Commentary: Combo Discs - What Went Wrong?

Posted Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 02:49 PM PDT by

Editor's Note: A long-time movie buff and collector of discs from laserdisc to DVD, Joshua Zyber is a veteran disc reviewer, and an enthusiastic supporter of all things High Definition. In his twice-monthly High-Def Digest column, Josh discusses a broad range of topics of interest to other early adopters.

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.

A collection of recent HD DVD/DVD Combo releases from Warner and Universal.

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.

That's my opinion, anyway. I'd like to hear what you think. Join us in the forums to discuss this topic further.

To view a complete collection of Josh's commentaries for High-Def Digest, click here.

Discs mentioned in this article: (Click for specs and reviews)
300 (HD DVD)
Children of Men (HD DVD)
The Good Shepherd (HD DVD)
Happy Feet (Combo Edition) (HD DVD)
Superman Returns (Combo Edition) (HD DVD)
The Ultimate Matrix Collection (HD DVD)
Unleashed (Re-issue) (HD DVD)
Army of Darkness (Re-issue) (HD DVD)
The Ant Bully (Combo Edition) (HD DVD)
The Departed (Combo Edition) (HD DVD)
Tags: Combo Discs, Joshua Zyber (all tags)