You've probably heard of convergence at some point or another by now. It's loosely used to convey the merging of personal computing and digital entertainment with home theater. You may even already have convergence products in your living room, purchased or setup your own HTPC system with networked media streaming throughout your house. The next step is obviously to upgrade and support new generation formats and media. For home entertainment, this would be Blu-ray and HD DVD - the two battling successors of the DVD era and have been hot topics of conversation for the last year at least. These two formats are now available, but are you ready for High Definition (HD)? Getting yourself a set-top box is probably the most straightforward solution for Hi-Fi aficionados, but what about the HTPC brethren? Blu-ray and HD DVD support is not as simple as buying a Blu-ray or HD DVD optical drive. In this guide, we introduce the technology and requirements to get your HTPC 'True HD'-ready.
*Note that the scope of this article is as an elementary guide to setting up a Blu-ray/HD DVD capable PC and not to serve as a technology or performance analysis of HD standards, HD DVD vs. Blu-ray, ATI vs. NVIDIA or Intervideo vs. Cyberlink.
HDTV vs True HD
By HD, we're not talking about HDTV or the HD clips available on the net such as Quicktime trailers. Users should be aware that there is quite a vast difference between the various types of HD content there is out there, since the word is a general term to define any video source that is encoded higher than 480p (720 x 480 progressive), which is the current NTSC DVD standard.
In terms of standards, the two most common HDTV broadcast specifications are delivered in 720p (1280x720 progressive) or 1080i (1920x1080 interlaced) with average bit-rates of 10Mbps. User encoded HD clips or those found on the web can come in various non-standard sizes and bit-rates using the multitudes of CODECs such as Quicktime, WMV, x264, etc. Blu-ray and HD DVD however, is standardized MPEG-4 Part 10 a.k.a. H.264 or AVC and can be delivered up to the full 1080p (1920x1080 progressive) resolution (commonly termed as True HD) with average bit-rates that are twice that of HDTV at 20Mbps and is within specifications to be capable of reaching a whopping 40Mbps.
Remember back in the time where PCs required a dedicated MPEG-2 card to properly playback DVD videos? We're at a similar juncture with Blu-ray and HD DVD. While most modern PC hardware, including previous generation GPUs and CPUs can playback HDTV without much problem, there is no GPU or CPU alone that can handle decoding of Blu-ray and HD DVD's H.264 streams in full resolution.
*Both Blu-ray and HD DVD have in their capacity to support MPEG-2 and Microsoft's VC-1 formats as well, but we will focus on H.264 hardware acceleration support in this article as it is the most taxing of the three.