February 9, 2006

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Techie: War of the machines
Home video gets complicated, again
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Remember Betamax versus VHS?

It’s back, baby. Only smaller, more confusing, and, since it’s in this column, you know it has to be digital.
Betamax and VHS, for anyone who doesn’t know, were two competing standards for videocassettes in the 1970s. Betamax came out first and was widely reported to have better picture quality, but VHS won the format war with longer-playing tapes, a slight price advantage and a more open standard that allowed more than one company to improve the tapes.

Sony was behind Betamax 30 years ago, and now they’re the main company behind another format war. This spring, the PlayStation 3 will ship with built-in support for Blu-Ray, an improved DVD format that will provide High Definition quality. The name comes from the blue laser that’s used to read discs, instead of the red laser in current DVD players. A Blu-Ray disc can hold much, much more information on it than a standard DVD — hence the higher-definition picture.

You may be asking yourself, “If the point of a better DVD is to show HD content, why not name it HD-DVD instead of something lame like Blu-Ray that no one is going to understand and isn’t even spelled right?”

That’s a very good question. The reason is that there was already an HD-DVD format in development. HD-DVD does exactly the same thing as Blu-Ray: provide HD content by using a shorter-wavelength blue laser. It doesn’t pack quite as much data on a disc, but it is a bit cheaper to produce. HD-DVD has the backing of companies like Microsoft, Kenwood and Toshiba, while Blu-Ray has support from Apple, Panasonic and Pioneer, among others. Movie distributors are tentatively backing both standards until one emerges victorious.

So which one will win? As past format wars have shown, it’s not always survival of the fittest. Blu-Ray does offer the promise of 100GB discs in the future, while HD-DVD has demonstrated 45GB discs already. It’ll also gain a huge advantage with the release of the PlayStation 3. Literally millions of people will buy into the Blu-Ray standard without even intending to.

On the other hand, Microsoft’s support means that HD-DVD will see much better integration into future Windows operating systems, particularly in the area of recordable media. And there’s the name — simple, obvious and built on previous successful lingo.

Unlike the Betamax vs. VHS fight, the DVD format war does offer the hopeful possibility of peaceful coexistence. The discs themselves are the same size and shape as DVDs today, and indeed, most Blu-Ray and HD-DVD players will play normal DVDs and even compact discs. Is it too much of a pipe dream to imagine a future DVD player that supports both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD?

I say there’ll be one on the market in September. Who’s with me?

 Comments? Thoughts? Discuss these articles and more at hippoflea.com

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