When standing in a store and seeing the price disparity in action, however, the wallet pulls in another direction.

For the Combo strategy to have any chance with real consumers, the discs would have to be priced the same as regular DVDs, or the studios would have to discontinue DVD-only discs altogether, and only issue Combos for new releases, priced attractively. Now that would certainly get HD DVD into people's homes and start the Trojan Horse effect working. Clearly, that isn't likely to happen anytime soon. For one thing, Combo discs are more expensive to manufacture, both in terms of having to author all of the HD DVD content as well as the physical reproduction of the dual-sided discs. For another, even if a studio were willing to subsidize that cost, the HD DVD and Combo disc production lines are currently not ready to handle the volume necessary to cover the entire DVD run for a new title. More facilities would have to be converted to Combo production, which would again be a big expense. Perhaps an even bigger hurdle, how would you market these Combo-exclusive titles? In standard DVD keepcases and artwork to appeal to DVD buyers, or in HD DVD cases as they're sold now? Would the same disc have to be sold in both types of case? How long would that last? Any of these scenarios would only succeed in confusing and annoying at least one portion of the buying market, not to mention retailers who have to stock the discs on store shelves.

So where does that leave us now? To whom do Combo discs currently appeal? Average movie buyers have continued to stick with the more affordable DVD-only option, a complete failure of the Trojan Horse plan. HD DVD buyers are upset that they're being forced to pay extra for a "feature" they will rarely (if ever) use. And those who support both HD DVD and Blu-ray would just as soon buy the Blu-ray that's $5 cheaper with the same quality and features. Combo discs put HD DVD in a no-win situation.

Worse than that, the damn discs don't even work half the time! Just the other night, I sat down to watch my recently-purchased HD DVD copy of '300' on my Toshiba HD-XA2 player, and I only made it 45 minutes before the stupid thing froze up and ceased playback. No matter how many times I try to restart the movie, the disc will not play beyond Chapter 14. This is an extremely high-profile release; in fact, it's currently the best-selling title on either the HD DVD or Blu-ray formats, and the disc won't function in a top-of-the-line HD DVD player! Who wants to put up with nonsense like that? I certainly don't.

Let's not kid ourselves that this is an isolated defective disc or a one-time anomaly. Complaints about playback problems on '300' are widespread, and similar compatibility issues have plagued earlier Combo releases such as 'Children of Men', 'The Good Shepherd', 'Happy Feet', 'Superman Returns', and 'The Matrix Reloaded' (copies from the expensive 'Ultimate Matrix Collection' box set which has the bonus features in DVD format on the flip-side of the disc). Some of these will only work properly on second-generation HD DVD players but not first-generation models, and some bizarrely just the opposite. Some function fine on Toshiba's players but not on Microsoft's HD DVD add-on accessory for the XBox 360, and others vice versa. Some don't work right on any player at all.

The excuses are manifold. First we were told that certain titles were authored out of spec for the HD DVD format, but if that were true why would they work on some players but not others (even within the same player model)? Then we were told it was a manufacturing error having to do with the bonding process that seals the two halves of the disc together. Some people believe that there's a filmy residue on the surface of the discs that the player's laser can't read through, and have claimed better results after cleaning or boiling (yes, boiling!) the discs for a few minutes. For what it's worth, I actually tried this boiling trick on a couple of my non-responsive discs, but it didn't do anything to solve my playback errors.

Universal was good enough to offer a mail-in exchange program for "defective" copies of 'Children of Men' and 'The Good Shepherd'. However, many people who received "corrected" copies found them just as problematic. Later, Toshiba issued a firmware update for their players that seemed to clear up most of the problems with these two titles. If it were really a physical manufacturing error on certain copies, how could a firmware change in the player make a difference? And if it were an authoring mistake that a firmware update can work around, why are brand new discs like '300' still not working correctly? Something just isn't right here.

If these DVD/HD DVD Combo discs are having so many issues, why should we expect any differently when (or if) Warner finally unleashes their much-delayed "Total HD" format that seals HD DVD and Blu-ray together onto the same disc? I dread the compatibility nightmares that would almost inevitably come with those.

Personally, I have no idea what's causing these compatibility problems between Combo discs and HD DVD players. I don't know whether it's the studios at fault or the hardware manufacturers, and I honestly don't care. I've lost faith in the Combo format. When presented with an option, I'll avoid it if possible. When it comes to Warner titles, I'll buy the Blu-ray version instead, assuming equal features. The reason I went with the HD DVD edition of '300' was for its highly-touted interactive bonus features that are not available on the Blu-ray, only to find them quite useless if the disc won't play. In some cases, I'll consider importing a non-Combo HD DVD edition of the movie from overseas, as I did for 'Children of Men' (it's available in England that way). Fans of '300' might be interested to know that a non-Combo HD DVD was released in Australia.


