Gadget Freak: High-Def Discs Battle for Your Bucks

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High-Def Discs Battle for Your Bucks
Illustration: Barry Blitt
In the market for a Sony Betamax? You can find one on eBay for less than $100. Of course, only serious electronics geeks would want a player that's been obsolete for more than 20 years. But if you're not careful, you could end up owning something much like it, thanks to the raging war between the Blu-ray and HD DVD high-definition disc formats.

By the time you read this, Toshiba plans to ship two HD DVD players: the basic HD-A1 ($499) and the enhanced HD-XA1 ($799), which features a snazzier remote and more output options. Pioneer's competing Blu-ray Elite BDP-HD1 player ($1800) should appear in May, followed soon after by Blu-ray players from Philips, Sony, and others.

Both formats use blue-laser technology to cram more data onto optical discs and to store images that look terrific on a big $10,000 plasma HDTV. (Then again, anything looks great on an HDTV. Even I don't look half bad.) But try to pop a Blu-ray disc into an HD DVD player, or vice versa, and you'll see No Definition because the formats are incompatible. So if you're desperate to watch HD movies on disc, you'll just have to choose. Pick the wrong format, and you could end up with precious little to watch.

Disc Contented

Why choose a Blu-ray device? Capacity and content, says Sandy Benedetto, a director of product management for Pioneer Electronics. Single-layer BD discs will contain 25GB, or 10 gigs more than HD DVD. That's enough to hold a 2-hour movie at full 1920 by 1080 resolution, surround-sound audio in three languages, and more than 100 minutes of other HD content. Blu-ray has more Hollywood studios lined up behind it, which could mean more BD titles in stores by midyear. Gamer bonus: The much-hyped PlayStation 3 will sport a BD player.

Why spring for HD DVD? Interactivity and low cost, says Toshiba spokesperson Mark Knox. Because they lean heavily on existing DVD technology, HD DVD players will be cheaper, and so will the discs. Knox says that interactive elements like Web access and games will be available on all HD discs but not on all BDs (Benedetto respectfully disagrees), and that superior compression will help HD DVD discs store up to 4 hours of high-def content. He says 200 movies will be released in HD DVD this year (at press time, some 85 titles had been announced for each format). Gamer bonus: The Xbox 360 will support external HD DVD drives.

Can't we all just get along?

Apparently not. Jennifer Aniston is likelier to remarry Brad Pitt than Blu-ray and HD DVD are to settle their differences. The smart choice is to wait for a player that handles both formats.

You might not have to wait long, says Don Shulsinger, a VP of business development for Broadcom, which makes a chip set that allows devices to play either type of disc. He expects at least one major vendor to announce a universal player before year's end, although it's unlikely to be available until 2007.

Another good reason to wait: If you buy a blue-laser product now, you won't get support for "managed copy," which will let you make a single digital copy of a movie and play it across your home network. Both sides say that they'll support managed copy, but at press time the spec hadn't been finalized.

Blue-Laser Blues

Of course, early adopters are likely to barge ahead and buy one or the other of the high-def player types, just for bragging rights. But average consumers may end up getting burned. My friend Dave the dentist wouldn't know a composite cable from a composite filling but he's about to drop serious cash on an HD home entertainment system. And he has already decided which format he'll spring for.

"I think Blu-ray will win," he says. "It's got a better name."

It's as good a bet as any. And if he's wrong, well, he can always hang on to it for 20 years and then sell it on eBay.

Contributing Editor Dan Tynan is author of Computer Privacy Annoyances (O'Reilly Media, 2005). You can send e-mail to him at gadgetfreak@pcworld.com.

This story, "Gadget Freak: High-Def Discs Battle for Your Bucks" was originally published by PCWorld.

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