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Of Course You Know Disc Means War!

Rival Blu-ray and HD DVD camps are battling for your high-def disc dollar — is it time to choose sides?
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006

You buy yourself a big, beautiful high-definition TV, sign up for high-definition programming from your friendly cable or satellite TV provider, maybe connect an antenna to grab the free broadcast high-def versions of network TV shows, and hook up your trusty DVD player. And what do you get?

The HD programs over cable or satellite look gorgeous. Just spend a few minutes watching the opening credits for HBO's "Deadwood" series, or gaze entranced at some nasty, twitchy flesh-eating bugs captured in exquisite detail on "Discovery HD Theater" and you realize the enormous visual difference between regular TV and HDTV.

And with an adequate over-the-air antenna, the free broadcast HD programs look just as wonderful. Switch on an NFL game and you can practically count the blades of grass or the strands on the cheerleaders' pom-poms. Superb high-def production can even tip the scales—at our house at least—in favor of a borderline TV show like "CSI: Miami." Sure, we have to suffer through David Caruso chewing on his lines like stale beef jerky, but can you believe how sensational that South Beach sunset looks?

Finally, you pop a favorite movie into that DVD player and… well, it looks good. And since the wide-screen HDTV set is closer to movie format than a traditional square-ish TV picture tube, you get to see more movie and less of the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. But at the same time, you can't help noticing that a broadcast episode of "Dancing with the Stars" looks cleaner and sharper than your prized DVD boxed set of the Star Wars trilogy. Clearly there is a great disturbance in the Force.

The reason is simple. DVDs were created to make the most of TVs built to the hallowed NTSC (U.S.), PAL (Europe) or SECAM (Asia) broadcast standards. The NTSC standard, established back in 1953, calls for a picture made up of 525 horizontal lines (484 of which are actually visible on the screen). High-definition sets, though, adhere to a much more demanding standard, called ATSC. The high-def picture consists of either 720 or 1,080 lines and, in addition to bumping up the horizontal resolution, also provides a much wider display. Do the math and you find that a standard TV picture is made up of about 300,000 dots, where an HD picture, at the highest resolution, consists of over two million dots. With nearly seven times as many colored points painting the picture, it's no surprise that high-def programs leave DVDs in the dust.

Which brings us to the good news, bad news section of our program. The good news? They've figured out a way to squeeze all the richness of high-definition movies onto discs that look identical to standard DVDs.

The bad news? There are two separate, incompatible formats for these new high-definition discs, one called Blu-ray, the other HD DVD. Buy a Blu-ray player and slip in an HD DVD format disc—it's not going to play, and vice versa. What we have here, my friends, is a format war, an ugly little ritual wherein a sector of the consumer electronics industry creates wonderful new products with lots of consumer appeal, then gums up the works—potentially for years to come—by battling over compatability standards. The Blu-ray side is captained by Sony, lead developer of the format, with eight consumer electronics allies (including LG, Mitsubishi, Pioneer, Samsung and Sharp), along with Apple and Dell on the computer side. The forces of HD DVD are led by Toshiba, with LG (which would like to create a unit that would play both formats), Thomson/RCA and Microsoft in the ranks.

Why can't we all just get along? It's partly a matter of money (royalty fees for producing discs will be substantial), but when you consider how significantly this disagreement is likely to delay public adoption of the new technology, you can't help detecting a whiff of corporate testosterone in the air. Toshiba fired off the first volley in the U.S. retail conflict in April with the release of two HD DVD models. Samsung unleashed the first Blu-ray barrage two months later.

Some of my fellow scribes have likened this format war to the great VHS/Betamax debacle of the early '80s. Sony and JVC came up with incompatible videotape formats, built alliances with other manufacturers and squared off on the retail battlefield in a bloody fray that left consumers confused and disgruntled. I suspect, though, that the rumble between Blu-ray and HD DVD may be closer to a more recent conflict: the DVD-Audio/SACD music format war, which is still raging...kind of, sort of.

You see, when home videotape was introduced in the late 1970s, nothing like it was on the market. You couldn't rent a movie or time-shift a TV program. We all had TVs, we all saw the radical promise of a home videotape recorder. Despite differing formats, the VCR you bought let you make your own recordings (this was long before Blockbuster became a movie rental blockbuster). As long as you could buy blank tapes in your format, the VHS/Beta incompatibility didn't matter much.

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