by Wayne A. Thorp
The first VCR my family had growing up was a Betamax machine. I guess my Mom was one of the early adopters of this new technology and, after several years, had dozens of Beta tapes. Despite initially having superior video and audio quality, Beta couldnt match VHS storage capacitythe first Beta tapes could only hold one hour of video, while the first VHS tapes could hold two hours. In the end, Beta lost out to VHS in the last great format war.
Fast forward 30 years and the dogs of war are again baying on the horizon. HD DVD and Blu-ray are new high-definition technologies battling to become the consumer high-definition digital video standard. The monetary stakes are incalculable for the winner, while the loser will be relegated to a footnote in technology history. Both formats have big-name supportHD DVD is backed by Toshiba, RCA, Sanyo, Intel, and Microsoft while Blu-ray has the support of Sony, Panasonic, Dell, and Apple.
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Both HD DVD and Blu-ray promise superior audio and video compared to todays DVDs (assuming you have a high-definition television). The other advantage these formats offer is greater storage capacity. HD DVDs can store the equivalent of more than 21 standard CDs or more than three standard DVDs. Blu-ray discs can store even more, with the capacity equivalent to that of over 35 CDs or more than five standard DVDs.
So what does all this mean for consumers? Unfortunately, it probably means some confusion and uncertainty until one format is made the high-definition standard for DVDs. Toshiba was first into the marketplace with its HD DVD player and hopes to launch an HD recorder in Japan this July. Samsung began selling the first Blu-ray player in the U.S. at the end of June.
For those on the cutting edge of technology wishing to take the plunge into high-definition DVD, be prepared to pay a premium for being one of the first adopters. Samsungs BD-P1000 HD DVD player retails for $999 while new standard DVD players can be found for under $100. Toshibas HD-XA1 HD DVD player costs $799.
Some industry experts believe that it could be the PC market that ultimately decides which format will survive. However, this landscape is just as muddled as it is for consumer DVD players. Sony, with its vested interest in Blu-ray has already started shipping Vaio laptops with Blu-ray drives. Dell, the worlds largest PC maker, has voiced its support for Blu-ray as well. However, Hewlett-Packard, the number two PC maker, has said it will support both formats. Microsoft promises native support for HD DVD drives in Vista Windows update, which it expects to start shipping at the beginning of next year.
HD DVD does have a head-start on Blu-ray, with a greater supply of drives and a larger number of movie titles. Only time will tell whether Blu-ray can survive this late arrival. One thing going for it is HD DVDs sluggish beginning: There are currently less than 30 major-studio titles available for HD DVD players, and Toshibas first-generation player has not received an overly warm reception.
Unless you are hell-bent on viewing next-generation DVDs on your high-definition television, you are better off waiting for the dust to settle. The stacks of Betamax video tapes collecting dust in my Moms basement speak volumes about what can happen if you come out on the losing end of such a format battle.