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Blu-ray vs. HD DVD: Who Cares?

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, January 20, 2008

Dane Cook: Just as annoying in Blu-ray. The Fantastic Four: Still terrible in Blu-ray, if not worse.

The high-definition video disc format Blu-ray landed on the map for many consumers a couple of weeks back, when Warner Home Video announced it would cease supporting the rival HD DVD format. Many tech forecasters believe the move effectively ends a format war between two incompatible technologies.

This evolution in technology has some confused: If you want the full "high definition" experience, you need both the right TV set and the right sort of content. The standard DVD player doesn't put out a picture that takes advantage of the high resolution on a new, high-end TV. Blu-ray and HD DVD both offer that higher resolution picture, and both have been fighting to try to inherit the DVD legacy. Download services are quickly starting to offer high-definition content as well.

Ever since the Warner announcement (which followed other studios backing Blu-ray), I've been watching and exploring a small pile of Blu-ray discs -- and having a hard time getting too excited one way or the other about the development.

According to the info tucked in with new Blu-ray movies, the DVD- or CD-sized discs crank out a picture with a resolution that is six times greater than DVD. To put it plainly, though, I've found that I can't really tell the difference between the picture cranked out by a Blu-ray player and the picture delivered by an "upconverting" DVD player designed to make standard DVDs look their best on high-definition sets.

For the record, HD DVD supporters say this format war isn't over. Last week, HD DVD supporter Toshiba responded to Warner's announcement by cutting prices for its players to as low as $150 to draw in new customers.

But the bigger question may be: Does anyone care?

"We may see that the real winner between HD DVD and Blu-ray turns out to be iTunes," quipped analyst Michael Gartenberg to my colleague Rob Pegoraro after the keynote address last week at MacWorld. At the show, Apple's chief executive Steve Jobs announced the company will allow iTunes users to "rent" standard and high-definition movies downloaded from the online store.

Apple isn't the only company that appears to be in the business of making physical media -- the silver disc -- obsolete, of course. Microsoft supported the HD DVD format, but go on its Xbox Live service and it's just as easy to pay a few bucks to download a high-definition video file of the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Netflix, for that matter, has launched its own online streaming video service. The company notified subscribers last week that they now get unlimited access to the service's online library of 6,000 movies as part of their membership.

Blu-ray has a few nice but not mind-blowing features that give it an edge on the standard DVD for serious movie fans.

You can save "bookmarks" to easily skip to your favorite parts of a movie, for example. You also don't have to stop watching a movie to futz around with the settings or access special features; if you decide to explore the disc's extra content while watching a flick, the movie will keep playing in a smaller window on your TV screen. Nifty enough, but have I mentioned that many new movies for this format are priced around $40?

The just-released Blu-ray disc for the Western flick "3:10 to Yuma" contains an overwhelming amount of data for the curious fan. As the movie plays, viewers can read the screenplay, check out storyboard sketches used in the early stages of making the film and watch special programs about the making of the movie on a small window that pops up in the bottom corner of the screen.

It's a great film -- but even so, the features seem a bit like overkill. For anyone with more than a cursory interest, the best place to turn for anecdotes about the movie turned out to be the director's commentary track. Generally speaking, that's the same audio track you also usually get on the standard DVD version of a flick.

This overload of bonus content is a stranger spectacle on mediocre films. Try watching the extra "picture in picture" programming on the disc for the Jet Li and Jason Statham action movie "War," and you'll learn the birth date and life story of every actor who graces the screen.

Seriously. Actress Devon Aoki, for example, was born Aug. 10, 1982, in New York. She's the daughter of Benihana Restaurant founder Rocky Aoki. "It was kind of like a no-brainer" to take the role, she offers.

Whew. I had to hit the eject button half an hour in, but I did learn that the name of film distributor Lionsgate used to be two words, that the movie's credit sequence was done by the same company that did the credits for "The Bourne Ultimatum" and, finally, that the movie was originally titled "Rogue" -- but that name was already taken by a film about a man-eating crocodile.

If nothing else, Sony is starting out the year looking like a winner with the recent turn of events in favor of Blu-ray. The company has had the bad fortune of backing the losing side in a few format wars, dating back most famously to the VHS-versus-Betamax battle.

Sony received a downpour of skepticism and complaints from tech analysts and the video game industry when it included Blu-ray technology in its PlayStation 3 game console, launched in 2006.

At that time, the difficult-to-produce Blu-ray lasers were expensive and were a big reason that the high-end PS3 bore the shocking $600 price tag at its debut. The high price, in turn, has been seen as one reason Sony has brought up the rear among its competitors in the video game arena.

When Sony included a built-in DVD player in its PlayStation 2 at the console's launch in 2000, the added appeal of that game console as a DVD player among consumers was largely seen as one factor that helped the PlayStation 2 soundly win that round of the game-console wars.

Though it might not be quite the same slam-dunk the company enjoyed the last time around, Sony's current game console is likely to benefit from being the one to play the latest movie format. Analyst Michael Pachter says he expects monthly PlayStation 3 sales to pull ahead of monthly Xbox 360 sales this year, partly because of the perception that Blu-ray has won the battle to replace the DVD.

Pachter figures that many high-definition-TV-owning consumers will end up buying Blu-ray whether they can see a difference or not. (In any case, it's also worth noting that many such players will also play standard DVDs, so these folks aren't exactly going to be stuck replacing their entire video library.)

It's something like the tech consumer's version of "The Emperor's New Clothes," he said, or the same phenomenon that has people buying cameras with more and more megapixels even if they can't tell the difference between one camera's picture and the next.

Same with other tech purchases, said Pachter. "My computer at home has a 200-gig hard drive and I've only got about 20 gigs of stuff on it," he said. "Everybody buys a lot more than they need because they don't know what they need."

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