Costa: Both Sides Will Lose DVD Format War

So, the format war between Blu-ray and HD DVD is in full swing, with each side issuing almost weekly statements claiming that the tide has turned its way.

Which side is really out in front? Neither one.

The products we've tested are pretty evenly matched in performance, and with players selling for more than double the price of a standard DVD player, most consumers are taking a wait-and-see approach.

In fact, who's out in front doesn't even matter. Once this format war is over, the industry will come to a sad realization: Most people will never buy high-definition movies on disc.

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Sure, the quality is great, and with all that capacity, studios can include all sorts of interactive goodies.

But no matter how you dress up a disc, it's still a physical entity that needs to be mastered, packed, shipped, sold, and stored on a shelf — and that's not what consumers want.

They just want the movie. They just want the media file. They just want the bits. And when it comes to moving bits, packaged media just doesn't make sense.

The old music CD provides the best analogy. For years, selling CDs was the most efficient means of distributing music.

But the Internet changed all that. For the past few years, the best reason to buy a CD has been to avoid DRM hassles and get good-quality tracks — and now that iTunes is following the lead of pioneering e-tailers such as eMusic, deciding to sell high-quality, DRM-free tracks via the Net, the CD is becoming increasingly obsolete.

The same thing will happen to Blu-ray and HD DVD discs.

Of course, there's a difference between the 5MB songs offered by eMusic and the massive 25GB high-resolution movies that Sony wants to sell you on a Blu-ray disc.

Even with a broadband connection, that kind of download would take hours. Heck, if it happens on enough machines, it would seriously strain the Net's capacity. At least right now.

The thing is, all current technology trends point to a future dominated by digital distribution.

Hard-drive capacities are soaring. Broadband deployment is increasing. And we're all becoming more comfortable with the idea of hard drive-based media libraries.

For a few hundred bucks, you can have a terabyte of network-attached storage that serves as a media hub for your entire house.

Playing Media Files

Playing media files is getting easier, too. Apple TV makes it dead simple. (Its HD offerings are pretty slim right now, however. As of this writing, your only options are a handful of 720p podcasts from The Washington Post. Zzzzz.)

Meanwhile, Microsoft is working hard to ensure the Xbox 360 lives up to its billing as a true Media Center Extender, including a 120GB hard drive and an HDMI port on the new Xbox Elite.

Though 802.11n isn't quite fast enough for real-time HD streaming, it's more than enough to load movies onto a hard drive for later viewing.

At the same time, the major studios are offering a pretty impressive array of online video content. There are several movie download sites, including Amazon Unbox, Netflix, CinemaNow, Vongo, and MovieFlix — and that doesn't include services such as Joost, which offers streamed content (at low resolution).

Yes, these approaches consume a lot of bandwidth, but they're here today.

And remember: The Internet isn't the only means of instantly distributing high-def content.

There are 12 channels of HD content sent directly to my TV — 24/7. And they all came with my standard cable package.

My DVR is constantly collecting movies and shows. As long as it's recording, my HD library grows without me ever leaving my apartment.

Granted, the video quality of an HD broadcast or even a high-def download isn't going to match that of an HD optical disc. There will always be some compression involved, and aficionados (including PC Magazine Labs analysts) can always spot the problems.

That's a pretty small market, however, akin to the number of people who think there's still hope for the Super Audio CD (SACD) format.

I don't think the optical disc will go away completely — not anytime soon, anyway. But this format confusion will push back purchase decisions.

By the time the whole thing is resolved, watching HD movies will involve nothing more than pointing and clicking. That makes this format war, like most wars, pretty pointless.

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