No Quick Resolution

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Don't throw out the DVD collection yet.

There's a lot of talk about high-definition technology rendering everything else obsolete. But it will be a while before high-definition edges out the standard DVD.

All things television are moving toward high-definition. That means there are new TV sets, new special channels and new video players promising crisper pictures.

Warner Bros. Entertainment recently announced that it will release movies only in the Blu-ray high-definition video format, instead of the competing format HD DVD. That helped simplify the world of high-definition video for consumers on one front, but there's still plenty for couch potatoes to be confused about.

The digital television transition is a separate matter. Next year, analog TV signals will cease, but a simple, inexpensive device will allow old television sets to continue to receive digital over-the-air signals.

Sales of high-definition TV sets, which show programming from high-definition video players and television channels, are still climbing. Sales of high-definition TV sets using liquid-crystal display technology were up 40 percent during the recent holiday season, according to research firm NPD.

But the standard DVD can't deliver a picture that takes full advantage of some of those sets. So, since 2006, competing technologies Blu-ray and HD DVD have battled to give consumers the best picture possible on those high-end sets.

The competition is very much like the 1980s rivalry between Betamax and VHS video tapes, which VHS won.

Warner Bros. appears to have tipped the balance toward Blu-ray with its announcement, made on the eve of the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week. Sony Pictures, Buena Vista, Twentieth Century Fox and MGM had already sided with Blu-ray, while Paramount chose HD DVD.

It's not clear whether the future is in silver discs like the DVD, or in digital downloads. It's already possible to rent or buy high-resolution downloads from services such as the online marketplace attached to Microsoft's Xbox 360 game console.

When it was introduced, the DVD was seen as an unquestionable upgrade for consumers over videotapes. But the next-generation DVD replacements haven't enjoyed the same status.

Evidence suggests that consumers haven't taken much notice of the upgraded DVD formats. Last year, 2.4 billion standard DVDs were sold, compared with 14.2 million Blu-ray and HD DVD discs combined, according to British research firm Screen Digest.

Blu-ray proponents hope that special features such as directors' commentaries and games superior to those on standard DVDs will attract consumers. Downloadable video generally does not include such features.

Whatever happens, the regular DVD format probably will be around for a while. The DVD debuted in 1997, and it wasn't until 2002 that Circuit City announced a plan to stop selling videotapes. Other electronics stores supported the VHS tape format a bit longer.

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