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High-Definition Disc Disarray (Cont'd.)

The Blu-Ray versus HD DVD format war -- one of the stupidest storylines to come out of Hollywood lately -- just keeps getting more convoluted, as each side finds a new way to declare that victory is inevitable.

For those of you who have remained mercifully ignorant of this mess, a brief recap: Both of these proposed DVD-replacement formats delivers high-definition video and multiple-channel surround sound, along with more interactive features than the current DVD. Both also incorporate far stricter copying restrictions than DVD, both cost more than DVDs and both feature a microscopically small inventory compared to what's out on DVD. Movie studios and electronics and computer manufacturers have lined up in opposing camps, with most backing only one format. (Here are my reviews of HD DVD and Blu-Ray players from last year.)

The latest development came Monday, when Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Animation SKG announced that they would drop Blu-Ray and make HD DVD their only high-def format (although the works of Steven Spielberg -- perhaps you've heard of him? -- will still be available in both formats).

Why Paramount and DreamWorks waited until now to do this was unclear. The cost advantages they cite for HD DVD have been there since the start, owing to the relative similarity of this format to regular DVDs. Although, a report in yesterday's New York Times says that they were getting a $150 million subsidy from other companies involved in HD DVD for their trouble.

Blu-Ray backers scoffed at the news, saying that sales figures show that Blu-Ray movie titles outsold HD DVD releases by a factor of two to one over the first half of this year.

In the big picture, DVD sales continue to dwarf those of both formats, combined, and most people barely know these two would-be successors exist. The market-research firm Parks Associates recently judged Blu-Ray to have a slight lead, but also concluded that "consumer confusion is still prevalent with less than 10 percent of U.S. consumers stating that they are familiar with the HD DVD or Blu-ray formats."

Here's what I know:

* Blu-Ray discs can store more data, but until I can record TV programs on a Blu-Ray recorder, it's a meaningless attribute to me as a customer. Not a single electronics manufacturer seems to have noticed that people like to record TV shows, not just watch them live since only players have reached U.S. stores, even though recorder models have been available in Japan for years. In the meantime, both formats have enough room to accommodate a movie and plenty of interactive hoo-ha (deleted scenes, director's commentary, making-of features and so on).

* HD DVD's single most appealing feature is its hybrid-disc option, in which a single disc can contain both a DVD and a high-def version of the movie, meaning you don't have to buy one copy of the movie for viewing at home and another to watch on your computer. But it's been half-ignored in practice, with studios either failing to support it at all or reserving it for new releases.

* HD DVD media is supposed to be cheaper to manufacture, but that cost advantage has yet to show up in retail prices.

* Blu-Ray has the more restrictive copying restrictions, but HD DVD's copy controls are nothing to applaud either. Computing experts cringe at what it will take to incorporate them into new computers. (Of course, these digital locks have already been cracked.)

* Blu-Ray is an extraordinarily lame product name (even if it's no "Xohm").

The only safe move continues to be DVD. Get an "upconverting" player and connect it to an HDTV with high-def video cables, and you'll have a risk-free solution with video quality that falls short of what's capable, but which should also be good enough for most people.

If enough customers do this, the entire format war might end in the most fitting manner possible: a nothing-nothing tie, with lots of injuries on both teams.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  August 22, 2007; 10:59 AM ET
Categories:  Video  
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