Universal's 'Unleashed,' before and after.
Are even the studios starting to realize the predicament? Universal originally issued both new releases and catalog titles in Combo format, but wisely scaled back to only new releases after consumer complaints. Many viewers had already bought these older movies on DVD prior to the introduction of HD DVD, so why should they be forced to re-buy another DVD edition to get the HD side? Recently, the studio has started re-releasing previous Combo titles such as 'Unleashed' and 'Army of Darkness' in HD DVD-only editions for a reduced price. Warner has begun to do the same with 'The Ant Bully', 'The Departed', and others, and also hinted that in the future all Combo releases may be reissued several months afterwards in non-Combo editions. I say, why not just cut to the chase and do away with the Combo discs altogether?

It turns out that backwards compatibility is not quite as appealing as the market research indicated. When DVD premiered back in 1997, did anyone feel the need to package a VHS tape in the box with each movie? These are meant to be next-generation products. We should be looking forward, not backward. As I mentioned at the start of this article, I don't object to the Combo format in principle. However, in execution it just isn't working out. They're priced too highly and a significant percentage of the discs have technical problems. Both failings are causing consumers to lose faith in the HD DVD format.

Quite simply, Combo discs are killing HD DVD. It's time to move past them. Consumers don't need them and certainly don't want to pay extra for them, only to find the discs seizing up in their players when they try to watch their newly-purchased movies. I am hereby officially pleading to the studios to give up this foolish scheme and make all future HD DVDs, whether new releases or catalog titles, just HD DVDs, without the Combo burden. Everyone will truly be better off if you do.
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Old 09-14-2007, 05:39 PM   #2
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I think Combo discs can be good and can benefit HD DVD owners. Its just not going to benefit most current owners who can't bear to watch DVD's even again after watching HD

There's 2 benefits to existing and future HD DVD owners.

1) Rentals. I've rented a few times and then gone to Cape Cod for the weekend and was able to bring a few rentals with us since they were Combo's.

2) Portable or other DVD players in the home. The typical consumer who hasn't invested in HD DVD's yet very likely has a portable player, car player and players in various rooms. They may have one of the above or all of them. They are not going to replace all these at once and when these consumers are ready to invest, this can be a big benefit to them

The problem however is at what cost does it become a true benefit? Let's look at 300.

(Prices in MSRP)
300 DVD is: $28.98
300 HD DVD (not combo) would likely be: $34.99
300 HD DVD Combo is: $39.99

So, is a DVD owner willing to pay $10 more? Unlikely. Would they pay $6 more? I'd still say unlikely. I think $3-4 tops would possible be worthwhile.

And I think most HD DVD owners (given a choice) might pay $2 more or so in some cases.

So the big problem I see with the Combo's is their pricing. They need to structure it in a way where it is viable for both DVD owners and HD DVD owners.
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Old 09-14-2007, 05:45 PM   #3
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Josh just hates combos, but he's not the target consumer type. J6P is/will be.
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Old 09-14-2007, 05:53 PM   #4
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I bet when they posed the question about paying $5.00 more for a combo disc those people were thinking about $5.00 more than SD DVD, not HD DVD prices + $5.00.

I am hoping that the cost of the TWIN discs will not be prohibitive since there is no need to stamp another side. If that happens, it is a whole new ballgame.

The combo (or maybe the TWIN) discs are good for my family since we have about 8 SD DVD players and only TWO HD DVD players. It allows a single movie purchase that can play anywhere. I am less likely to buy the Combos since they already charge a $5.00 premium for new releases and when you add the $5.00 combo premium it just raises the price $10.00 over the catalog titles.

I agree that the combos priced as they have been is sending a lot of dual format owners to by the BD version to save the money, so pricing is the key.
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Old 09-14-2007, 05:57 PM   #5
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I trust the studios will price the combos to sell. Besides, as volume goes up and the more practice the replicators get then that drives the extra cost to make them closer to zero.
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Old 09-14-2007, 06:01 PM   #6
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He should have mentioned that the studios that use them have found a way to make more money from a small marke segment. Same thing was done in LD when they used CAV (30 min a side) versus CLV (60 min a side) But with the CAV - you could look at a movie frame by frame.

