Who's Got Next?

HD and Blu-Ray Battle for Supremacy

BY Dino DiGiulioPublished Nov 1, 2005

An offensive has been building for the last year. Two forces have engaged in a public relations conflict. The war of tech specs has been back-paged by mainstream media, but broadcast live on blogs worldwide. There has been one clear casualty: the days of the DVD are numbered.

Silicon Valley compadres and Asian manufacturing dojos have decided it is time to change formats — and whether the buying public is aware, cares for the idea, or even feels it's necessary is beside the point. These industrial behemoths have seen the future and consumers get to start the media buying cycle all over again. Yet there is no clarity in this clairvoyance, as these corporate bodies have been lining up on two sides of the new tech debate. Toshiba, creator of the DVD, and its alliance (backed by giants Microsoft and Intel) is touting HD DVD, while Sony and its supporters (including innovators Sun and Apple) offer Blu-Ray. Both are similar in specifications, both will bring high definition home (see sidebar), but which of these twins is the evil one?

If history has foreshadowed this, it would be in the early ‘80s, when technically superior Beta collapsed under the ubiquity of VHS. Both HD and Blu-Ray are clones of the compact disc in size and appearance yet will not play in each other's player. A summit held this summer in order to reach tech detente failed, but clearly, once one gains momentum it's likely to seize the other's market share, leaving a pile of formerly futuristic silver machines as obsolete ruins tucked deep in closets everywhere. Usually this type of marketplace neurosis would put a stalemate on the home theatre industry — one broken by consumers who would choose (or not) to replace their perfectly functional DVD players. Yet it's likely you will have one of these players creep into your home under another guise without ever making a choice.

Compact discs and DVDs utilise a red laser with a longer wavelength; by employing a "slimmer" blue beam, Blu-Ray and HD DVD allow more information to be stored in the same amount of space. It's this info appetite that's got tech-heads hungry for their assimilation — not into home theatres systems, but computers and videogame consoles. The 20-gigabyte HD DVD can store about five times the giga-fun of a DVD (42 times that of a CD), while the 30-gig Blu-Ray can retain more than six DVDs' worth. Data can also be stacked, like a layer cake, on a single disc. With hard drives maxing out in hundreds of millions of bytes, this is a godsend for anyone looking to back up our increasingly complex digital life. Tech savvy early adopters will eagerly update their machines; mere mortal consumers will shortly find them already contained in new computers.

The IT-inclined are not the only ones who will speed the adoption of these schemes. Gamers looking to increase the photo-realistic properties of their carnage — not content with their already sprawling virtual worlds — will welcome this change when next-gen consoles arrive. Playstation 3 will ship with Blu-Ray built in, and rumour has it the Xbox 2 (or perhaps Xbox 2.1) will sport an HD DVD drive. By slipping HD DVD and Blu-Ray into devices whose primary focus is not home video, this battle will be decided outside of the industry it's been designed for.

For those of us that jumped on the DVD bandwagon there is a saving grace. Regardless of what innovation takes hold, early players at least will offer backwards compatibility with DVDs and pretty much any other audio, video or photo format currently housed on disc. Those who choose to wait out the war for a victor will still be able to purchase DVD content on hybrid discs, although it is likely bonus features will be reserved for the high def portion of the disc. Still, the question will remain: which hybrid will you buy into?

The choice of format may not be yours. The nerds made an unusual move and invited the popular kids to the party. Hollywood studios have been choosing sides just like the tech companies. Currently controlling an estimated 48 percent of the marketplace with its allied studios, Blu-Ray has taken an early lead. HD DVD's alliances put them a close second with an estimated 33 percent market share, leaving a small segment of the industry neutral. While we await a conquering format, new movies will be released on partisan products.

The only favourite in this race is Tinsel Town. The potential is there to sucker people into buying favourite movies up to four times: VHS, DVD, then the losing media, and finally the disc to end all discs (at least for now). This could also be the Prozac for the beautiful people's perpetual paranoia that duplicating movies is too easy. After the DVD encryption code was easily cracked, studios have fallen for the seductive encoding promised by both formats: a flexible and self-repairing copyright protection. A hacker posts a crack; the next disc will repair it.

This summer the two camps held talks and for a brief moment it looked like there could be peace in the Valley. Silicon giants salivated at a possible industry standard; electronic divisions forgotten by their corporate overlords thought there might be one last great component before the computer pink-slips them; and Hollywood's augmented chest quivered as they held their breath for a truce in this war. But instead of unity, the only thing this rolling mass of corporate ego will be bringing to the market place is uncertainty.

How High is Your Def?

If you went shopping for a TV in the last year, you probably spent most of the time ogling at just how flat that box was, and without a second glance passed over the tag that read "HDTV compatible." Buzzed about through the end of the '80s and promised as the next big thing through the '90s, high definition television fizzled into reality long after the hype imploded.

What is high definition television? The best comparison is computer monitors. In the mid-‘90s, most screens were limited to a display resolution of 640 x 480, or 307,200 pixels, the same as SDTV (standard television). Today, an affluent early adopter can pick up a 22-inch monitor (or bigger) that can display a resolution of 1920 x 1080, or 2,073,600 pixels — the same resolution as HDTV. More pixels mean more detail. High def TVs also tend to be theatrical aspect ratio — more wide than square — and that means enjoying your Big Lebowski DVD without black bars.

Since CBC broadcast an outdoor game between the Oilers and the Canadiens in 2003, high definition signals have come to Canada with little fanfare. Building slowly, stations are adding more and more high def content to their line-up. Just tune your HD-ready receiver into the HD version of a channel... when an HD show is playing... and there are probably a bunch of cables you should have connecting your receiver to your television… perhaps HD is not quite ready for prime time.

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