Hi Def DVD Format Wars

November 25th, 2006 | Posted in It's All Geek to Me!

I’m getting imaptient and just might take the plunge in December and get a high definition DVD player for the home theater. I’ve been waiting for prices to come down, second generation hardware to come out (less bugs) and more importantly to get a grasp of who is going to win the format war.

For those who aren’t AV geeks out in cyberspace, there is currently a format war raging with respect to the next generation of DVDs: high definition DVDs. Most people have heard of “high definition” TV, which is broadcast via special antennas and on cable/satellite systems. Regular TV resolution is 640 x 480 pixels, while high definition is either 1280 x 720 pixels (early HD and not quite true HD) and 1640 x 1080 pixels (true HD). The result is a remarkably better, clearer and sharper picture. HD ready TVs are ones that can display either of the HD resolutions in either interlaced or progressive mode, which relates to the frame rate.

The wierd thing is that until recently there has been no such thing as HD movies on disk. All DVDs are 480 resolution (that refers to the number of pixels high the picture is. That remains constant although the width changes if it is “letterbox” or 16:9 format). So, all these HD TVs don’t really make a DVD look much better than a regular TV. The reason for the lack of HD movies is that there are as much as 10 times more pixel information in an HD film picture, and that translates into too much data. HD movies simply will not fit onto a DVD, they are too big. Consequently a new technology needed to be created that could hold the amount of data needed for a full length DVD movie.

Enter the format war. Two competing DVD formats are duking it out to be the next DVD, ala the VHS/Betamax war. On one hand you have HD-DVD. On the other hand you have Blu-Ray.

HD-DVD is being developed by Toshiba and NEC. It uses a much shorter wavelength blue-violet laser than the standard DVD’s red laser, and a single layer disk can hold up to 15 GB of data, or three times a normal DVD. Dual-layer and three layer HD-DVDs can hold up to 45 GB, or between two and five hours of HD video with audio track.

Blu-Ray is being developed by Sony, Matsushita and Philips. Like HD-DVD, it uses a shorter wave laser and can hold even greater amounts of data. A single layer can hold 23 to 27 GB, while the thin format can theoretically allow for up to eight layers and a staggering 200 GB of storage potential. a 200 GB disk could hold over 20 full length HD movies.

Blu-Ray sounds like the clear winner in technology… but not so fast. Betamax was better than VHS and that didn’t work out so well for Sony, did it? Movie studios have thrown in with one format or the other, muddying up the waters. You like Disney movies? Only on Blu-Ray. How about The Lord of the Rings from New Line Cinema? Only on HD-DVD (and not yet, in any case). That really doesn’t matter much, except to early buyers. When someone take a commanding lead in the format wars, the studios will quickly jump ship and start producing their films in that format. The better technology will not be a deciding factor, either. It’ll be the pricing.

Right now HD-DVD is on top. It’s format is close to regular DVD… close enough that current DVD production equipment can me modified to produce HD-DVDs, making it far cheaper and easier to make the disks. They also beat Blu-Ray to the marketplace… HD-DVD players were available first, and the second generation of them will be out in just a few weeks. They are priced at $399.00 where as the newly available Sony Blu-Ray player is a whopping $999.00. Sony is banking on it’s Playstation 3 to level the playing field, because it is based on Blu-Ray technology and it will essentially be a Blu-Ray movie player as well as a game console. However Sony blew it this Christmas when it could not get production of the newly released Playstation 3 anywhere near in line with demand, and it’s already sold out until 2007 in the US for all intents and purposes. Plus you have to get extra stuff for the Playstation to enjoy a movie on it, raising the costs of using it as a Blu-Ray player when it already costs $700.00 as a game unit. Meanwhile HD DVD players are about to be out with an upgrade, the first gen players are seeing price reductions and an add-on HD-DVD drive for the Xbox 360, which will allow you to watch HD-DVDs just like the Playstation will with Blu-Ray, is readily available for $199.00 at your local Target.

Looks to me like unless Sony pulls a miracle and has cheap Blu-Ray players out in the next 6 months, the early lead for HD-DVD will be tough to surmount. Meanwhile, I think it’s the HD-DVD player for me, especially if I find it at a Christmas discount somewhere. Now I just gotta start hawking some of these pieces of MAD art laying around…

Comments

  1. SteveH says:

    My new Sony 40inch LCD tee vee is just great and my son has tweaked it so it produces a great picture with the regular signal. It’s HD ready so I am able to absorb the up coming changes you mentioned Tom! If I can also paint a few clebrity caricatures to sell, then I could get the HD sky box here in the UK and enjoy the HD experience! Ahhh technology, she is a stange mistriss at times!

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