High-definition sets off disc war

Sunday, October 16th, 2005

TECHNOLOGY: Consumers face new choices

Jim Jamieson

CREDIT: The Associated Press Sony Corp. says its Blu-ray DVD system is the best new technology.

CREDIT: The Associated Press Toshiba Corp. introduces its prototype of HD DVD player discs in Tokyo recently.

Just when you thought the tech world was becoming a safe place to play, here comes a traffic bulletin from the always pot-holed consumer-electronics highway: There’s another video-format war brewing.

Nobody knows yet whether it’ll be as nasty as the VHS/Betamax battle of the early 1980s, but the argument this time around is about which group of technology companies can best store and play high-definition content on home-video players. The stakeholders are the hardware manufacturers, Hollywood movie producers and, of course, consumers.

In one corner, we have Blu-ray Disc developed by Sony and Philips, one that can store up to 50 gigabytes on a double-sided disk.

In the other corner, there’s HD DVD, developed by Toshiba, which is an extension of the current DVD format and holds up to 30 GB.

The former brags it has more room to grow, while the latter claims an easier, more economical transition from current technology.

The driver for this battle is the dawning of the age of high-definition television. The TVs themselves are still in the minority amongst consumers — due to the lack of programming available in this richer, more compelling format. But industry watchers say demand will hit prime time in just a few short years.

Those few early adopters who’ve shelled out the $700-plus for hard-drive-based Personal Video Recorders — which work exclusively with the likes of cable company Shaw Communications and satellite provider Bell ExpressVu — already have the ability to record high-definition TV content and watch it later.

But soon the market will demand a means to watch HD video movies and the ability to record TV content to a disk, just as some of us do now with regular DVD recorders. And, just as DVD drives have migrated to personal computers, we’ll also see HD drives in PCs.

“I saw a demo at a trade show and it was spectacular,” said Doug Argue, general manager of Vancouver high-end electronics store Sound Plus. “Consumers are going to love this.”

The push for greater storage capacity is driven by the fact that a typical two-hour high-definition movie requires about 25 GB — far more than the 4.7 GB that current DVD technology accommodates.

Meanwhile, there has been all sorts of industry pie throwing between the contenders. The latest comes from software giant Microsoft and chipmaker Intel, who earlier this month announced that they were throwing their considerable weight behind the HD DVD camp.

This prompted a strong rebuttal from Blu-ray Disc supporters Dell and Hewlett-Packard, with the computer-makers pointing out what they believed were inaccuracies in some of the assertions made by the tech giants.

So, does all this mean you could end up tossing your recently bought DVD player and guessing which is the right path to high definition technology?

Relax, says Stephen Baker of U.S.-based technology consultancy NPD Techworld.

He says both systems will feature backward compatibility, so there will be no threat to consumers’ DVD movie collections.

“I suspect that 99 per cent of global consumers have no idea about this — nor should they care,” said Baker. “Most people aren’t going to run out and spend $1,000 bucks or more on a next generation DVD player. The early adopters obviously have plenty of money so if they make the wrong choice, who cares? They can always buy the other device.”

No one is yet producing Hollywood movies in HD format, but that industry has also begun to choose sides.

Twentieth Century Fox, Vivendi Universal, and Disney are in the Blu-ray camp, while HD DVD is counting on New Line Cinema, Paramount Home Entertainment, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, and Warner Home Video. This will create an obvious problem for video rental stores, not to mention consumers.

So when will we see the first of these new devices and what will they cost?

A couple of Blu-ray player/recorders were released earlier this year in Japan, selling for about $2,000 US. Canadian retailers expect to carry them in the first half of 2006.

Cedric Tetzel of London Drugs said the company will carry both formats and see how the dust settles. A Future Shop spokeswoman said it is still considering its strategy.

Prices aren’t fixed yet, but retailers expect the first player/recorders to come in at more than $1,000 US. The discs will also be expensive, as were blank DVDs initially, with one retailer expecting a $30 price point. However, one Japanese manufacturer predicted making an HD DVD disc would cost only about 10 per cent more that current DVDs.


HOW THEY WORK — Both Blu-ray and HD DVD formats use blue lasers, instead of the red ones used in current DVD technology, with a shorter wavelength, allowing more storage.

CAPACITY (on a dual-layer disc)

– Blu-ray — 50 GB – HD DVD — 30 GB


– Blu-ray — Sony, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, LG Electronics, Panasonic, Philips Electronics, Samsung Electronics. Sony will put Blu-ray in its PlayStation game platform.

– HD DVD — Toshiba, NEC, Sanyo, and Memory-Tech. Microsoft will support HD DVD in the next version of Windows.

PROS — Blu-ray has the greater storage capacity; HD DVD, being similar to current DVD technology, is easier and cheaper for manufacturers to get up and running.

CONS — Blu-ray involves more expensive hardware and media initially;

HD DVD has lower storage capacity, although Toshiba has announced plans for a triple-layer disc (45 GB).

© The Vancouver Province 2005


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