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Why The Next Consoles Will Not Have Analog Output

The buzz around Microsoft and Sony’s next consoles is building steadily. We’ve got the Sony event on February 20th, which almost everyone agrees will be the Playstation 4 announcement, and daily news on Xbox 720 rumors, specs, and capabilities. It’s almost a given that at least one if not both of these consoles will launch this year.

As usual, I’m going to focus on the one specific detail that I care about: the rumored Blu-Ray drive in the Xbox 720. Then I’m going to extrapolate that into conclusions that will probably make people angry.

You won’t be able to capture gameplay anymore

I actually mentioned this in passing back in September. Right now, the Xbox only turns on  HDCP (high-bandwidth digital copy protection) during video playback – gameplay comes across the HDMI connection without HDCP. This is a big deal: it means you can capture gameplay just fine, but not movies or TV shows.

The Playstation 3 isn’t so lucky: HDCP is enabled all the time, so you can’t capture anything over HDMI – only component. I honestly can’t find info on if this is actually required of Blu-Ray players or just Sony’s solution to the HDCP problem. Either way, it’s a negative for end users.

The deciding factor, in my opinion, is that Blu-Ray drive. The Playstation 3 is a Blu-Ray player; the Xbox 360 is not. That means Xbox isn’t limited by the compliance requirements for being a Blu-Ray player.

Playstation is also governed by the AACS rules regarding analog output. That’s why when you play a Blu-Ray you only get SD output via component – only providing a down-converted version on analog outputs has been a requirement of AACS compliance since I think 2011.

If the Xbox adds Blu-Ray, suddenly it becomes subject to a whole new set of licensing and compliance rules. I can’t say for certain that these rules are directly responsible for the PS3’s locked-down output – but it’s not a huge jump to get there.

And those rules, they are a-changing.

Analog sunset

2013 is “analog sunset” year. That means that no Blu-Ray device can be manufactured or sold after December 31, 2013 that “passes Decrypted AACS Content to analog video outputs.” So while current Playstations are allowed to spit out SD versions of Blu-Ray movies, all future Blu-Ray-enabled consoles will be barred entirely from sending AACS content (read: all Blu-Ray movies) over analog outputs.

Does that mean they’ll do away with analog output entirely? Both companies are trying to be your go-to entertainment hub in the living room; having an output that only works half the time is just asking for trouble from consumers. And when over 75% of Americans have HDTV sets (but only 56% have game consoles), the risk of consumer backlash looks less and less scary.

Big Content needs protection

We also can’t ignore the needs of digitally delivered content. There’s a reason that the Xbox kicks on HDCP at certain times: they don’t want you stealing that content and seeding it all over the Interwebs. At the very least, the practice of selective HDCP will continue; when you couple that with the analog sunset requirement, it may just make sense to kill analog entirely. Movie people are happy, digital media companies are happy, and the tech is simpler.

Quotable prophecy

Here’s the super-simplified version of that admittedly disjointed argument:

If they’re Blu-Ray players, then they can’t pass any AACS protected content to an analog output, ever. If you want to be competitive in the entertainment market, you have to be able to pass protected content to your outputs. And explaining to consumers that one output connection is for games only – if that’s even allowable in a compliant device – seems like a disaster waiting to happen.

The next generation of consoles will not have analog outputs and will have always-on HDCP.

 

Or I’m wrong. One of those.

 
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