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Blu-ray Wins High-Definition Disc Format Battle

After less than two years of head-to-head competition in the marketplace, HD DVD developer Toshiba has resigned the side, choosing to drop further development of their format. The Sony-backed Blu-ray high-definition (HD) disc specification has won. This must be an especially sweet victory for Sony, which lost decades ago in the VHS versus Betamax battle, despite some superior technical characteristics of Betamax.

The two HD formats both provided a digital-rights-managed (DRM) approach for playing movies and other video from a high capacity disc to an HD television set at substantially higher resolutions than was possible from an ordinary DVD. Both formats support resolutions up to 1080p, which is 1920 by 1080 pixels, and most movies released are in this format. (Not all HDTV sets display 1080p; some display 1080i, in which lines of pixels are painted in alternating passes; and many show 720p, typically 1280 by 720 pixels.)

Both Blu-ray and HD DVD employ lasers that use blue light for reading and writing. Blue has a shorter wavelength than the red and infrared used in standard CDs and DVDs, and a blue-light laser can read and write information at a much higher density. Blu-ray has some storage and throughput advantages over HD DVD, but I never saw any side-by-side testing that indicated Blu-ray was better in other ways.

While both formats were introduced in prototype form in 2002, players didn’t reach the market until 2006, with HD DVD appearing first. The HD players became associated with gaming systems: Sony included a Blu-ray player in every Playstation 3 they shipped; Microsoft offered an inexpensive HD DVD upgrade kit for its Xbox 360. Apple never signaled its interest in the higher-capacity formats, except for HD DVD burning support in DVD Studio Pro; the company sometimes moves slowly with regard to optical disc formats. After betting on the never-popular DVD-RAM technology for writing DVDs, Macs were late to market with CD burners. With the format war over, it’s possible Apple will now make its move with a built-to-order option on Mac Pros;
Blu-ray drives so far have been seen as too expensive, bulky, and power-intensive to be an option for most laptops.

Warner Brothers, in early 2007, showed a prototype HD DVD/Blu-ray hybrid disc that could have made the studios agnostic as to format, and LG, an electronics firm, introduced several models of Blu-ray/HD DVD players – that cost more than separately purchasing a PlayStation and an HD DVD player. But these hybrid and dual-format efforts were for naught because Sony and partners shipped enormously more Blu-ray players than the HD DVD alliance, and Blu-ray wound up with more studios on board releasing titles than its competitor.

Toshiba and other news sources report that about 1 million HD DVD systems of all kinds were sold worldwide, with roughly 300,000 in the form of Xbox 360 upgrades, and 300,000 as drives used in PCs. But Sony has shipped 10.5 million PlayStation 3 systems worldwide with Blu-ray drives since the gaming system went on the market, according to the BBC and other sources. At least another 1 to 1.5 million Blu-Ray players and drives are estimated to have sold as well.

The real market decision comes from what media consumers purchase – Sony could have sold Blu-ray players until they were, uh, blue in the face, but if consumers didn’t buy movies in Blu-ray format, we’d have seen a different outcome. From the time discs were sold using both formats through November 2007, over 4 million Blu-ray titles were reportedly sold around the globe, and over 2.5 million HD DVD titles. That difference doesn’t seem huge, but the worldwide numbers understate the support for Blu-ray in Europe and Japan, and the upward curve of higher Blu-ray player and disc sales in recent months.

Blu-ray was behind in the count for some time in terms of studio support, but it gradually won over most of the large studios. Universal was firmly in the HD DVD camp, Warner Brothers was developing discs for both formats, and Paramount and DreamWorks said that they’d support only HD DVD instead of both formats back in August 2007. (That last deal reportedly involved large payments to those studios to cover costs and pay for potential loss of revenue.)

Warner Brothers dropped its support of HD DVD in late 2007, which gave Blu-ray five of the seven largest movie studios, and apparently kicked the legs out from under HD DVD. Netflix then said it would support only Blu-ray rentals. And, finally, Best Buy and Walmart announced they would stop selling HD DVD movies and hardware, which nailed the lid on HD DVD’s coffin. Today, on the heels of Toshiba’s announcement, Universal said it would, of course, switch to Blu-ray as well. On 24-Feb-08, Microsoft confirmed it would stop selling HD DVD players for the
Xbox 360.

Each standard had a variety of technical differences in its approach to interactivity (Blu-ray supports Java, HD DVD uses a Microsoft standard), security, and storage density. Blu-ray can store 25 GB on a single-layer disc, and 50 GB on a dual-layer disc; HD DVD offered just 15 GB and 30 GB for single- and dual-layer discs. Blu-ray can also pull audio and video data off a disc at an effective playback rate more than 50 percent higher than HD DVD (48 Mbps for Blu-ray versus 30 Mbps for HD DVD). Both playback rates are far higher than necessary for full 1080p content, however.

Disc burners were available for both formats, but HD DVD is now a dead end, and was never a preferred choice due to its lower capacity. Philips updated a popular model for PC systems with new firmware this month that allows burning double-layer Blu-ray discs at their full 50 GB capacity (minus overhead). Amazon offers this burner for $400. LaCie has a Mac-compatible FireWire/USB 2.0 Blu-ray drive that handles dual-layer 50 GB discs ($740), and includes Toast 7.1.1 Platinum with Blu-ray support; Toast 8 Titanium can be
purchased separately with built-in Blu-ray support, too ($80 with $20 mail-in rebate). Single-layer recordable discs cost about $12 to $15 each; dual-layer recordable discs, about $35. As far as I understand it, Blu-ray discs can’t be mastered with desktop burning software for video and audio playback, only for data storage.

For the average consumer, this may all come as news. The format war affected mostly early adopters, and, as the numbers show, the majority of them opted for Blu-ray.

[Correction: This article was modified after publication to note that some laptops do include Blu-ray drives, even though it’s not a typical option. The article had stated that no laptops had Blu-ray as an option.]

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