news / tech talk

Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD

by Lee LeClair
As seen in Inside Tucson Business

If you follow high definition video entertainment at all, then you have probably already heard about the next generation DVD format war that will bust out this year. Similar to the Betamax/VHS format war of 25 years ago, this war is about the format for the household DVD movie. The current DVD format is aging and the contenders are HD-DVD and Blu-ray. So let’s sort out the technology mumbo-jumbo first then see what it all means to you and your pocket book.

The current DVD technology and format uses a red laser and allows for about 4.5GB of storage on a single layer DVD or 9GB on a dual layer DVD. The Sony led Blu-ray Disc format uses a blue-violet laser, has a single layer disc storage capacity of 25GB, 50GB for a dual layer disc, and supports High Definition (HD) TV viewing. The Toshiba led HD-DVD format also uses a blue-violet laser, has a single layer disk storage capacity of 15GB, 30GB for a dual layer disc, and supports HD TV viewing. Do the two formats seem really similar as far as your viewing? That’s because they are. But, Blu-ray players will cost almost twice as much as HD-DVD players ($1000 vs. $500 initially) and Blu-ray players will likely be delayed until just before Christmas while HD-DVD players will be on sale within 30 days.

Format wars aren’t good for anyone while they are going on, not manufacturers or consumers. Consumers don’t want to invest in getting new generation DVDs of the “wrong” format; its like having a lot of betamax tapes when everyone else has VHS. Yet consumers will ultimately determine who the winner is. Slugging it out will be the major players: Sony has a lot of major movie studios set to release more movies in Blu-ray and they have Dell signed up to Blu-ray exclusively, Toshiba has fewer movie studios but recently got Microsoft on their side, Intel, and influenced HP to support both instead of just Blu-ray. Plus, Sony just announced a huge delay of their PlayStation 3 console to November instead of being available now. The PS3 was going to be Sony’s way of sneaking Blu-ray into households less expensively than through traditional players. Beyond stock drops, this has caused a major manufacturer to back off exclusive support of Blu-ray to releasing a player that will support both formats. The longer the delays, the tougher it will be for Blu-ray.

Does “superior technology” matter? In a word, no. Betamax probably had a better picture but VHS was a little less expensive. VHS won. Blu-ray won’t look better than HD-DVD on an HD TV – that will be limited by the TV and HD format. But Blu-ray players will definitely cost more and they will come out later than HD-DVD. A likely reason HD-DVD got Microsoft’s backing is that the players are simpler and cheaper. The MS Xbox 360 will support an external HD-DVD player later this year. A lot probably hinges on Sony’s effort with the PS3. Traditionally, game hardware is sold at a loss per unit to drive the lucrative game sales ($50-60/game ring any bells?). Sony is taking a gigantic risk with the PS3 – it introduces a wholly new CPU architecture (the Cell), a new DVD format (Blu-ray), and a 60GB hard disk in a powerful multipurpose system that plays games, plays HD movies, plays music, surfs the Internet, and runs Linux. And Sony’s electronics group has been taking big hits in the market with competition from the Chinese, Microsoft, etc. not only taking aim at them but firing and firing pretty accurately.

So what should you do? Well, it’s a war isn’t it? You’ll have to pick a side or try to wait it out.

Lee Le Clair is the CTO at Ephibian. His Tech Talk column appears the third week of each month in Inside Tucson Business