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HD Talk
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.

A Trojan Horse of a Different Color

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

High-Def News

Disc Compatibility Problems
Potentially shooting a hole in the above theory, recent DVD/HD DVD Combo discs from Universal such as Children of Men, The Good Shepherd, and Smokin' Aces have suffered widespread compatibility problems with many HD DVD player models. If you've experienced playback issues, Universal has a disc replacement program in place. Contact [email protected] for details.

Adult Titles Hit High Definition
Always at the forefront of home entertainment innovation, the adult film industry has wasted little time jumping into the High-Def era. DVDTalk's adult movie guru Don Houston has the scoop on the first adult HD DVDs. Read all about them in the Blue Room.

Latest HD DVD Reviews
(Click on each link to read the full article.)

  • Antarctica Dreaming by Adam Tyner. Recommended. - "Antarctica Dreaming makes for a very nice companion piece to the likes of March of the Penguins and Happy Feet as well as standing out as an informative, entertaining, and frequently eye-catching documentary in its own right."

  • Digital Video Essentials - High Definition by Joshua Zyber. Highly Recommended. - "A good calibration disc is the lynchpin of any home theater installation. Every HD DVD owner should have a copy of Digital Video Essentials."

  • Dog Day Afternoon by Daniel Hirshleifer. Highly Recommended. - "Dog Day Afternoon is cinema at its best. There are so many factors that contributed to the excellence of this film that it's almost impossible to list all of them. I felt the VC-1 1.85:1 transfer on this disc to be an excellent representation of the film."

  • Dreamgirls by Joshua Zyber. Recommended. - "The Dreamgirls HD DVD has such outstanding picture and sound quality, as well as a quantity of excellent bonus features, that I would be remiss not to recommend it. Too bad the movie itself couldn't be a little better."

  • The Game by Daniel Hirshleifer. Recommended. - "The movie is so well made that even when you know the twist, you still get drawn into the world Fincher creates. This HD DVD is not perfect, with some video issues and almost no extras."

  • HDScape HD DVD Sampler by Adam Tyner. Skip It. - "This sampler from HDScape may have had more appeal when it was originally announced late last summer for just the cost of shipping. Viewers with a particular interest in some of HDScape's titles should certainly give this sampler a look, but otherwise, I'd suggest putting that seven dollars towards a proper HD DVD instead."

  • The Jerk by Adam Tyner. Recommended. - "The Jerk is one of my all-time favorite comedies, and it's worth picking up on HD DVD if you haven't seen it before, but a fairly bland release dials down the recommendation a notch or two."

  • Payback - Straight Up: The Director's Cut by Joshua Zyber. Recommended. - "A pretty effective and entertaining B-movie with a fun '70s vibe. The HD DVD has good picture and sound, as well as some interesting bonus features."

  • A Scanner Darkly by Daniel Hirshleifer. Highly Recommended. - "The darkest, funniest, most tragic, most surreal, most not sci-fi and most sci-fi film of 2006. The HD DVD looks fantastic and has a strong set of supplements."

  • Smokin' Aces by Adam Tyner. Rent It. - "Smokin' Aces is almost a hell of a mindless popcorn action flick, but it's dragged down by a bloated runtime and clumsy attempts at tossing in something resembling drama and substance. Still recommended as a rental, though, particularly with the spectacular video quality of this HD DVD and the slew of interactive bells and whistles Universal has packed onto it."

Index of All HD DVD Reviews
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player Review

Latest Blu-ray Reviews
(Click on each link to read the full article.)

  • Casino Royale by Joshua Zyber. Highly Recommended. - "Casino Royale manages to brush away most of the cobwebs of stale formula that had bogged down the James Bond franchise in recent years. It's not a perfect movie, but it's a damn good one. This is obviously a very important title for Sony, one with the potential to generate a lot of interest (and sales) for the Blu-ray format. It's clear that they've made a concerted effort to not screw it up. This Blu-ray edition has excellent picture and sound, as well as a couple of interesting supplements."

  • Catch and Release by Matthew Hinkley. Rent It. - "Has a lot of nice witty humor, with an appealing storyline, a good beginning, a good end, and a pretty boring middle. The video transfer is nice and the audio track is good."

  • Closer by Joshua Zyber. Recommended. - "An incisive character study with nuanced performances, sharp dialogue, and insightful dramatic turns. The Blu-ray has nice picture and sound, though no bonus features of worth."

  • G.I. Jane by Todd Douglass, Jr. Rent It. - "The concept of a woman fighting to show her equality among men in the Navy should send a powerful message but when the plot is predictable and takes no risks it kind of dulls the point. This version of the film offers a superior presentation to that of the standard definition DVD but it's not on par with some of the high-end Blu-ray releases."

  • Identity by John Sinnott. Recommended. - "A decent suspense film that tries really hard but ultimately doesn't achieve all that it sets out to do. The 2.40:1 image looks fantastic with little room for criticism."

  • Layer Cake by Joshua Zyber. Recommended. - "A smart, entertaining thriller, and more than just a footnote in a future star's career. This is a nice transfer for the movie with natural, film-like textures."

  • March of the Penguins by Daniel Hirshleifer. Rent It. - "March of the Penguins is unexpectedly boring for an Oscar winning documentary. I would not use this highly uneven 1080p 1.85:1 VC-1 transfer to show off the home theater."

  • Night at the Museum by Mitchell Hattaway. Skip It. - "I don't understand how this movie became such a huge hit. It's ordinary from top to bottom, with nothing to distinguish it from the majority of what passes for family entertainment these days. The 1.85:1 transfer (encoded with MPEG2 @ 19 MBPS on a single layer disc) is more than a little uneven."

  • Secret Window by Matthew Hinkley. Rent It. - "Secret Window is not the best Stephen King story out there. It probably isn't even in the top 5 of Stephen King's plethora of novels. But Koepp and the cast do a good job bringing it to the silver screen. Though it sports a great video transfer, a very nice audio track, and some not-so-great extras, Secret Window makes for a good rental."

  • Volver by Mitchell Hattaway. Highly Recommended. - "Simply put, a beautiful film. As is often the case with an Almodóvar film, the color scheme here is bright, bold, highly saturated, and even a little garish at times. The 2.35:1 transfer does a very good job of capturing this look."

Index of All Blu-ray Reviews
Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray Player Review

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