The Combo IMO is a two fold format:

1. Married HD DVD to DVD - now played in any optical disc reader
2. A stop gap measure until the TL Twin is ready for prime time

Will they go away? Doubtful because of the time constraint on a 1 layer 5GB SD.

Of course not having a choice can be viewed as a problem. Only choice is a DVD and if you have decided to give up DVD - well that means no choice at all. Either buy it as a Combo - or wait for it to be on HD "OTA" and lose out on the IME/IF's.
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Old 09-14-2007, 06:01 PM   #7
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I pretty much agree with the author of that article.

At first, the only issue I had with the Combos was price, but I dealt with it because I did find the SD side valuable. However, all the playback problems of the combos pretty much drove me away from them. Unless it was a "must have" title and I had no other choice, I stopped buying combos all together.

At this point I am completely against combos specifically because they may drive people to purchase the BD version, as the author also pointed out.

I also am exceptionally leary of the Warner THD discs, if they ever show up. However, I also worry about the HD DVD twin that we've heard so much about lately. If we see the same problems with those discs, it's going to hurt HD DVD very badly.
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Old 09-14-2007, 06:09 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by El Despairado View Post
I pretty much agree with the author of that article.

At first, the only issue I had with the Combos was price, but I dealt with it because I did find the SD side valuable. However, all the playback problems of the combos pretty much drove me away from them. Unless it was a "must have" title and I had no other choice, I stopped buying combos all together.

At this point I am completely against combos specifically because they may drive people to purchase the BD version, as the author also pointed out.

I also am exceptionally leary of the Warner THD discs, if they ever show up. However, I also worry about the HD DVD twin that we've heard so much about lately. If we see the same problems with those discs, it's going to hurt HD DVD very badly.
Yes, but there's always going to be growing pains for something like this. Combos have an enormous potential to intregrate DVD and HD DVD at very little extra cost. This kind of 'power' will not be discarded and will have a long term application (at least until they stop making DVD players).

It's not fair to judge the combo's future on the current $5 upcharge and the spat of playback conflicts that they were partly responsible for (the players were to blame, too) earlier in the year, because it will only get better.
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Old 09-14-2007, 06:17 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by bruceames View Post

It's not fair to judge the combo's future on the current $5 upcharge and the spat of playback conflicts that they were partly responsible for (the players were to blame, too) earlier in the year, because it will only get better.

I'm not judging it's future on that, I'm just leary of it. I'm not exactly looking forward to it. I see that this could either make it or break it for us. You have to look at the negative possibilities too. We don't know what the price will be, we are assuming. It is "possible" the price will be substantially higher than average SD DVD prices. If that's the case, it could be a problem. Mainly, however, I am concerned with playback problems. They have to make sure there will be ZERO playback issues or this could really bite HD DVD in the ass big time.
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Old 09-14-2007, 06:33 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by El Despairado View Post
I'm not judging it's future on that, I'm just leary of it. I'm not exactly looking forward to it. I see that this could either make it or break it for us. You have to look at the negative possibilities too. We don't know what the price will be, we are assuming. It is "possible" the price will be substantially higher than average SD DVD prices. If that's the case, it could be a problem. Mainly, however, I am concerned with playback problems. They have to make sure there will be ZERO playback issues or this could really bite HD DVD in the ass big time.
Very true, the pricing and playback issues are key. Hopefully they won't be (much of) an obstacle/problem. I like the integration and market seeding potential so I hope they do it right and it works. The twin format discs will be a big help and eventually it could get to be where the SD portion is regarded as merely a 'special feature'.

Having DVD and HD DVD on the same side (pun not intended) is a big plus in this format war, IMO.
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Old 09-14-2007, 06:37 PM   #11
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As far as playability issues, the only thing I haven't been able to play is Chronos on blu-ray. It won't play on the PS3.

Everything else has been fine on both formats and I've player numerous combo's.
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Old 09-14-2007, 06:44 PM   #12
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Personally I like combos because they will play anywhere. Also I can make a backup copy of the SD side and thus don't have to be a 'prick' and not loan out my movies.
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Old 09-14-2007, 08:14 PM   #13
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I agree with the points in the article. HD-DVD would be much better off without the combo format and Blu-Ray was right to abandon the idea early on. If HD-DVD could ditch combos and release triple layer discs I will probably buy a player.
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Old 09-14-2007, 08:19 PM   #14
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Me be looking to buy HD disc's,,not SD.
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Old 09-14-2007, 08:22 PM   #15
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The tripple layer HD DVD's is much better then the combo discs they have out right now, but I have a few combo discs and I really love them. I watch the HD DVD version, and my dad can watch the DVD version.
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