Two Movie Formats, Heading for a High-Def Collision
Eight years after the first HDTVs brought sitcoms and sports events into a clearer focus in our living rooms, there's still no simple, widely available equivalent of the high-def experience for a purchased or rented movie. And this is for lack of trying.
Ever since a digital videotape format called D-VHS launched in 1998 -- just in time for DVD to wipe VHS off the face of the Earth -- and quickly sank into oblivion, it should have been obvious how to solve this problem. People just want a high-definition version of the compact, versatile DVD.
But only now is the industry finally bringing that kind of disc to the market.
And it's doing that twice.
Instead of heeding every painful lesson of the past 30 years -- does VHS versus Betamax ring a bell? -- and putting in the effort to come up with a single standard, the consumer-electronics industry elected to Balkanize itself around two incompatible formats. Each one can boast manufacturers and movie studios that have pledged to support it alone.
The first of these, HD DVD, arrived last month; the second, Blu-Ray, is due to debut next month.
HD DVDs look just like regular DVDs; even their logo hardly differs from the one that's graced movies for the past decade. But they store about three times as much data as a DVD -- 15 or 30 gigabytes' worth.
That allows an HD DVD to store a high-definition copy of a full-length movie, plus all the extras you'd get on a DVD, such as deleted scenes, alternate endings and commentary about the movie from directors and actors. (And you can browse and select these extras without stopping the movie; press your remote's "menu" button and a list of this bonus content appears at the bottom of the screen.) Some HD DVDs will feature interactive content that you can watch while the movie plays -- for instance, picture-in-picture overlays to show how a stunt was put together.
This format also supports "hybrid" discs that include a second, DVD-compatible side to use in a standard DVD player or computer. Rewriteable versions are due later this year, even though users looking to back up ever-larger hard drives could use that help now.
Only a few HD DVD players are available: two from Toshiba (the $500 HD-A1 and the $800 HD-XA1, which adds a fancier display, a different case design and other minor refinements) and one $500 model from RCA. Only one HD DVD-equipped computer is on sale, Toshiba's $3,000 Qosmio G35-AV650.
The selection of HD DVD movies isn't much broader at this early stage-- a scant, puzzling mix of classics (for example, "GoodFellas" and "Full Metal Jacket"), recent releases ("Cinderella Man" and "Jarhead") and older flops ("Swordfish" and -- why, why, why? --"Doom"). Most have suggested retail prices of $29 to $35.
HD DVD certainly does make movies look good on TV, to judge from the releases I've watched on a loaned HD-XA1 hooked up to a 40-inch Sony LCD. In the HD DVD of "GoodFellas" I could make out little details like the text on a paper on a security guard's desk and the title of a mural on a courtroom wall; on a DVD, those things were obscured or blurred.