Thursday, September 27, 2007

Xbox 360 vs PlayStation 3

Earlier this year, Eurogamer's editor, Kristan Reed, gave me an interesting assignment - to start a rolling series of features on the site that would highlight the similarities and differences between the same games running on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles.
I guess I was pretty much the default choice, being the only freelance writer around with the kit required to produce the comparison shots that would accompany the feature, so I gave it my best shot. Once published, I have to admit that I was as surprised by the vitriol of the 'talkback'-style comment writers as I was by the success of the feature (which got a huge amount of readers - the main reason I carried on writing them). I was also amused to see links back to the screenshots in various games forums, where 'fanboys' were picking and choosing the shots they wanted to use in order to make PS3 or Xbox 360 look 'bad' compared to the other. Unwittingly I had been drawn into the mighty next generation console war and my work was prime propaganda material.
Hardcore players have always had a close emotional bond with their gaming hardware (something I understood well and indeed shared to a point while editing print titles such as the official Sega Saturn Magazine back in days of yore) and it's pointless arguing, so I just let them get on with it, and continue to produce the pieces as I see fit. I'm far more interested in the games as opposed to arguing the toss over the technology that powers them.
Regardless I still enjoy writing the features and producing the comparison frames like the Spider-Man 3 and The Darkness shots below - a good workout for the 24-bit precision mode of Digital Foundry HD, and a harkening back to the excruciating, borderline pointless levels of effort I inflicted on myself while editing a certain magazine known as MAXIMUM.
Any way, the HDMI outputs of the PS3 and Xbox 360 Elite are used here, with both systems set to full-level RGB (0-255) as opposed to the more limited video systems RGB (16-234). There's a slight gamma difference, but that's down to the consoles in question, not DFHD.

Comparison images of Spider-Man 3 (720p) and The Darkness (1080p) running on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, losslessly derived from the HDMI ports of each console.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Why CineForm Rules Supreme

When I first started to approach other companies in the games industry with a view to licensing the Digital Foundry hardware, typically the only negative responses tended to be...

1. Why do you CineForm HD compression? Nobody else does and we want to use Final Cut Pro.
2. Why use compression at all? We want precision quality (this is a common attitude with games developers, who would fall in love with CineForm if they put it to the test!).

Well let's tackle point two first, with a very simply exercise. Take a look at the image below from an Xbox 360 Gears of War cut-scene. One image was captured completely uncompressed. The other was taken with CineForm HD. We've zoomed in on a specific part of the image and blown it up to 200%. This proves conclusively that while not mathematically lossless, you lose virtually nothing by using CineForm and you gain so much - easy integration with multiple editing systems, relatively tiny file sizes (anything up to 15:1 compression), plus you can capture onto a single 7,200rpm SATA drive. No more need for stupidly expensive SCSI RAID arrays.
Want some more quality tests? Download this ZIP package of shots. Open an uncompressed HDMI image in Photoshop. Zoom in to 300%, 400% - whatever you like. Import the CineForm version of the same image, CTRL-A, CTRL-C and CTRL-V into your uncompressed window. Use CTRL-Z to undo the paste, then again to re-do it - rinse and repeat. Now you're switching between the two images at a stupendously magnified rate. Impressive eh?
It's all the more impressive considering the chosen subject matter. Video games have little in the way of natural blurring (eg camera focused on the foreground, background out of focus) so it's notoriously hard to compress. Secondly, there's the sheer level of detail in games these days - another compression nightmare. And thirdly, two of the three games in the test package run at 1280x720 at 60 frames per second. Every frame is different, making compression even harder. But CineForm copes easily with any eventuality. No other codec I've tested can.
Point one now. Nowadays, CineForm HD is now pretty much the only cross-platform HD codec on the market. Digital Foundry HD AVI captures can be losslessly rewrapped into the Quicktime MOV format (the bitstream is literally identical) and now both PC and Intel Mac owners can use our captures. Sony Vegas, Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro - now pretty much all editors can make use of superior HD assets, with Avid the only hold-outs.

Gears of War on Xbox 360, cropped and zoomed in to 200% - uncompressed on the left, CineForm on the right - not that the human eye can really tell the difference. And the really scary thing? This was taken at CineForm quality level 'High'... there are two more settings offering an even better quality match. We simply don't need to use them.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Digital Foundry Moves to Blogspot

Several months ago, the main Digital Foundry website was forced to move at very short notice onto another server. Unfortunately, during the process, the bespoke blog coded for the site became totally non-functional, to the point where I'm surprised existing entries are still able to be read.
I've got plans to make a series of changes to the main site, not to mention launching a new online presence dedicated to Digital Foundry HD hardware - the licensing of which has been very successful.
There's lot of DF-related news to impart, but in the meantime I've spent some time porting over the more interesting of the original blog entries into this new domain.