It has been a long time coming, but the battle to replace the DVD has finally reached consumers.
The consumer electronics industry is attempting to replace the millions of DVD players and DVD-ROM drives across the globe. The problem is it can't decide which format to replace them with: Blu-ray or HD DVD.
Each format has its own heavyweight industry backing. HD DVD is supported by Toshiba, Intel, and Microsoft, which will offer an add-on HD DVD player to its Xbox 360 game console this fall.
Blu-ray is supported by Samsung, Pioneer, and Sony, which will build a Blu-ray drive directly into its upcoming PlayStation 3 game system, also available this fall.
The closest analogy is the VHS versus Betamax contest of the early 1980s, but the stakes may be higher now.
PC Magazine has been following the story from the very beginning and can get you up to speed fast on what you need to know before you spend your money on either format.
Why should you care?
The short answer is: You don't want to buy an obsolete format. The two technologies don't work together, and it is very unlikely that both formats will survive.
Both kinds of players will work with "old-fashioned" DVDs, but if you want a high-definition video experience on a disc, right now you will have to choose one or the other.
The next PC you buy may come with the option to include either an HD DVD drive or a Blu-ray drive. And with standalone players selling for $500 to $1,000, guessing wrong could be expensive.
What is the difference?
Blu-ray has a capacity advantage, offering 25 GB of storage on a single-sided disc and 50 GB on a double-sided disc. HD DVD discs hold 15 GB (single-sided) or 30 GB (double-sided).
Although this would seem to give Blu-ray a significant advantage, 15 GB is enough room — just barely — to fit a high-definition movie.
HD DVD players and drives are a lot cheaper than Blu-ray devices.
Blu-ray players will cost between $1,000 and $1,500 at launch. Toshiba's first HD DVD player, the HD-A1, is being sold for just $500, and it has been available for more than two months.
Toshiba was first to reach the market with a high-definition video player, releasing the HD-A1 and the HD-XA1 ($800 street) last April.
When PC Magazine tested the HD-A1, we found it to be very much a first-generation product, with a few bugs to be worked out.
Still, there was no denying the excellent image quality it produced. And being first to market does give the format some advantage.
Samsung shipped its BD-P1000 Blu-ray player ($999.99 list) to retailers this week and will start selling them to consumers on June 25. It will be the first high-definition player to offer native 1080p support.
Sony and Pioneer will offer Blu-ray players in August and September, respectively. Both firms had hoped to have them out this month, but they had to push back their launch because of manufacturing problems.
Sony is also selling Blu-ray drives with two of its VAIO PCs, the VGN AR190G notebook and the VAIO VGC-RC310G. Perhaps the most interesting thing about these systems is that the drives can burn Blu-ray discs too.
Although it has a built-in HD DVD drive, the Toshiba Qosmio G35-AV650 ($2,999.99 direct) cannot record content onto HD DVDs. That, and some issues with the video playback, led us to be less than impressed with the system as a whole.
What can you watch now?
Right now, not much. HD DVD players have been out for a few months, so there are more titles available, 28 at last count. HD DVD titles list for about $35, but you can find them on Amazon for as little as $20.
The ones on the market now include "Lethal Weapon," "The Rundown," "Happy Gilmore," "16 Blocks," "The Perfect Storm," "The Chronicles of Riddick," "Constantine," "Firewall," "U-571," "The Bourne Supremacy," "Blazing Saddles," "Van Helsing," "The Fugitive," "Cinderella Man," "Training Day," "Unforgiven," "Full Metal Jacket," "Jarhead," "Assault on Precinct 13" (2005), "Rumor Has It...", "Swordfish," "Goodfellas," "Doom," "Million Dollar Baby," "Apollo 13," "Phantom of the Opera" (2004), "Serenity" and "The Last Samurai."
By comparison, there are just seven Blu-ray titles on the market now: "50 First Dates," "The Fifth Element," "Hitch," "House of Flying Daggers," "The Terminator," "Underworld: Evolution" and "xXx." Prices range from $20 to $30.
This seems lopsided now, but it will even out over time.
"Eighty-four percent of all the movies released last year were made by studios that have announced support for Blu-ray," says Jim Sanduski, senior vice president of marketing for Samsung's Audio and Video Products Group. "That is a huge strike against HD DVD."
To be fair, some studios plan to release movies in both formats. But as Sony is one of the developers of Blu-ray, it will not release its movies on HD DVD.
HD DVDs are cheaper to make. Because Blu-ray discs use a very different technology from traditional DVDs, manufacturers will have to retool their production plants, and those costs will have to be passed on to consumers somehow.
Who is going to win?
With just a handful of players and drives on the market, it is way too early to tell who is going to win this format struggle. Of course, that hasn't stopped the speculation.
PC Magazine's Lance Ulanoff has a decidedly unambiguous take: In his column "Blu-ray Is Doomed," he argues that Toshiba will parlay its first-mover advantage into market domination. Toshiba did have a two-month head start, after all.
He writes: "In our lightning-fast, high-tech world, two months is like the first two lengths of a four-length horse race. Can Blu-ray catch up? I don't think so."
John Dvorak wrote about "Picking a Winner" in his column a few months ago.
In his opinion, this contest will take a few years to sort itself out, and consumers will suffer while it does. The best choice for shoppers, he says, may be to wait until there is a clear winner.
That certainly isn't ideal, but at least prices for both players will have come down a lot by then.
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