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The Hi-Def Wars

If you want to watch all your favorite movies in HD, be prepared to buy two different players


By David King

It happens just like it does in the commercials. The colors are vivid, the subjects mesmerizing. I stare at it, unblinking, for minutes, like those fish are in a tank right in front of me, like I just happened to come upon a snake swallowing the eggs of some furry little critter. But I didnít. No, Iíve just walked into my cousinís posh Washington, D.C., apartment and have been seduced by some animal channel playing on her new, wall-hung HDTV. And, as stupid as it is, I know Iím hooked. As unaffordable as HDTVs are, I know I have to have one. God, I hate it when the commercials are right.

I think there was a point during my college years when I didnít watch TV. I think I may have had one of those ďKill Your TVĒ stickers. But thatís all over. Now, I get the shakes if I miss an episode of the Colbert Report, get panic attacks if Iím late for The Sopranos. I cried during the West Wing finale. Curse you, HD.

Iíve been leashed by the consumer- electronics companies, and I havenít even put up a fight. Now I have friends in the know telling me I have to get an HD-DVD player to complement the HDTV. The consumer- electronics companies have lined themselves up another rube.

Frankly, though, I am sick of staring at the Nature Channel while I wait for a good show. I dream of watching my favorite flicks in their fully-rendered glory: Guy Pearce in Memento, crisp as lettuce, so that I can read every tattoo; Christian Bale in American Psycho, reciting Huey Lewis lyrics; Batman defeating a rogueís gallery in hi-def bravado; every curve of Carrie-Anne Moss, Kirsten Dunst, Kate Winslet. . . . But Iím getting ahead of myself here.

As it turns out, if I want to watch Warner Bros.í Batman and Sonyís Spider-Man, I will probably have to buy two different players: the Toshiba-backed HD-DVD or the Sony-backed Blu-Ray Disc.

Who doesnít yearn for the glory days of the Betamax-VHS war? Can anyone wait to spend $500 apiece on two machines, one of which will likely become obsolete?

Judging by early sales, most people can.

Earlier last month, tech-heads had a chance to get their hands on the first HD-DVD players and the first HD-DVD films. On the release date, you could have spent $90 and had the entire HD-DVD collection. As much of a bargain as that may sound like, your collection would have consisted of three movies: The Last Samurai, The Phantom of the Opera and Serenity, and you would probably have spent $30 per DVD. Despite the lack of titles, Toshiba and HD-DVD backers are relying on their early start to beat out Sonyís Blu-Ray.

However, some movie studios are getting cold feet and have decided to wait to see how things play out with the formats before releasing many movies.

Blu-Ray players will be available later this year, and they have the support of a number of consumer-electronics companies and movie studios. They also hold more data, and are touted as being more durable than the competition. Blu-Ray also has the advantage of being the chosen format of the upcoming PlayStation 3. Microsoft, an HD-DVD supporter, was rumored to be releasing its next-generation console, the Xbox 360, with an HD-DVD drive, but that didnít happen. The company has hinted that it will eventually release an add-on HD-DVD player for the system. Sony, however, hopes that having an installed base with its PS3 will give it its killer edge. It is worth noting that during the Betamax-VHS conflict, Betamax was touted as offering better quality and higher definition. That did nothing to stop VHS from emerging as the dominant format.

What may be the most interesting feature of this impending format war is that steps had been taken to make sure something like this would never happen again. It wasnít the Betamax-VHS debacle that brought the consumer-electronics companies to their senses; it was actually during the crisis that led to the formation of the current DVD format that electronics companies realized they needed to find a way to avoid future format conflicts. Sony and Phillips had created the Multimedia Compact Disc, while Toshiba had its Super Density Disc. A deal was finally reached before the formats went to market, and the DVD, as well as the DVD Forum, was born. But for Sony, royalty levels resulting from the deal didnít reach desirable levels, so the company immediately began work on new format technology.

The DVD Forum was supposed to ensure format continuity, but it couldnít solve the current dispute between the backers of HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. Sony has gone around the DVD Forum altogether, and does not label its format DVD.

So which format is most likely to wind up connected to your TV and which will end up in the trash compactor? That may not really be the important question. What if neither format fails? What if there is no resolution and consumers who want to watch movies from all the studios are forced to buy both machines?

During the last technology cycle for video-game companies, three manufacturersóNintendo, Sony and Microsoftósold systems at around $200-$300 apiece, and many video gamers bought more than one console. This time around, Sony and Microsoft are going head to head with systems priced around $500 each, and both companies will probably sell millions of systems and millions of games, games that are priced at up to $70 apiece. If both sides in the movie- format war hold out long enough, consumers may grow accustomed to the situation. Eventually, they may barely remember the time they could watch their movie collections all on one machine. Is the next-wave DVD market big enough to be divided down the middle? Only time will tell.

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