Click to viewOver the weekend, I checked out three versions of the Transformers movie: standard-def and high-def instantaneous downloads to the Vudu box with 4-Mbps net connection, as well as the HD DVD of the movie, playing through the Xbox 360. As you can see in the image above, the so-called HD experience from Vudu wasn't one that could come close to comparing with the HD DVD playback. In fact, it was awfully hard to see a vivid difference between that and the perfectly fine (and $2 cheaper) SD download.
A lot of people (including Steve Jobs) like to talk about the imminent arrival of HD downloads, a magic talisman that will help peace-loving technophiles avoid the atrocities of the last shiny-silver-disc format war. But as we've discussed and others have researched, bandwidth, and not resolution, determine final quality.
It's a no-brainer, and one that Vudu is well aware of, especially as it enters its newest round of content offerings. To its credit, the company decided that it's more important to offer high-quality downloads instantly, rather than make people wait for the 8+ hour download that might look more like video from a Blu-ray or HD DVD disc. But can we still call them HD?
In the frames above, you see snapshots I took all at the same time depicting Vudu paused in standard-def and high-def playback, as well as more or less the same frame paused on the HD DVD as well. One could argue that the frames look funny because of the way Vudu pauses, so let me be clear: the difference in playback between the HD DVD and the HD download was huge. My wife laughed, saying "Even I can see the difference." The difference between the SD and HD Vudu downloads was not significant at all. In fact, it was not especially noticeable. Again, to Vudu's credit, the standard def version looks really nice, and both videos started playing the instant I rented them.
The bottom line is that HD downloads are a novelty item now, and they'll probably stay that way until:
• Higher bandwidth permits the rapid download of huge files
• A quality-assurance system is agreed upon where "HD" refers to specific attributes that go beyond frame resolution
• Hollywood deems it fit to start releasing mainstream videos in great quantities in HD—remember, those dudes hold the keys, now and forever, whether we like it or not.