Is HD-DVD the Next Generation For Movies? Maybe, Maybe Not

The HD-DVD Camp has struck the first blow, as Toshiba's HD-A1 HD-DVD player is now available at retail stores. Coming in at a surprisingly affordable $499 for the hardware, this "first of its kind" player is priced cheaper than the initial DVD players of 1997. The ability to own your favorite blockbuster hits in actual high-definition quality is something that early adopters have been looking forward to for longer than most would care to admit. Unfortunately, HD-DVD needs more than just the early adopter if they're going to be successful this time, and it's anyone's guess if they're going to make it.

Why is HD-DVD's success questionable?

Good Price, but Competition Looms

First and foremost, it won't be the only game in town for long. Sony, Dell, and an army of other bigwig electronics companies have their own format, known as Blu-Ray, coming this summer. (Check out the article "HD-DVD and Blu-Ray Not To Merge - War on the Horizon" for more.) While the Blu-Ray folks have some advantages in terms of technology, initial reports are that they're pricing themselves right out of the market from the get-go. The first Blu-Ray players are expected to debut at nearly double the price of HD-DVD. It looks like HD-DVDs approach to not completely redesign the technology wheel is paying off in terms of affordability.

Prices will drop on Blu-Ray hardware as time passes, but their biggest ticket to success comes in the form of a game console. Sony's Playstation 3 will be equipped with a Blu-Ray drive, and though a price for the system hasn't yet been announced, anything over $500 would practically hand the console war over to Microsoft AND guarantee Blu-Ray's failure as the next dominant format. Microsoft is expected to release a HD-DVD add-on for the XBOX 360 sometime in the near future. Pricing has not yet been formally announced, but anything reasonable could give HD-DVD the early success it needs to stay on top for the long haul.

Software is double-edged sword, and cannot be used as a determining factor for HD-DVD's success. Each have lined up a good number of studios that will support one or the other, but it's split just about even enough to be considered a tie. Some of the titles you want will be for HD-DVD, others for Blu-Ray.

HD-DVD does have one good advantage when it comes to software...price. Retail prices on HD-DVD movies that are currently available are selling between $18 and $25, higher than regular DVD titles, but not by much. Blu-Ray discs will cost more to manufacture in the beginning, which will be felt at retail with prices expected to start at 29 per movie and go up from there. Surely a plus for HD-DVD, but only if the movie you want is available.

Copy Protection Could Limit Quality

Another problem with HD-DVD (and possibly Blu-Ray) is that there's no guarantee you'd even be able to watch your film in HD quality. Toshiba's HD-A1 player can output 1080i through both HDMI or component connections, but the studio has the option of limiting the component output to just 480p, practically defeating the purpose of buying the disc in HD to begin with.

The vast majority of HDTV owners, especially those that purchased sets prior to late 2004, don't have an HDMI input on their display. Instead, these TVs are equipped with a high-resolution component or DVI input. Giving studios the ability to reduce quality on older connections is a huge slap in the face to early adopters, who coincidentally are the people they hope to sell. How can they expect people to buy into the next generation today when there's no guarantee of improvement unless you've purchased a TV with an HDMI jack? Looking at the back cover of an HD-DVD movie, I found no clear indication whether or not the flag was included, only this brief statement in the fine text near the bottom of the cover, "Levels of video resolution and audio standards stated require audio-visual equipment capability and appropriate digital connectors." That helps.


Perhaps that's the wrong word, as the large problem about HD-DVD is that no real conclusion can be drawn, nor can I recommend that anyone take the plunge into HD-DVD. Some early adopters will rush out and buy one, but my instincts tell me that the majority will take a back seat for now and wait it out. One way or another, Blu-Ray will have a life as a video game format, but whether or not it will amount to anything more than that is still uncertain. Given HD-DVD's affordability and two to three month head start in the market, they couldn't be in a better position. However, you can't underestimate the Sony machine. They have a knack for drawing out format wars, and they haven't thrown in the towel yet.

Sure, many say that both formats will coexist, and hardware will be built to play back both. That time may come, but won't be today. In the end, one format must inevitably fail. Otherwise, the fate of high-definition video will follow in the footsteps as DVD-Audio and SACD. What are they? My point exactly...


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