Spoutin' Off: DVD fight is VHS vs, Beta, Round 2

By Michael Rau

May 1, 2006

Over the course of the past several months, I've received many inquiries regarding my take on the coming availability of high-definition DVDs, and in particular, on the two competing formats.

Being kind-of an old guy, all I could think was: "Wow - Deja vu..."

I say this because I was around during the great VCR wars of the mid-80s. And I made the wrong prediction then.

Silly me - I assumed the that the superior technology would win out, and that turned out not to be the case.

More on that in a minute. Right now, let's talk high-def DVDs.

The two competing formats are called "HD-DVD", whose development is being spearheaded by Toshiba, and "Blu-Ray" (aka: "BD"), which is being developed by a group headed by Sony (there's that deja vu again).

While they both employ the same size 5-inch disc which we're all used to using, the formats are quite different and incompatible (there's actually a third high-def DVD format under development in China, but there's no known plan to introduce it to the U.S. market.)

Both formats have pros and cons. We'll start with HD-DVD since it beat Blu-Ray to market. In fact, since being introduced on April 18th, some stores are reporting that they're having trouble keeping the two new Toshiba players in-stock. That's pretty surprising considering there have been only three movie titles released so far on this format.

Anyway, the pros of HD-DVD are that the technology is somewhat simpler, which has made integration to existing equipment and software easier, which in turn is why this format made it to market first.

One of the selling points to the industry has been that the discs can be duplicated on the same equipment as current dual-layer DVDs, thus theoretically keeping the price of migrating to manufacturing the new product less costly.

The plan by studios supporting this format is to release titles with both sides of the disc used - with a standard DVD version on one side and the HD version on the other. Studios hope that people who plan th by a HD-DVD player will buy the new discs in anticipation of that purchase somewhere down the road.

The downside? Well, beyond the fact that this technology represents no great technological leap, it has an outside limitation in terms of capacity. Single-layer discs will hold around 15 GB of data, with a dual-layer version holding twice that. A triple-layer version is under development, but is a ways off.

This brings us to Blu-Ray.

It would be fair to say that the pros and cons of these two formats are opposites. Where conversion to manufacture HD-DVD discs will be fairly simple and can use existing equipment, duplication of BDs will take all new equipment, and thus, a hefty new capital investment.

BDs have a distinct advantage in terms of capacity. There's also the potential for as many as four layers of data, giving the discs a capacity of around 100 GB.

Blu-Ray players will initially also be more expensive than those which play HD-DVDs (around $1,000 compared to $550). Of course, as with all new techno-gadgets, the price will plummet once supply outweighs demand.

One item which may help Blu-Ray take a major leap is the fact that the already-delayed Sony Playstation 3 system, to be released late this year or early next, will employ a Blu-Ray player for games, and will be usable as a standalone player.

As for support from the major film studios, well - that's a mixed bag. Most have professed support for one or the other (Blu-Ray is ahead in this race), but several are also hedging their bets by, at least initially, saying they'll support both for the time being.

This is where my sense of foreboding really raises it's head.

Back in about 1984, the VHS and Beta VCR formats were duking it for support from the film studios. VHS had the early lead because it was an older, more-established technology.

Beta, on the other hand, used a more advanced recording method and had higher resolution, while also possessing a superior mechanical system in terms of tape transport and playback. Beta, in fact, became the standard for the broadcast industry for the next 15 years.

I was sure Beta would come out ahead - after all, by all accounts it had the superior technology. It was a no-brainer. Thus, my first VCR was a Beta machine.

Within two or three years, there were no longer any commercially released films on Beta - all the video stores had stopped carrying them, and I was left with a virtually worthless piece of equipment.

So if you're asking me which of these two formats will come out ahead, I just might be the wrong guy to ask. But for the record, I'm betting on Blu-ray.

It's that superior technology thing - It snags me every time.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback of view past columns, visit http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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