Sizing Up Blu-ray and HD DVD

Movies on HD DVD, left, and Blu-ray. (By Priya Phadke -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Kolakowski
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 12, 2007

Way back in the technological dark ages (that'd be the '80s), VHS and Betamax competed to become the format of choice for people watching movies at home. The former eventually won that battle, while everyone who had bought a Betamax player became the proud owner of a very expensive paperweight. Then DVDs came along and replaced tapes altogether.

Now, couch potatoes everywhere face another choice in format: HD DVD or Blu-ray. Both offer discs and players with far superior picture and sound quality. But the companies supporting each (Toshiba, Intel and Microsoft for HD DVD; Sony, Samsung and Pioneer for Blu-ray) show no intention of making their baby compatible with the rival format -- meaning that, yes, one will most likely follow Betamax into the netherworld of eBay antiques.

Despite some early gains by Blu-ray, no clear winner has presented itself. "It looks like both formats are going to be around for a long time," says Lance Ulanoff, an editor for PC Magazine who has covered the issue. "My advice now: If you can hold out for a better-performing, lower-cost multiformat [HD DVD and Blu-ray] player, do so."

If you're one of those tech-obsessed early adaptors who absolutely must have one system or another, though, double-check that the player will still be able to read your DVDs. And take the time to compare the two formats:

Ultra-Sharp Resolution

Both formats offer the same crystal-clear resolution, so Denzel Washington's smile will shine just as bright on either as he swaggers through "Training Day." But for best results, you'll need a high-definition television. Both support Dolby Digital Plus and those other theater-quality sound options that pleasurably shake your home's foundation.

Higher Tech, Higher Price

When first released, Blu-ray players cost $1,000 and more, while HD DVD players were a cheaper buy at $500-plus. The prices of both systems have since fallen (Sony's BDP-S300 Blu-ray player sells for $500, while a Toshiba HD-A2 HD DVD player has a list price of $300). But the cost of updating the rest of your home theater -- those high-definition televisions again -- can still leave a serious dent in your budget (food for the next six months . . . or high-def TV?). Also, movies cost about $10 more than they do on DVD.

Who Carries What?

Last year, both formats offered only a handful of movies, the majority of which would not make any "Best Films of the Year" lists ("XXX," "S.W.A.T.," "Fantastic Four"). Though hundreds of titles are now available, that still pales before the selection of DVDs. Rental Web sites such as Netflix offer both formats, but Blockbuster recently announced that the majority of its brick-and-mortar stores will carry only Blu-ray.

One word of warning: Though the majority of movie studios support Blu-ray (or both formats), Universal is releasing films only in HD DVD for now.

The Gamer's Alternative

If you're one of the few gaming freaks still on the fence about whether to buy a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, consider this: The PS3 comes with a Blu-ray player (and has shipped more than 5.5 million units, helping the format seriously outpace HD DVD), while the Xbox 360 offers an external HD DVD attachment for about $200.

Both game systems are cheaper than most of the conventional players on the market. And if one format goes obsolete, you can still play Microsoft's Halo 3 (which drops in September) or Sony's Resistance: Fall of Man.

Room for Recording

Blu-ray discs have a storage capacity of 25 to 50 gigabytes, depending on whether the disc is a single or double layer; HD DVDs have 15 to 30 gigabytes. (By comparison, regular DVDs have a capacity of 4.7 to 8.5 GB.) This is no big deal when it comes to watching studio releases (you could fit the first two "Godfather" films on one disc, with enough room left over for lots of bonus features), but as ever-improving technology gives players the ability to record content, disc capacity will become as important as it was for CDs and DVDs.

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