FAQ: HD DVD vs. Blu-ray

Microsoft and Intel want one format for new DVDs, Dell and HP want another. But why, and who, if anyone, is likely to win?

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
Microsoft and Intel last week tried to swing the computing, consumer electronics and entertainment industry toward HD DVD in a format war to establish a higher-capacity successor to today's DVD.

It didn't work.

Dell and Hewlett-Packard, the top two business partners of Intel and Microsoft, instead loudly reaffirmed their support for the other side, Blu-ray Disc. The latest volleys illustrate the continuing difficulties of trying to establish a single standard that can be used for videos, video games, software distribution and backup data.

Did HD DVD win the battle now that Microsoft and Intel voted in its favor?
No. Blu-ray has a formidable list of allies, and instead of lining up behind HD DVD, they offered a swift rebuttal. "I think things are more cloudy now for HD DVD than they were five days before," said Envisioneering analyst Richard Doherty. "I think this is probably going to cause some reflection at Microsoft."

Who's on each side?
Toshiba leads the HD DVD consortium, which also includes consumer electronics manufacturers Sanyo and NEC. Entertainment companies on board are HBO, New Line Cinema, Paramount Home Entertainment, Universal Studios Home Entertainment and Warner Home Video.

Blu-ray's consumer electronics list is longer, with Sony, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Pioneer and LG Electronics. PC makers that support it are Dell, HP and Apple Computer. Also on board are video game maker Electronic Arts and entertainment companies Twentieth Century Fox, Vivendi Universal and Walt Disney.

What are HD DVD and Blu-Ray Disc?
Today's conventional DVDs can hold 4.7GB of information, but many want a higher-capacity successor to accommodate the larger data demands of high-definition video. HD DVD and Blu-ray both use blue lasers to read and write data; because blue has a shorter wavelength than the red used in DVD and CD lasers, information can be packed more densely on a disc and a single disc can hold more. Both HD DVD and Blu-ray drives are able to read current-generation DVDs.

It's no surprise why manufacturers want part of the industry. DVD player shipments, including next-generation models, will diminish from 113 million this year to 78 million in 2009, offset by a DVD recorder increase from 17 million this year to 74 million in 2009, said iSupply analyst Chris Crotty.

What are the differences between Blu-ray and HD DVD?
Each next-generation DVD format comes in single-layer and dual-layer formats. For HD DVD, that means capacities of 15GB and 30GB; for Blu-ray, it's 25GB and 50GB. Toshiba earlier expected HD DVD to arrive this year, but now the company plans to launch products worldwide in the first quarter of 2006. That's about the same time as the spring launch of Blu-ray, eliminating the early debut advantage. Blu-ray uses Sun Microsystems' Java software for built-in interactive features, whereas HD DVD uses a technology called iHD that Microsoft and Toshiba have worked on.

Why did Microsoft and Intel side with HD DVD?
The companies cited several reasons for their decision. They said the 50GB version of Blu-ray was "nowhere in sight," giving the 30GB HD DVD the capacity advantage for the time being. They also said HD DVD guarantees a feature they want, "managed copy," which lets a computer user copy a movie to a computer hard drive so it can be beamed around the house. The iHD software offers "greater interactivity," for example, letting a small screen with a movie director be overlaid onto the main video screen. HD DVD manufacturing is easier than for Blu-ray's BD-ROM, and its "hybrid disk" feature will mean an owner of today's DVD player will be able to buy a dual-format disk that can be played in tomorrow's HD DVD player.

What was Blu-ray's response?
In short, hogwash. They say the 50GB discs will arrive with no trouble in the spring, that HD DVD has no advantage in the managed copy area, and it has a hybrid disk technology as well. Neither side is winning the debate: "There are so many charges from both sides that it's very difficult to discern reality from propaganda," Crotty said.

What problems does the split cause?
Plenty. Consumers must gamble that investments in disc players and video collections are in a format that will prevail. And they'll be more cautious embracing digital entertainment technology: "You have to allow consumers to build their digital home over a very long time--a decade. You can't have this fiddle-faddle with standards," said Endpoint Technology Associates analyst Roger Kay.

Studios and video rental stores must either maintain duplicate inventory for the two formats or worry that one format might not have all the content consumers want. Electronics retailers have to explain the different standards. And the industry overall is faced with a more sluggish arrival of the next-generation technology at the same time other alternatives develop--including content that's downloaded directly or that's recorded onto hard drives built into set-top boxes and personal video records, Crotty said.

Can the two sides get together?
It's conceivable. Doherty observes that it took 18 months of struggle before two disputing factions--Super Disc and Multimedia CD--managed to compromise on a unified standard that became DVD, and the standard was the better for it. But at this late date, few see cooperation as likely. It's quite possible there could be no single victor, as happened with the rewritable disc standards DVD-RW and DVD+RW, both of which are used in the market. In that case, it's likely drive and player makers will build dual-format drives, a move Samsung has said it will make if no unification occurs.