Consumers face tricky decisions as the DVD format war rages

Mun Yin

With the way that things are going, it is highly unlikely that there will be any eventual winner in the war between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. With an increasing number of hi-def displays finding their way into people's living rooms, there's a great opportunity to exploit, but the two camps are not interested in sharing this trove, and we could well see a clearly defined line separating the market. What started out as a race to see who could produce the next generation format has turned into a rather large spat between Sony and Philips of Blu-Ray and Toshiba and Hitachi of HD-DVD.

Both formats provide the same end, but just by different means. Hi-definition content is the aim, and there is no doubting the quality that they provide. Unfortunately, consumers could well be the ones to lose out if they adopt early for either one of the formats. Currently, different film studios have signed up for different formats, meaning that films released on the new discs could only be available on one type, and that's no good if you've already spent a lot of money on a player for the other format. Toshiba were the first to enter the hi-def market with their HD-DVD player, and Blu-Ray's presence was confirmed shortly after when Samsung released their first hi-def player. With neither side yielding, the biggest problem facing us all is deciding which format would be best to choose?

At the moment, consumers have a limited range to choose from when it comes to picking a player to watch their preferred format discs. There are only a handful of HD-DVD players, and even fewer Blu-Ray ones. In terms of price, which can be seen as one of the more important factors, the HD-DVD players can be bought for less. The introduction of the PlayStation 3, priced at under 500, can be seen as a victory for the Blu-Ray camp in terms of getting closer to equalling the prices of the HD-DVD players. All the same, not very many people will be able to afford to buy 2 players at over 300 each just so they can cover all bases. Luckily, LG have produced a hybrid player that can handle both formats, and this could be a step in the right direction. It's by no means a perfect system as it's predominantly a Blu-Ray player that can play HD-DVDs, but without some of the advanced features, but with a similar machine announced by Samsung to be produced, manufacturers could well be sensing that there is a market to be served. This isn't a guaranteed solution though, as initial prices are expected to be in excess of 800.

So, it seems that the public will have to settle for either one of the formats after all, at least for the time being. Looking at the statistics, Blu-Ray discs are able to store more information, with one layer being able to hold up to 25GB, compared to HD-DVD's 15GB capacity. This isn't to say that Blu-Ray is superior. For this extra capacity, consumers will have to pay a bit more, with the reason being that they use thinner protective layer on their discs. HD-DVD discs conform to the current DVD trend by using a 0.6 mm thick surface layer, but Blu-Ray uses a miniscule 0.1mm thick surface layer. Using this thinner layer means that current equipment will need to be modified or replaced, where as HD-DVD discs can continue using current tools. The layer also needs to be much more robust to withstand any abuse that gets thrown its way. The fundamental differences between the two technologies cause this variation in layer thickness. The reason Blu-Ray can hold more is because its track pitch is tighter, and thus the pick up aperture is 0.85, weighed against HD-DVD's 0.65. The 0.1mm thick surface layer helps the laser to focus with the 0.85 aperture. All of this goes to prove that the two formats are different, and incompatible, and that if you want more storage, you will have to be able to pay for it.

As mentioned before, the different film studios will also have an impact on which format will become more successful. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, The Walt Disney Company and Warner Brothers have signed themselves up for both camps, but many others have decided to back just one of the formats. HD-DVD has support from New Line Cinema and Universal Studios, and Blu-Ray can rely on 20th Century Fox, MGM Studios and Sony Pictures Entertainment. Blu-Ray also has the added advantage of a few gaming studios, such as Electronic Arts. It won't be easy to predict the quality of films to be produced by differing studios, so it's hard to tell which side has the better support. Seeing as Blu-Ray has more studios signed up, it may well have an edge over HD-DVD.

Early indications appear to suggest that Blu-Ray has managed to get ahead of HD-DVD, with stronger backers and higher storage, but it would still be far too early to write one of these formats off. Higher running costs will only take effect in the future, so whilst early adopters will be quick to nail a flag to a mast, many others will wait and see. If more manufacturers are able to produce hybrid machines, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray may well be able to coexist quite happily together.

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