HD DVD vs. Blu-ray: The Format War Goes Nuclear Page 2

COLLATERAL DAMAGE Just because players and discs are about to appear doesn't mean either side has everything all buttoned up. For instance, there's a lot of concern over what will happen if you make an analog, instead of a digital, connection to a Blu-ray or HD DVD player.

0604_formatwargeneralAll high-def movies will have digital encryption to thwart piracy. As long as you use a digital HDMI connection to send the signal from the player to an HDTV or a high-def recorder, the copy protection will work. But if the signal has to be converted to analog to go through a component-video or RGB connection, the encryption gets stripped away. That prospect scares Hollywood, since pirates could use high-def analog signals to make perfect, easy-to-dupe copies.

To address this, the copy protection for both formats lets movie studios "cripple" the analog outputs on HD DVD and Blu-ray players, forcing them to convert signals from a maximum of 1,920 x 1,080 lines of resolution to 960 x 540 lines. While this will give you a picture better than what you get with DVD (720 x 480), it's just one quarter of HDTV's potential resolution. There were rumors that some players would either shut down the analog outputs entirely or automatically downconvert high-def analog signals to 480p (progressive-scan) resolution, but whether the analog output is down-rezzed is up to the individual studios.

This means that the 6 to 7 million early adopters whose HDTVs have only component-video or RGB inputs might not be able to watch full-rez high-def signals from HD DVD or Blu-ray players. Supporters of downconverting argue that many of those sets can't show resolutions higher than 1,280 x 720 lines anyway, but hardware manufacturers are understandably reluctant to tick off some of their best customers. It's still unclear which studios will opt for downconversion, but Warner and Disney are cozy with the idea.

If your HDTV has a first-generation DVI input, you might still have a problem. Since DVI didn't support HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) back then, these early connectors can't handle Blu-ray or HD DVD copy protection. The result could be down-rezzing or, worse, a blank screen.

Then there's the tussle over Mandatory Managed Copy (MMC), which lets you make at least one copy of an HD DVD or Blu-ray disc to send to a server or a portable player. This is important to computer companies like Microsoft and Intel, who want people to be able to store high-def movies on Media Center PCs and then use networks to send them throughout the house. While both formats support MMC, it's still not clear under what conditions you'll be able to make copies, or if the copies will be free.

THE FALLOUT? Format wars can send potential customers scrambling for cover, where they usually wait for the dust to settle before buying. (Didn't anybody learn anything from the whole DVD-Audio/SACD debacle?) But HDTV is the hottest thing going in home entertainment, and the lure of being able to watch favorite movies with high-rez images and pristine sound might be enough to get more than the usual early adopters to choose one format over the other. And Toshiba's aggressive pricing for its first players suggests that each side will use every weapon in its arsenal to lure shoppers to its camp.

Will PS3 strike the decisive blow for Blu-ray? Will the format war rage for years, or will one side concede before the year is out? Will a blitzkrieg from a new technology like high-def video on demand make videodiscs obsolete? All anybody knows right now is that - like Slim Pickens straddling that H-bomb in Dr. Strangelove - it's going to be a hell of a ride.

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