Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD – Welcome to the Format War

By Nevin Buconjic
For Fresh Magazine
(Original Print Date – March 2007)

As DVD’s approach their 10 year anniversary, they have become so common and affordable that we find DVD players everywhere – our computers, our home-entertainment and stereo systems, even in our cars! In fact the technology has become so inexpensive, that DVD players can be had for as cheap as $30 and portable units with LCD screens less than $100.

But a new revolution is upon us. High Definition (HD) television sales are now leading the change to High Definition DVD formats. HD provides significant picture quality improvement over standard DVD, and with the growing popularity and increasingly lower cost of large screen Plasma and LCD televisions, consumers want more and more HD content.

In comes the successor to DVD…except we have a little problem. Two different formats are vying for the title of next generation DVD. They are Blu-ray and HD-DVD. Both formats can provide the highest level of HD quality – 1080p to be exact. With resolutions of 1920×1080 vs. standard DVD resolution of 720×480, the sheer detail and picture quality of both HD formats is remarkably better than DVD. Next time you are in a department store or local Future Shop, take a minute to watch either format playing on a 50-inch LCD or Plasma TV. You will be blown away by the picture quality and sound.

You might be asking yourself, what is the problem if we have two excellent formats to choose from…choice is good right? Choice is good AFTER a technology has been standardized. The problem is, if customers have to worry about which format will win in the end, it will dramatically slow the adoption of a new HD format. Who wants to be stuck with the losing product after spending close to $1,000 on a player?

Many writers point to the “Beta vs. VHS” wars in the 1980’s as an example of format war. If you are saying to yourself, “what the heck is Beta”, then this proves the point. In the early 1980’s Sony introduced the Betamax format to compete with VHS. Beta tapes were smaller and had a higher quality picture, but in the end VHS won the war, and reduced Beta to the junk pile. The lesson is that quality and technological superiority does not always ensure success. In fact, Sony has a history of delivering technologically superior products but some have been marketing flops. Just look at Sony’s Mini-Disc in the early 90’s, and their current Memory Sticks (which compete against CompactFlash and SD), which are essentially only used in Sony products.

That being said, Sony is the inventor and lead promoter of Blu-ray technology. But it has managed to bring together a large group of supporters this time around including Dell, Hewlett Packard, Hitachi, LG Electronics, Mitsubishi Electric, Panasonic, Pioneer, Philips, Samsung Electronics, Sharp, TDK and Thomson. There are also a number of content providers supporting Blu-ray including Sony Pictures Entertainment, MGM, Walt Disney Company and its home-video division Buena Vista Entertainment. In addition, video gaming giant Electronic Arts, and Vivendi Universal Games have both shown support.

The main backer of the HD-DVD format is Toshiba along with NEC and Sanyo. An impressive list of entertainment content companies have also thrown their weight behind HD-DVD, including Paramount, Universal Studios, Warner Bros., along with New Line Cinema. Microsoft has also joined the HD-DVD camp, producing a $200 add-on unit for its Xbox360.

What’s the Difference?

Both formats offer six times the resolution of traditional DVD, high quality surround sound, interactive content, and copy protection built in. The main difference is the storage capacity and production cost of the product itself. HD-DVD holds 15GB on each layer (up to 30GB per disc). Blu-ray on the other hand holds 25GB per layer and up to 50GB per disc. Based on capacity alone, Blu-ray is the clear winner, although that capacity comes with a price. While HD-DVDs can be manufactured using the same production facilities as DVD’s, Blu-ray requires costly new manufacturing processes resulting in higher costs. Both formats are backwards compatible with standard DVDs, so you can still watch your collection of DVDs.

Next-Gen Consoles

One factor that could influence the outcome of the format war is the fact that Sony has included Blu-ray in its new PS3 console. The company delayed the launch of the console in order to be able to include the new technology. The move, which was widely criticized and significantly raised the price of the units, could result in a significant advantage for the Blu-ray in the end.

To date Sony has sold over 2 million PS3’s world wide (700,000+ in the US) and with this number Sony claims to have surpassed the number of HD-DVD units sold to date. This significantly outstrips Microsoft’s HD-DVD add-on unit sales of about 100,000 in the US alone. Recent reports also show that Blu-ray movies have begun out selling HD-DVD by about 3:1.

Conclusion

Only time will tell which format will come out on top, but some companies aren’t waiting to find out. During the Consumer Electronics Show in January, LG Electronics unveiled the Super Multi Blue player, which can play both formats. In addition, Warner Bros. has announced plans to release the Total HD Disc, which can carry both formats on one disc. Both products should help to alleviate the fear of choosing a format while the battle is still being fought.

So what should you do if you just can’t wait unil there is a clear winner? Because the cost of either format’s player units are still so expensive ($600 for HD-DVD and $1,000 for Blu-ray), my suggestion would be to go with the consoles. If you already have an Xbox 360, for another $200 you can get an HD-DVD drive, with free movie and remote control. And if you are a PlayStation fan and can afford it, the PS3 ($550 – 650) will give you a Blu-ray player for far less than the cost of buying a standalone player.

But don’t forget you will need an HDTV to be able to enjoy either HD-DVD or Blu-ray, so if you don’t own one yet, perhaps you should start there.

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