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Format wars: does it matter?

Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD are both important

Format wars are nothing new; but this time, the stakes are sky-high on all sides – for Hollywood, for hardware manufacturers and especially for consumers.

Simply put, the outcome will determine the way we get high-definition entertainment content – and what machine we buy to replace our living-room DVD player.

The way things are going later this year two competing types of player, based on two different formats, could replace the DVD player. We should be seeing the first HD-DVD players by autumn. The estimated ship time for the first Blu-ray products is the end of this year, or beginning of next.

At CES in January, backers of the two formats trotted out their presentations, each trying to one-up the other with product and alliance announcements. In HD-DVD's corner is the DVD Forum, the industry association that created the DVD format, and Toshiba and NEC; the Blu-ray Disc Association includes almost every major consumer electronics company, except Toshiba and NEC.

The HD-DVD camp announced support by three studios – Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures and Warner Bros. Producing over 50 films in HD-DVD, as Warner Bros. intends to, is no small commitment. Nonetheless, I noticed that while some of the nearly 100 titles announced were very high-profile (including The Matrix and Harry Potter series), others were less impressive (Van Helsing, Waterworld, Catwoman and Gothika).

Had they committed to releasing Lord of the Rings in HD-DVD, I might have felt this was more than just a toe in the water for the studios. As it was, I found the announcements vague and noncommittal. After all, per the fine print, none of the Hollywood studios is pledging to release films in HD-DVD only.

Meanwhile, the Blu-ray Disc Association wasn't silent. Although no movies were announced, Disney reiterated its support for Blu-ray. And with the announcement of gaming giant Electronic Arts' commitment to Blu-Ray, the Association cemented that format's future as the disc of choice for console games. Factor in Sony's backing of Blu-ray and the company's announced plans to support Blu-ray in its future PlayStation gaming consoles--and suddenly Blu-ray looks like it has the gaming market niche sealed up. No matter which way Hollywood goes, Blu-ray will exist, in this scenario.

Although neither Blu-ray Discs nor HD-DVD media will work on existing DVD players, both formats incorporate laser designs that make them backward compatible, so devices based on them will play back current DVDs and audio CDs. And both formats will use the same video compression schemes: MPEG-2, H.264, and VC-1. This development evens the playing field with respect to the video codec, at least.

So which format has the advantage? As HD-DVD is more closely related to DVD, it will be easier to produce – but this will only be an advantage at first.

When it comes to capacity, the point advantage goes hands-down to Blu-ray. A Blu-ray Disc holds a whopping 25GB on a single-layer disc and 50GB on a dual-layer disc. By contrast, HD-DVD holds only 15GB on a single-layer disc and 30GB on a dual-layer disc.

A standard 135-minute movie, encoded at 12 megabits per second, will require about 12GB to 13GB of storage, just for the video of the film alone. Factor in up to 5GB more for a high-end, DVD-Audio-level soundtrack, plus space for additional audio tracks (to support the requisite Dolby Digital and DTS), multiple language tracks and extras, and suddenly those 30GB dual-layer HD-DVD discs sound like they're going have a tough time handling all that content.

Before Hollywood commits to a format, it needs to remember that this next content-delivery format choice is for the long haul. What works in the context of today's standards for "roomy" won't necessarily work three years from now. And no one has ever regretted having too much storage.

So what's going to decide this race? If it's first to market, HD-DVD may cross the finish line first. In the contest of names, I have to say that it's a draw. HD-DVD is a marketer's dream: The format is blessed with a name that needs no introduction, given the hype over high-definition broadcast technologies and the off-the-meter popularity of DVD. But Blu-ray has a sea-breeze-like coolness factor.

Regardless of which format wins, an even newer optical technology is already waiting in the wings, ready to douse cold water on the victory parade. Backers of the Holographic Versatile Disc announced this month that the format will support mammoth 200GB media when it launches in the fourth quarter of this year--posing a direct challenge to blue-laser-based storage formats like Blu-ray and HD-DVD.


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