After much bluster and several false starts, high-definition DVD products for home and PC have arrived--but in two incompatible formats, Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD. That means buyers will have to carefully weigh their options as we wait to see which--if either--technology will inherit DVD's crown.
For the companies involved in developing the technologies, the stakes are high: In play is a lucrative pool of licensing fees, not to mention bragging rights for dominating the living room. Proponents in each camp are quick to point out the advantages of their format over the other, but in reality, the specs are more alike than not. (See our chart for a rundown of the differences between HD DVD and Blu-ray, as well as a list of released and upcoming products for each format.)
The most significant difference between the two is the number of high-definition Hollywood movies that should become available for each format. Blu-ray Disc has the support of six major studios--all of the majors except for Universal, which is one of three studios backing HD DVD (the other two, Paramount and Warner Brothers, are supporting both formats).
For now, early adopters have a clear choice--which format you pick depends on what you want to do with the device. The HD DVD camp's initial living-room players and read-only drives are solely for playing HD DVD movies. The first Blu-ray Disc products are PC-centric data recorders, though they'll also play Blu-ray Disc movies due out in June. We tested the first shipping products from each side, and found that they lived up to the hype.
The trickle of devices will turn into a landslide later this year. Blu-ray especially has an impressive array of announced offerings on the way--but the prices are almost twice that of comparable HD DVD devices. The first Blu-ray video players should cost $1000 and up; you can score Toshiba's HD DVD player, the HD-A1, for $500.
Also on the horizon: Microsoft will offer an external HD DVD drive for its Xbox 360 console, while Sony's highly anticipated PlayStation 3 will incorporate a Blu-ray drive.