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A Battle in the Home Theater: High Definition DVD Formats

In February 2008, Blu-ray emerged as the winner in the high-definition DVD format war, when rival Toshiba gave up on its HD DVD format. This article offers previous coverage on the beginnings of the format war.

What's really exciting in the DVD world is the development of a couple of new DVD formats that will allow true high-definition (HD) programming to be available on optical discs. A number of companies have banded together into two groups with competing standards for these next-generation, high-definition disc formats:

  • Blu-ray: Led by Sony, the Blu-ray camp has developed a high-definition-capable disc format that is also being supported by Apple, Dell, HP, Panasonic, Pioneer, Thompson, Philips — and a whole bunch of other companies. The really big deal for Blu-ray is that Sony is making it the disc format for their PlayStation 3 gaming console — so the format will end up in a lot of homes quickly.
  • HD-DVD: The competing format championed by Toshiba, HD-DVD also has an illustrious list of companies behind it, including Microsoft, HP, Intel, NEC, and others (at least until February 2008).

Yep, it looks like we're heading into another format war, in which two competing groups of companies agree to disagree and push two different standards onto the market. This happened a few years ago with high-resolution audio discs, and the results weren't pretty for anyone. With the audio discs, basically no one bought either format in significant numbers, though both are still plugging along. This isn't the first format war to hit the home theater industry either — if you recall the early days of VCRs, Sony and Matsushita duked it out over the Betamax and VHS formats.

Sometimes, one format wins out over another (for example, VHS over Betamax); other times, neither one becomes a clear winner. Predicting which high-def DVD format will win the hearts and minds of consumers is difficult at this point. An interesting thing to watch will be the actions of the movie studios that actually create and sell the discs themselves. Right now, most studios have chosen one or the other format — pretty much splitting down the middle, with a slight advantage to Blu-ray. (Sony owns a few motion picture studios itself, which helps here.)

If one or the other format really becomes dominant, all of the studios will eventually begin to sell movies in that format, no matter which camp they are in today. Heck, Sony sold a lot of movies in the VHS format, even though Betamax was its baby!

Both Blu-ray and HD-DVD produce amazing pictures, and each one has top-notch companies supporting them. The dominating format could go either way, both ways, or neither way. As many as 10 percent of all homes in the United States have HDTVs these days, and there is essentially no prerecorded high-definition material to play on these expensive TVs. People are anxiously awaiting a solution.

One possible solution is a universal disc player that can handle both formats. Universal DVD players are just starting to appear on the market, and some computer systems are being built to support both high-def DVD standards. But it'll cost you a pretty penny. Your best bet is either to hold out a bit until either one format wins out of the other or universal DVD players become more common and less expensive.

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