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How Goes the Next-Generation DVD Format War?

I'm getting it from all sides. I'm usually the first among my friends and associates to dive into new technologies—much to the chagrin of my wallet and my wife. I invested in laserdisc in its infancy, and I watched that format grow into the fairly large niche it became. I bought $100 disc sets and proudly watched my widescreen movies while everybody else rented crappy pan-and-scan VHS tapes. I was even an early buyer in the CD revolution, astounding the people around me with the new digital clarity that the format brought to music.

More recently, I dove headlong into standard DVD when it debuted almost a decade ago. It seemed as if I had been waiting all my life for DVD to come along. It was an answer to my most fervent geek prayers: I could watch my favorite movies in glorious widescreen and powerful surround sound, and I could enjoy the discs' supplements as a kind of "film school in a box." DVD fixed all the problems of the video formats that preceded it—no more flipping huge LP-sized laser discs, no more VHS-inherent resolution and playback problems, instant access to chapters and features, pristine video and audio. I was almost religious about it, and still am. I'm a DVD nut.

I struggled through the format war between DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD. What a sad, tragic war that was! Who could have foreseen that two fantastic, high-fidelity music formats would crumble in the face of the woefully underperforming MP3? Now, DVD-A and SACD are relegated to the niche market, and I have a $500 hybrid DVD/DVD-A/SACD that rotates through my huge collection of 20 high-fidelity music discs. Oh, you can bet I would have swooned for either of these formats, too, just as I did for DVD. But no, the average music listener—once serious-minded and meticulous about the experience—now values convenience over quality. Thanks to the iPod, music ain't art anymore. It's background noise. It's something to work out to.

Which makes me sad and wary about the high-definition DVD format war. Like I said, I'm getting it from all sides. Friends and associates are wondering when I'm going to finally get an HD DVD or Blu-ray player and start enjoying the superior image quality of the next generation of DVDs. Like many, I'm weary of format wars, and this one seemed to almost precisely echo the music war that has wounded me so badly in more ways than one. Then again, this new war is being fought over an even more beloved form of media, and I must admit that high-definition DVD's siren's call is near irresistible.

Early prices of the units were just high enough to make me feel OK about ignoring them. But now they're coming down. Earlier this year, I was tempted by the Microsoft Xbox HD DVD add-on ($199), but I learned that the unit runs fairly loud, and that flaw was enough to push me back. When will we see a hybrid player in this war? When will we see one of the formats fall away, leaving a clear winner? Whenever I see the dueling Blu-ray and HD DVD sections at Best Buy, I can only shake my head in despair. It all comes across as so much counter-productive bickering that could very well result in stalemate and consumer apathy.

But I want so much for the format to work. High definition is the future of video entertainment. Right? Or, as with our music, would we rather just watch compressed, compromised, low-resolution movies on our iPod screens?

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