Dispatches from the format war: HD DVD vs. Blu-ray

Crave updates the HD DVD/Blu-ray format war, including recent events from CES 2007 and more.

John Falcone Senior Editorial Director, Shopping
John P. Falcone is the senior director of commerce content at CNET, where he coordinates coverage of the site's buying recommendations alongside the CNET Advice team (where he previously headed the consumer electronics reviews section). He's been a CNET editor since 2003.
Expertise Over 20 years experience in electronics and gadget reviews and analysis, and consumer shopping advice Credentials
  • Self-taught tinkerer, informal IT and gadget consultant to friends and family (with several self-built gaming PCs under his belt)
John Falcone
5 min read
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Developments in the Blu-ray/HD DVD format war kicked into high gear in the past couple of months. November and December saw the bulk of the long-delayed HD product lines finally hitting store shelves: Blu-ray players from Sony, Panasonic, and Philips; the PlayStation 3; the Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on; and the second-generation Toshiba HD DVD players. In the new year, both camps came out swinging at CES 2007. With so much news to process, we've taken the opportunity to collect all the major developments into one easily digestible chunk.

Enter the combo player: LG officially unveiled the BH100, the first device to play both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs. Despite the caveats--it's $1,200, and the HD DVD functionality lacks that format's HDi interactivity features--this breakthrough player is the first model that's essentially future-proof. High-definition cinephiles will be able to buy movies on either format without fear of backing the wrong horse. The best news? The BH100 is already on store shelves.

...and the combo discs: LG offered hardware détente, while Warner took the software angle. Warner's new Total HD format (THD) puts an HD DVD and a Blu-ray version of the same movie on a single disc, which Warner pledges will sell for the same price as its single-format counterpart. Like the LG, it's a great hedge against the uncertain HD future.

51GB triple-layer HD DVD disc: Size matters, and Blu-ray has long been trumpeting its 50GB dual-layer disc capacity over HD DVD's 30GB. The underdog struck back with news of a 51GB triple-layer prototype. That puts HD DVDs ahead by a nose--at least until Blu-ray's rumored quad-layer 100GB discs hit the streets.

New HD DVD players: To date, only Toshiba's been producing set-top HD DVD players, albeit sometimes relabeled under the RCA brand. Toshiba expanded its second-generation lineup by one--adding the HD-A20, a $600 player that offers 1080p output)--but the company will finally be getting some company. Chinese manufacturers Shinco, Alco, and Lite-On are set to offer more affordable players later in the year, and the more familiar Onkyo and luxury Meridian lines will also be joining the camp.

New Blu-ray players: Samsung announced that its second-generation Blu-ray player, the BD-P1200, will sport cutting-edge HDMI 1.3 output despite costing $800 when it debuts in March; that's a 20 percent discount from the first-generation BD-P1000, which hit stores just a few months ago. Sharp also pledged to release its first Blu-ray player in 2007, while Panasonic, Pioneer, and Philips continued to highlight their recently released first-generation models. Sony, meanwhile, showed off two "Sapphire" Blu-ray prototypes, follow-ups to its brand-new BDP-S1. Of course, the PlayStation 3 remains the most affordable Blu-ray player on the market, with none of the players announced at CES 2007 beating the $500 and $600 price points of the two PS3 models.

Sales figures--who's winning? Both HD DVD and Blu-ray are fledgling formats, but that doesn't stop each camp from bragging that they've already left the other in the dust. While the numbers should be taken with a huge grain of salt, it appears that the two game consoles seem to be leading the charge for HD movies: Microsoft is said to have sold about 100,000 Xbox 360 HD DVD peripherals. Meanwhile, almost 700,000 U.S. consumers have picked up Sony's Blu-ray-capable PlayStation 3. HD DVDs total install base stands at just 175,000 (including, presumably, those Xbox 360 drives), though the camp has pledged to ship 2.5 million players by the end of the year (1.8 million of them from Toshiba).

It's all about the content: Hardware's all fine and good, but these formats will live and die based on the available content. To that end, Team Blu-ray looks to be ramping up in 2007 after a slow start. Disney, Fox, and Sony Pictures announced a slew of titles that won't be available on HD DVD, while Paramount and Warner will be releasing HD versions of fan favorites--including Blade Runner and the Matrix and Harry Potter films--in both formats. Universal remains the lone major studio that's exclusively publishing on HD DVD. It's little surprise, then, that the total number of Blu-ray titles (currently around 150) will soon begin to surpass the available HD DVD catalog. In other words, the burden is on HD DVD to continue to offer compelling content in light of the forthcoming deluge of Blu-ray movies.

The porn factor: There was a lot of ink on the fact that the adult industry has chosen HD DVD over Blu-ray. It turns out that Blu-ray isn't totally giving porn the cold shoulder, but the industry does appear to be backing the easier-to-produce HD DVD format instead. As Bill Hunt points out at The Digital Bits, the analogy with VHS and Beta isn't likely to hold up here (the appearance of adult movies on VHS was said to be a key factor in that format's eventual victory over porn-free Beta): With digitized smut readily available online, the adult industry's apparent preference for HD DVD isn't the slam dunk that some are painting it to be.

Cracked security: HD DVD and Blu-ray were both supposed to include military-grade encryption that would keep the HD content safe from pirates. Apparently, however, it's taken hackers less than a year to crack open the AACS protection found on both formats, resulting in HD copies of Serenity appearing on BitTorrent within days. Now come rumors that Blu-ray--despite having an extra level of copy-protection--is ripe for the plundering as well. If true, it could mean that both formats could amp up their guard, activating heretofore dormant security measures such as the image constraint token (lower resolution via component video).

A plague on both their houses? Perhaps the biggest issue still facing HD DVD and Blu-ray is the fact that neither could win. After years of false promises, so-called digital delivery is finally becoming a reality. Industry heavy hitters Microsoft (Xbox 360 Video Marketplace) and Apple (iTunes Store) are already offering movies and TV shows in DVD and true HD quality, and the online options will only multiply as broadband bandwidth continues to expand. While they face a variety of their own challenges and shortfalls (restrictive digital rights management, rental versus "ownership" pricing models), such services seem to be the wave of the future, especially with devices like the Xbox 360 and the forthcoming Apple TV making it easy to watch the content on the big screen instead of a computer.

And that, in a nutshell, is the status of the Great HD Format War--just 17 days into 2007.