Blu-ray, HD DVD, and the DVD War
The blessing of high-def DVD brings the curse of two incompatible formats.
Illustration credit: Hal Mayforth
December 21, 2006 by Rebecca Day

It was a slow start out of the gate for both high-definition DVD formats, HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc. But both camps are ready to hit their stride in 2007. The question is whether consumers—distracted by Windows Vista, flat-panel TVs and the next iPod upgrade—will feel the need to leave their old DVD players behind, especially if they are forced to choose between two incompatible formats.

View more of our CES special coverageAccording to Jodi Sally, director of marketing for Toshiba’s digital A/V group, expanding awareness about the next-generation DVD formats is key to the success of either format. “Consumers need to understand that HD DVD is an evolution of DVD, and their current libraries of DVDs do not become obsolete if they buy one,” she says.

Toshiba, the primary backer of HD DVD, brought its first-generation DVD players to market last summer, giving it a half-year lead over most Blu-ray competitors. Toshiba’s second-generation players will be in stores for 2007. The HD-A2 ($499) outputs at 1080i and packs an HDMI 1.2 interface. The flagship HD-XA2 ($999) steps up to 1080p resolution and HDMI 1.3.

Check out the Electronic House Podcast: Blu-ray, HD DVD Format War

Some of the highlights of the HD DVD players include networking and “persistent storage.” The combination of the two offers you the ability to download new HD trailers, audio tracks and features for a given HD DVD title. Every HD DVD player will also be capable of picture-in-picture (PIP), Sally says. Current titles that take advantage of PIP to add immersive experiences include Constantine, Dukes of Hazard, Batman Begins and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

Sally says that between 150 and 200 HD DVD titles should be on store shelves by January. That number could double by summer. On the player side, the RCA HDV5000 HD DVD player ($499) will also carry over to 2007.

Blu-ray Disc product introductions have come more slowly than expected. At press time, Samsung’s BD-P1000 Blu-ray player ($750), the Panasonic DMP-BD10 Blu-ray player ($1,300), and Philips’ BDP9000 Blu-ray player ($900) were in stores and expected to carry over into 2007. Pioneer delayed the launch of its $1,500 Blu-ray player until December.

And after several delays on its BDP-S1 stand-alone Blu-ray player, Sony has now pushed the delivery date to early December, although both of the company’s PlayStation3 players will have Blu-ray drives inside. Published reports at press time speculated that the stand-alone player could be delayed even further as Sony tries to feed holiday demand for PS3.

According to Jeff Goldstein, vice president of the Sony Home Products division, “Sony has been addressing a software function within the BDP-S1 to help meet our expectations. New, advanced technologies take time to develop,” he says.

Why buy the $1,000 player instead of the 20-GB $499 or 60-GB $599 PS3 players? The BDP-S1 will be able to output video at both 1080p/60 frames per second and 1080p/24 frames per second, Goldstein says. The player’s separate audio and video circuitry and an isolated power supply reduce noise. In addition, the construction of the player is sturdier.

Sharp’s DV-BP1 Blu-ray player is slated for the second quarter of 2007. With so many players following the same specs, what will drive purchase decisions other than price and gaming capability? According to Bruce Tripido, senior director of Sharp’s Entertainment Products division, “The core technology that is delivered is inherently the same, but added features, functionality, user interface differences and combo products are ways manufacturers can differentiate their products.”

Goldstein of Sony believes content support from movie studios and the number of hardware makers committed to the Blu-ray format will ultimately make Blu-ray succeed. “With all of the manufacturers entering the market, the studios will ratchet up their output of titles,” he says. The Blu-ray Disc Association reports that 114 titles will be available at the beginning of the year.

Can the two formats coexist in the market? Past history with competing formats, including Beta, VHS and, more recently, SACD and DVD-Audio, suggests the answer is no.

In the meantime, we have two incompatible formats and most movie studios supporting one or the other. That means if you buy a Blu-ray player and want to watch a movie that’s only available on HD DVD, you’re out of luck. We’d love to see players that support both formats, such as we’ve seen with universal DVD players that spin all manner of discs, but last year Samsung and LG backed out of producing hybrid players, and at press time, the only solution was a Windows-based Media Center from a company called VidaBox, with prices starting at $3,500. We can only pray more two-way players will follow.

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