Why No One Wins in the High-Def Format War

The Consumer Quandary

Meanwhile, consumers remain caught in the middle. Forget the specs battle for a moment. Take away all the minutiae that the average consumer doesn't want to bother with (and, frankly, shouldn't be bothered with). Why buy a Blu-ray player today when you know something better (Profile 1.1) is coming along? The answer is, of course, that you want to see Blu-ray content today, not tomorrow or (more likely) next year or even further into the future.

As more and more high-def TVs enter homes, consumers clearly will want high-def content to play. If all you care about is picture quality, and you want the movies coming out on Blu-ray, you'll want to buy a player this holiday season. But you'll be buying a piece of equipment that will be almost instantly obsolete.

Ultimately, which format you'll buy will depend on the movies you want. You may never have noticed which studio produced (or distributed) your favorite films and TV shows, but given the current state of affairs, now you'll have to. Paramount and Universal are exclusively HD DVD; Disney, Fox, Lionsgate, MGM, and Sony are exclusively Blu-ray. Warner Bros. is format agnostic, and says it plans to continue offering its content in both formats (though the rumor mill is saying that both HD DVD and Blu-ray backers are actively courting Warner to go exclusive to one format).

What Should a Buyer Do?

You could solve the problem by opting for a dual-format player such as the upcoming LG BH200 or the Samsung BD-UP5000. Even though neither model, as it is, supports the Blu-ray Profile 1.1 spec, they both can, at least, play Blu-ray and HD DVD titles. That alone is a boon for consumers faced with choosing between the two formats. But you'll be paying a hefty premium for such convenience: For the price of one of these devices, you could buy a pair of stand-alone players, one in each format. That's a sad commentary on the state of these technologies and this format war, if you ask me.

Many in the industry seem to think that this holiday season will be a decisive moment in the format war, and I have to agree. The format that enjoys more traction in hardware and software sales during this season will be the one that has momentum going into next year and beyond. This year has been the grace period for the two formats to work out the kinks, get their acts together. Analysts have been predicting that 2008 will be the year Blu-ray and HD DVD expand into the mainstream, as prices fall and the production of discs and players increases.

But for 2008 to be a year of growth, consumers will need to feel a modicum of confidence about the format they're buying. Or, they'll need to resign themselves to the possibility that whatever they buy may become obsolete fairly soon--but at least they'll have some immediate gratification.

I recommend skipping this holiday buying season entirely. Neither format feels mature enough for anyone but gamblers willing to risk buying a player and media that might not be around a decade from now: Blu-ray's specs are in transition, and HD DVD just doesn't have wide enough studio support, even with Paramount on board. HD DVD needs at least two more studios to tip the scales fully in its favor.

Blu-ray will be ready for the masses once the next generation of players hits sometime in 2008. But regardless of which format you go with, if you're patient and wait another six to eight months before buying a player, you'll likely be rewarded twofold: first, by saving bucks on your hardware purchase, and second, by having more confidence in whichever format you end up buying.

If I were a betting person--and assuming the status quo, with no other business deals cropping up to sway a studio from its current allegiance--I'd still lean toward Blu-ray as the winner in the long haul, in large part because of the studio support it carries. But the Paramount deal makes that call less clear-cut, and confuses matters for the time being.

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Melissa J. Perenson

PC World (US online)
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