Burn, Baby, Burn!
Regarding the end of HD DVD, why didn't the ability to burn your own hi-def videos as HD DVDs on plain old DVD-Rs ever get more publicity? Granted, you need a Mac and some special software, but that would likely drop in price someday. And there are still small video companies burning one-off disks for niche customers.
I don't know why the ability to burn HD DVD content onto DVD-R blanks didn't get more publicity; in my view, it's one of several important advantages that format has—er, had—over Blu-ray. Of course, with only 4.7GB (8.5GB on a dual-layer disc), DVD-Rs have about a third the capacity of HD DVDs, so they can hold much less content. The actual amount of time you get depends on the codec and bit rate you use—VC-1 and AVC are far more efficient than MPEG-2, so using one of the new codecs allows more material to be stored. In any event, you get much less time on a DVD-R than a regular HD DVD.
Burning HD content onto DVD-Rs can be done on Windows computers as well as Macs, and much less expensively, to boot. With Windows, two popular programs are CyberLink Power2Go 6 ($40) and Nero 8 (~$100). On the Mac side, you need Final Cut Studio 2 ($1300).
With HD camcorders now so affordable, many consumers are taking high-def home movies, and the ability to burn that content onto inexpensive DVD-Rs lets them easily share it with family and friends—as long as they have an HD DVD player. Of course, they can also burn their home movies to BD-R (write-once) or BD-RE (rewritable) blanks, but those are much more expensive than DVD-Rs, and most Blu-ray players can't play them anyway because of the format's draconian copy-protection requirements.
As you mention, the ability to burn HD DVD content onto DVD-R blanks lets video companies produce one-off discs or small runs of short programs for niche customers. A related application is generating rough cuts of professional HD content during production and post-production so those involved can see where changes might need to be made. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if HD DVD survives in the professional community for just this reason, much like Beta videotape remained a professional standard until very recently.
Another big beneficiary of this little-known ability is the porn industry. Aside from the major studios like Vivid, many porn labels are shoestring operations, so being able to burn HD content onto inexpensive DVD-Rs is a blessing for them. On the other hand, the shortened time available on these discs might be a drawback in this case—after all, buyers of porn invariably want more, More, MORE!
The most important application for me and other video-equipment reviewers is the ability to acquire HD test patterns. For example, Microsoft engineers Stacey Spears and Don Munsil have developed some high-def test patterns that they've graciously made available to some reviewers as HD DVD content on DVD-Rs. Spears and Munsil really know their stuff, and their test patterns are extremely useful for setting up and evaluating video displays.
This brings up a related issue—using your HD DVD player as a video-testing device. There aren't many high-def test discs available yet, but of those that are, many are HD DVDs rather than Blu-ray discs. Among the most important are Joe Kane's Digital Video Essentials and his latest title, HD Basics, which will soon be available in both HD DVD and Blu-ray formats. The HD DVD version has some distinct advantages—for example, you can select certain test patterns as "favorites" and specify the order in which they play, essentially creating your own personalized set-up and test suite. The Blu-ray version can't do this because most current players don't support this functionality.
Unfortunately, no more HD DVD players are likely to be made, so the benefits of HD DVD test discs and burning HD content onto DVD-Rs are limited to those who already have the hardware. Of course, prices are now so low that it's easy to justify getting one for any or all of the applications I've mentioned here. If this idea appeals to you, I wouldn't wait—once those players are gone, they're gone for good.
If you have an audio/video question for me, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.