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DVD wars

April 02, 2006

By JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

HD DVD vs. Blu-ray DVD.

The format war for high-definition DVDs has been raging for years, with negotiations between the two camps to create a common format falling apart last fall.

Both sides claim their format is better, talking about detailed technical differences. But what consumers really want to know is: When the dust settles, who will be the next VHS and who will be the next Betamax?

If you don't know what Betamax was, well, that's the point.

Standard definition DVDs - the ones used now - aren't going anywhere anytime soon and both new formats will play those DVDs.

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However, the difference in quality between standard and HD or Blu-ray will be noticeable, says Steve Kindig, senior editor for Crutchfield. Crutchfield is a mail-order and Internet retailer with a reputation of providing detailed product information.

With HD or Blu-ray, viewers will notice a greater sense of depth in textures, skin tones and fabrics and cleaner, finer details, Kindig says.

The new format players will make standard DVDs look better than they would on regular players, though there are standard DVD players with an up-converting feature that can do the same, Kindig says.

Standard definition DVD players will not be able to play Blu-ray or HD DVDs.

So what's at stake?

Meeting a growing demand for content from the increasing number of people buying high-definition televisions.

The Consumer Electronics Association expects high-definition televisions to outsell analog televisions by 89 percent this year. The trade association is forecasting sales of 15.9 million high-definition television sets this year.

Consumers who already own high-definition televisions want more high-definition content, Kindig says. Unless they are in a big TV market, there aren't a lot of TV shows aired in HD.

Packaging high-definition movies gives consumers more content and content could be key in determining which new DVD format comes out on top.

Blu-ray proponents like to point out that all but one major movie studio - Universal - has aligned with its format and the Sony game console PlayStation 3 will support Blu-ray video.

HD DVD also has several movie studios in its camp with notable exceptions being Fox, Disney and Sony Pictures.

Knox suspects those studios could change their mind as more HD content beats Blu-ray to the market. HD DVD movies will start being released when the first HD player - a Toshiba model - is, Knox says.

Megan Pollock, spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association, says the driver behind sales for both formats might be content - which format has your favorite movie - rather than price or technology.

HD DVD and Blu-ray are both good technologies, she says.

"I don't think anyone will be losers with either of the technologies," she says.

Standard definition DVDs were launched in the United States in March 1997, Knox says.

Even then industry officials knew a newer format would be needed to accommodate high-definition televisions, which hit the market the following year, Knox says.

People with high-definition TVs were going to want high-definition content, which requires more data than standard definition video.

Hence, the need for a DVD format with greater storage capacity.

Some companies in the industry, like Toshiba, pursued an HD DVD format, while others, like Sony, helped develop the Blu-ray format.

Both formats require a player with a blue laser, rather than the red one in standard DVD players. The blue laser has a shorter wavelength and is able to pick up data stored in smaller dots on the DVDs.

HD DVDs take the existing standard disc and triple its data storage capacity. The information is encoded and decoded using a newer technology, MPEG 4, which makes storing that data more efficient, Knox says.

Blu-ray is a new disc design that allows for even more data per disc, 25 gigabytes per layer. Multiple layers on a single DVD are possible.

Standard DVDs have 4.7 gigabytes per layer and HD DVDs have 15 gigabytes per layer.

Knox says HD DVDs don't need as much storage capacity as Blu-ray discs because of the efficiency of MPEG 4.

Blu-ray also can use MPEG 4 though early Blu-ray title releases won't have that technology on them, industry officials say.

HD DVDs also are cheaper to make because disc manufacturers only have to tweak their standard disc production lines rather than build new manufacturing lines to make Blu-ray discs, Knox says.

Both HD DVD and Blu-ray players will play standard definition DVDs, but they won't be able to play one another's formats.

Any difference in picture quality between the formats would be subtle, Kindig and Knox say.

Neither HD DVD nor Blu-ray is available yet, but pre-orders are being taken for both and HD DVD is expected to hit the market first, as soon as mid-April.

Samsung and Pioneer are expected to release their Blu-ray players before Sony's first players enter the market in July, industry officials say.

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