Unbiased Coverage Of All Things HD: HD-DVD, Blu-Ray and Beyond
High Definition Format War - 1 Year and Counting
If you've been wondering where the High-Def Revolution column has been for the past few months, you can blame our absence on an extended visit to Procrastinationville. While we may have been remiss in bringing you the latest news and views from the world of HD DVD and Blu-ray, the High Definition format war itself has been chugging along unabated. Now that we've passed the one-year mark, let's take a look at where things currently stand.
Let's recap the story so far: HD DVD premiered in April of 2006 with a reasonably-priced, well-featured player (the $499 Toshiba HD-A1) and a strong selection of high-quality software titles. Blu-ray then premiered a couple months later in June with an overpriced, under-featured player (the $999 Samsung BD-P1000) and a weak assortment of mediocre to downright poor software. Things weren't looking so good for Blu-ray at that point, but the game had just started and the following months would see Blu-ray start to turn things around. By year-end, software quality had gotten progressively better until the two formats were (and still are) effectively equal. Although subsequent Blu-ray players from Panasonic, Pioneer, and Sony still demanded higher price tags than the HD DVD competition, they at least seemed to offer better quality than the original Samsung. And then, just in time for the holiday shopping season, Sony brought out their big gun, the Playstation 3.
The tremendously hyped game console/Blu-ray player debuted in two versions, a $499 basic unit or a $599 enhanced version with more gaming features. Much publicity was made of the $499 price point finally putting Blu-ray on equal footing (price-wise) with HD DVD, but truth be told this was largely a marketing charade. Sony made it a point that approximately 99% of all consoles to hit store shelves were the more expensive $599 version, with maybe a few thousand of the $499 units sprinkled throughout the country just to be able to say that it existed at all. The company then disingenuously cited the huge sales disparity in favor of the high-end console (what else was supposed to happen, when that's the only one anybody could find?) as proof of consumer preference and quickly discontinued the $499 unit altogether.
In any case, the PS3 sold like gangbusters for a few months as expected, and the Blu-ray PR folks had a field day promoting the ever-widening gap in High Definition hardware sales statistics, with Blu-ray players (consisting almost unanimously of the PS3) achieving something like a 6:1 margin over competing HD DVD players. The PS3, you see, is considered Blu-ray's "Trojan Horse". Primarily a video game console, the PS3 sold millions of units to gaming fans who instantly got a Blu-ray player in the bargain. As the thinking goes, those millions of gamers with Blu-ray players would of course start buying Blu-ray discs to go with it. Millions of people buying millions of discs should equal the end of the format war. Blu-ray instantly wins. Hooray.
There are a couple of problems with this line of reasoning. The first is that it assumes that everyone who buys a PS3 has a High Definition television to connect it to. That is obviously not the case. Just think about all the parents who bought game consoles as Christmas presents for their kids to play in basement rec rooms on old TVs. The next problem is that it assumes that every PS3 owner would even want to watch High Definition movies on it if they could. Unfortunately, the gaming audience is not necessarily a movie-buying audience. There will be some crossover, of course, but it's not going to be a 100% correlation. On the other hand, someone who goes to the trouble of buying a dedicated High Definition disc player (of either format) is guaranteed to want High Definition movie discs to watch on it. The attach rate for Blu-ray discs sold to PS3 owners is vastly smaller than that for owners of standalone players, and HD DVD standalone players still outsell Blu-ray standalone players.
Nevertheless, Blu-ray disc sales did surge after Christmas and into 2007. PS3 owner curiosity played a part, as did the simple fact that the Blu-ray supporting studios released an onslaught of catalog titles in early 2007 while at the same time the HD DVD supporting studios didn't put out much of interest at all (1st Quarter being traditionally a dry season). Eventually, Blu-ray sales did overtake HD DVD both week-to-week and since inception, which the Blu-ray camp has been eager to trumpet as proof of their victory.
So is the format war really over? Not quite. Even by the most generous reading of available sales numbers, the difference between Blu-ray and HD DVD is an insignificant sliver in comparison to the huge gap between both formats and standard DVD. Both High Definition formats together still make up less than 1% of DVD sales. The fact is that neither format is making big money yet, certainly not enough for any studio committed to one or the other to change their strategy in the near future. Big things are planned in the coming months for both sides, and it's still way too early to call this race.
And consider this: HD DVD has its own Trojan Horse, one that it hasn't fully exploited yet - the DVD/HD DVD Combo disc. Now it's true that in these early stages many HD DVD buyers haven't been too fond of the Combo format. The main objection is price. If you're intentionally buying an HD DVD disc, why should you have to pay extra to get an unwanted standard DVD version on the flip side of the disc? That's certainly a valid complaint, and the premium prices that Combo discs fetch over regular HD DVDs are largely unjustified. But the Combo format isn't really meant for HD DVD buyers. It was designed to get HD DVD software into the hands of standard DVD buyers, just as the PS3 was designed to get Blu-ray hardware into the hands of video game buyers.
The DVD/HD DVD Trojan Horse hasn't paid off yet. Their high prices and the availability of cheaper DVD-only versions of the same movies have disinclined average DVD buyers from investing in the discs. However, at some point, when HD DVD manufacturing ramps up sufficiently and economies of scale kick in, there may come a day when a major studio like Universal can cease releasing separate DVD and HD DVD editions of their movies, and instead only release Combo discs. So long as they price the discs attractively enough that the DVD buying audience isn't scared off, suddenly millions of DVD viewers will find themselves with growing HD DVD collections. And if they've already got High Definition televisions, they may start thinking about buying HD DVD players to watch the HD sides of those discs on.
The difference between the PS3 Trojan Horse and the HD DVD Trojan Horse is that DVD buyers are by nature movie fans who are likely to have an interest in getting the best possible quality from the movies they buy. On the other hand, gamers may or may not care at all about buying movies, much less High Definition movies. One strategy is targeting a receptive audience, and the other is blindly shooting at a completely different audience and hoping for crossover success. Which one, if either, will actually pay off? That remains to be seen.
Whether we like it or not, the High Definition format war is nowhere near decided. No matter what either camp claims, it's going to be quite a while before true victory is declared. In the meantime, the fierce competition has actually lead to a bonanza of great content for High Definition fans on both sides. If you only own one format, there's little sense pining for specific titles that the other format has gotten when there's surely more than enough on your own format to keep you occupied. And if you're fortunate enough to own both HD DVD and Blu-ray, the world is yours. We here at DVDTalk will continue to support both formats equally. As far as we're concerned, the more High Definition the better, HD DVD or Blu-ray doesn't matter. Just keep bringing on those glorious movies.
- Joshua Zyber
Disc Compatibility Problems
Adult Titles Hit High Definition
(Click on each link to read the full article.)
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player Review
(Click on each link to read the full article.)
Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray Player Review
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