HD format war over?

June 26, 2006

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Slashdot is running a story about an Audioholics article that claims that the format war between HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc has already been decided. The winner? Neither, claims the article. The thrust of their argument is that consumers just don’t care enough about the marginal increase in quality over standard DVD to buy into either format. While it is true that HD formats offer comparatively less than did DVD over VHS back in 1997, I think it’s still too early to reach a conclusion about their fate in the marketplace.

Sure, the quality offered by the new formats might not be all that earthshattering at the moment–enthusiast websites like The Digital Bits have admitted as much in their recent coverage of both format launches–but there certainly exists the potential for great improvement as video compression techniques develop further and producers find new and innovative ways to leverage the massive storage available on the disc media. The hardware and software issues that are plaguing early players for both formats will also become increasingly less prevalent as technology develops and the players become commoditized, hopefully to a point where they are no more troublesome than those afflicting standard DVD players today.

Sony’s upcoming PlayStation 3 gaming console–or “home entertainment center” if you believe the hype–may assure a future for at least one of the formats given its inclusion of a Blu-ray disc drive as standard equipment. Of course, Sony’s fortunes have taken a tumble lately on the announcement of the PS3’s pricing scheme–either $499 or $599 depending on options–so it is unclear whether or not the PS3 will enjoy the overwhelming popularity of its predecessor, the PS2. One thing is certain, though: HD is coming. With HDTVs replacing SDTVs at an ever-faster rate and television following suit, it is only a matter of time before HD becomes the expected standard for all home media. It just might take a little longer than the Sony and Toshiba planned.

As a college student, an investment in HD is impractical at the moment for me, but were circumstances different I would certainly be interested in trying it out even despite the potentially underwhelming improvement over what my current DVDs can offer; of course, I’m also a fan of DVD-A, a format that few consumers have even heard of, and in many ways am the antithesis of the “average” consumer: willing to pay arguably exorbitant amounts for the highest quality content available, even if it means jumping through a few hoops to get there.

Services like iTunes hold little appeal for me since quality of the downloads is far below that of a CD–and because of the DRM, but that’s a whole other issue–but the popularity of such services indicates that consumers perhaps care more about quantity than quality at this juncture (a rather sorry state of affairs, if you ask me). Consequently, advances in broadband technologies available for residential customers could enable a direct-download service for HD content to succeed if providers can find a balance between quality, file size, and cost that is amenable to consumer tastes.

Of course, my interest–however theoretical– in the launch of HD DVD and Blu-ray is tempered by the rather sorry state of the current format offerings, with players selling for upwards of $500 and $1000, respectively, and launch titles like The Fifth Element and Phantom of the Opera (groan!) providing little incentive to invest in either at the present time. Still, it’s difficult for me to sit back and watch as progress, however incremental, passes by. HD DVD and Blu-ray are attempting to bring us the future now, and I can only hope that wisdom will guide them safely through the treacherous landscape of consumer desires and expectations, avoiding the pitfalls that doomed SACD and DVD-A to the never-neverland of the niche market.

–D. S. W.

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One Response to “HD format war over?”

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