Next-Generation DVD Formats Go Head-to-Head

There's a battle brewing in the living room, and it's a battle that will affect virtually all Connected Home readers. Having failed to reach a compromise, major consumer electronics firms are now racing to ship incompatible next-generation DVD players and content. But this time, customers—the real people who will buy these products—stand to lose from the competition. The problem is that one of these formats might ultimately be orphaned. In the meantime, you're going to have to figure out which side of the fence you want to be on.

Blu-Ray or HD-DVD?
I assume you know that I'm referring to Blu-ray and HD-DVD, both of which are being offered up by competing industry associations as the logical successor to the wildly popular DVD format. When it was introduced in 1996, DVD was big stuff, with 720x480 resolution, 4.7GB of storage space per disc, and support for multichannel surround sound. What a difference a decade makes! Today, those numbers all look paltry when you consider HDTV resolutions (up to 1920x1200) and storage requirements. Clearly, something had to give.

What's interesting is that DVD itself is a compromise. The format was designed to use the same form factor as the audio CD and combines features from two previous developmental formats, the Philips and Sony-backed Multimedia CD (MMCD) and Toshiba's Super Density (SD) disc. Not surprisingly, those two camps are at the forefront of the Blu-ray and HD-DVD dilemma. This time, however, there's been no compromise.

From a technical standpoint, Blu-ray and HD-DVD are somewhat similar. For example, they both utilize a blue laser, which has a shorter wavelength than the red lasers that DVD devices use. This blue laser provides for more data storage per disc than is possible with DVD. For example, Blu-ray backers say their format will be capable of 200GB of storage per disc, although the first generation will actually max out at 100GB. HD-DVD, by comparison, is capable of about 60GB of storage per disc, but again the first generation will come in much lower, maxing out at about 30GB in the first generation.

Both formats will natively support 16:9 widescreen HDTV formats such as 720i, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p, which, when combined with the huge storage capacities, make them perfect for delivering HD movie content. First-generation devices, of course, will work with both HD and standard-definition displays, however, so you'll be able to enjoy down-sampled HD on today's non-HDTV televisions.

Blue-Ray Dominance?
When you look at pure stats, Blu-ray seems to come out ahead. However, things are a bit more complicated than that. First, HD-DVD will be far less expensive than Blu-ray, especially in the short term. Whereas first-generation Blu-ray devices are expected to cost $1000 to $2000 when launched later this year, Toshiba has pledged to introduce its first HD-DVD device at a low-ball $499 price point, and PC makers are expected to support HD-DVD with low-cost PC drives, as well. Microsoft will ship an HD-DVD drive for the Xbox 360 that will come in below $499, too. Software will also be less expensive for the HD-DVD, because HD-DVD discs are less expensive to manufacture than Blu-ray discs. Therefore, the same movie could cost $5 to $15 more on Blu-ray than on HD-DVD.

On the other hand, Sony intends to support Blu-ray, at least partially, with its PlayStation 3 video game console. Everyone expects the PlayStation 3 to be a big deal, but with Sony suddenly hitting unexpected delays and cost overruns, this bundling strategy is no longer seen as a huge boon for Blu-ray. Indeed, it's quite possible that, because of cost issues, a base PlayStation 3 model won't include Blu-ray at all.

Studio Matters
There's another, very interesting difference. In deference to the entertainment industry, both Blu-ray and HD-DVD were developed to support various copy-protection methods. But HD-DVD supports a potentially exciting feature called Managed Copy that lets customers legally copy commercial HD-DVD movies to their PC or other device. Although it's not clear how this feature will be implemented—for example, a particular studio might opt to charge extra for this functionality—the fact that it's part of the specification means that Hollywood will have to finally face up to the specter of fair-use copying.

HD-DVD will also support a hybrid mode, with which studios can sell a movie with a DVD version on one side and an HD-DVD version on the other. Users can therefore stockpile HD-DVD content before committing to the format, but still enjoy the movies they're watching on today's DVD players. And, Microsoft has pledged to support HD-DVD playback in Windows but won't add similar support for Blu-ray. So, PC makers that choose to bundle Blu-ray drives with their systems will have to supply third-party solutions for playing Blu-ray content.

Software Support
Finally, there's software support. If you sample the various major movie studios, you'll see that some studios are supporting both Blu-ray and HD-DVD, and others are supporting just one or the other. Sony, a major Blu-ray backer and co-creator of the format, is naturally supporting only that format and not HD-DVD—which means that HD-DVD users won't be able to purchase or rent Sony's movies unless they also get a Blu-ray device. That's silly. So far, only three major studios have elected to support HD-DVD—Paramount, Universal, and Warner Bros. —although that support will likely improve quickly, as the first HD-DVD devices and content are due later this month. Meanwhile, all the major studios except for Universal will support Blu-ray, even though those devices won't arrive until May at the earliest.

Just Wait
Many technical analysts say that such a thing is unlikely for a few years, but I'm holding out hope for hybrid devices that will play both Blu-ray and HD-DVD content. In the meantime, I'll be skipping Blu-ray for the short term and going with HD-DVD for my PCs, Xbox 360, and home theater. I have little doubt that Blu-ray will take off eventually, if only for its stellar storage capacities. But HD-DVD is the blue-collar (ahem) solution to the next-generation DVD problem. Sorry, Sony.

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