HD DVD vs. Blu-ray: The Format War Goes Nuclear

Remember when the DVD was introduced? Remember how all the hardware companies and Hollywood studios played nice together, bringing out a steady flow of players and movies? Well, you can forget about that when the HD DVD and Blu-ray high-def disc formats debut over the next few months. There's a war on, and neither side is interested in taking any prisoners, let alone calling a truce.

If people were clamoring for a new videodisc format - the way they were looking for salvation from the inconvenience and lousy quality of VHS tapes when the DVD appeared - there'd be more pressure on companies to get behind a single high-def format. But most of us are happy with DVD, and sales of the HDTVs necessary for seeing the improved picture the new formats provide are just beginning to hit critical mass. So it would seem that HD DVD and Blu-ray can take their time replacing DVD, staging all the skirmishes, sneak attacks, and pitched battles they want.

Or can they? If the new formats don't hook the average Joes and Janes fairly early on, they might face a steep uphill battle against services providing high-def movies on demand. So, why do the two camps feel they can afford the luxury of a very public format war?

The simple answer is that each side claims to have the better technology. And seeing the gobs of money DVD has made for the manufacturers, the studios, and just about everyone else associated with it, each side wants to position its format to grab whatever moolah it can. The stakes are quite huge, so HD DVD and Blu-ray are going to fight for all they can get.

FIRST STRIKE: HD DVD It's all but inevitable that HD DVD will be out before Blu-ray, and that the first players will be Toshiba's $799 HD-XA1 and $499 HD-A1. But the format war is full of surprises, and the big one here is that neither player can handle the super-high-rez 1080p format. (On the other hand, nobody expects to see 1080p HD DVDs early on.)

Toshiba is doing a 40-city retail tour through the end of April to support the launch, offering player demos at stores like ABT, Best Buy, Fry's, P.C. Richard & Son, and Tweeter. Amazon.com and Best Buy are taking pre-orders for the players online, and they expect to start shipping those orders in April.

But the week before Toshiba was ready to start its tour, it set the tech blogs abuzz with a press release that said the first players would need a firmware upgrade to take full advantage of HD DVD's iHD interactivity. A Toshiba spokeswoman tried to defuse the situation by saying that the players could take advantage of all the interactivity currently on discs. She also said that the statement was only meant to convey that the players can be upgraded to include interactive features as they're developed, such as disc-based Internet shopping. But as we went to press, it still wasn't clear what types of interactivity the first players could support.

It also wasn't clear whether the players' HDMI outputs can handle the lossless compression used by the new Dolby and DTS audio formats. The players support these formats, but current HDMI interfaces don't, and it's uncertain how they can be upgraded when the new version of HDMI (1.30) appears.

There were also questions about how many HD DVDs would be available for the launch. Warner, Universal, and Paramount/DreamWorks said earlier in the year that they'd release the first titles on March 28. But Warner, which had committed to a launch of 24 movies, might actually have as few as four ready and not until mid-April. The studio also said it might initially sell discs only at the stores carrying HD DVD players. By late February, Paramount/DreamWorks and Universal were still discussing plans and pricing with their retailers. DVD rental chains such as Netflix have said they'll support both formats but haven't said if they'll have titles available at the launch.

It's also not clear how long Toshiba will be going it alone. Thomson has said it will introduce an RCA player - almost identical to the $499 Toshiba player - in April, while Sanyo and LG have committed only to shipping players later this year. Microsoft will start selling an optional HD DVD drive for the Xbox 360 later this year.

THE NEXT WAVE: BLU-RAY Expect to see Blu-ray players in May. Samsung's $1,000 BD-P1000 will probably be first, followed by the $1,800 Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1. Unlike the Toshiba players, both of these models are supposed to handle 1080p video. LG, Panasonic, Sharp, and Sony have promised 1080p Blu-ray players by summer.

Sony Pictures has said that its Blu-ray titles will sell for 15% to 20% more than DVDs, with new releases going for about $35 and older movies for about $30. Like Warner, Sony will probably make the first releases available only at stores that sell Blu-ray players. Sony plans to have 18 older movies ready for the launch, with recent ones available by summer. Four Blu-ray titles are supposed to be released every month until the end of the year, when the number will jump to 10 titles a month. The other studios in the Blu-ray camp - Disney, Lions Gate, 20th Century Fox, Paramount/DreamWorks, Universal, and Warner - were supposed to announce titles and dates in March. Prices for their releases will probably be similar to Sony's.

One large question mark looms over Blu-ray's front line: while Sony originally said it would have the PlayStation 3, which has a Blu-ray drive, out by spring, it recently announced that PS3 won't arrive in the U.S. until November. But the idea that Sony's latest console would be in 10 million homes within its first year and a half was key to securing the studios' support for Blu-ray.