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Crave Talk: Would the future of hi-def please stand up?

LG's BD199 is dead -- the company's Blu-ray player has morphed into a HD DVD-Blu-ray combi player. Is this the end of the format war or will this only allow it to rage on longer?

Home Entertainment

LG's BD199 Blu-ray player is dead -- an abortive experiment that will make way for a combi player with HD DVD playback as well. This will make LG's unit the world's first 'universal' high-definition disc player, and it will arrive alongside most single-format models if its planned late-summer release is met.

Rejoice, you might think -- the high-definition format war is over before it's even begun. But chances are, a universal player will only allow this sorry situation to carry on even longer. If the short history of consumer electronics has taught us anything, it's that a new technology only becomes popular once a clear standard has been set -- look at the massive success of CD and DVD for proof.

Videotape players only went mass-market once VHS had triumphed over Betamax. A worst-case scenario for HD DVD and Blu-ray would echo the DVD-Audio/SACD situation -- rival high-definition audio formats that no one has ever cared about. The main reason, aside from the fact that you have to walk to the sweaty end of HMV to find DVD-A/SACD discs, is that universal players never allowed one format to kill the other one off. The two high-definition video formats could similarly fight it out for years, allowing Sky HD to be the only winner in the high-definition market.

While companies such as LG can afford to throw millions of pounds into both formats, British manufacturers such as Arcam have told CNET.co.uk that they see no chance of getting involved over the next couple of years. The smaller companies (in other words, any outside of Japan and Korea) do not have the level of resources necessary to fight the war, and will not even consider it until a victor has emerged.

Sony and Toshiba, the main proprietors of Blu-ray and HD DVD respectively, have had hundreds of people working for years on completing the high-definition formats. The resulting documentation is ten times as thick as the original DVD brief, and it would take smaller teams years just to make sure their players are compatible. In the resulting confusion, their worry is that someone like Apple will enter the market and create an online HD movie distribution model that will leave out the AV manufacturers altogether.

It's very hard to say which format is going to win. At CES, we felt Blu-ray still had the edge, but the revisions have pushed back the release date of the PlayStation 3 and given HD DVD a slight boost. There are now rumours that HD DVD will be licensed to low-cost Chinese manufacturers who will be able to produce players much more cheaply than Blu-ray devices. If this happens, cheap-as-chips HD DVD players could flood the supermarket shelves and quickly win the war on price.

Hybrids are only a temporary fix. We need a winner. Keep reading Crave for the latest developments in this two-horse race, including the latest news from CeBIT later this week. -Guy Cocker

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