Blu-ray vs. HD DVD: Stay tuned for victor

The Baltimore Sun

For millions of consumers who bought high-definition television sets over the holidays, there has been one major disappointment: DVD movies often look worse than they did on their old TVs.

I call it the "plastic surgery" effect. It's an artifact of converting a movie from a medium designed for the best picture possible on standard TV screens, with 480 horizontal lines of resolution, to HDTV sets, with 720 or 1024 lines. Whatever you call it, the process may actually eliminate some detail, particularly from human faces, making them look like they've had one tuck too many.

Now that consumers are used to the high quality of true HD broadcasts, they're getting tired of subpar movies and asking if it's time to upgrade to the new generation of high-definition DVD players.

The answer is "no."

Certainly not until the industry resolves a stupid war over competing and incompatible high-definition DVD formats - a fight that's playing out like the Betamax versus VHS videotape battle of the 1980s.

For the time being, you can spend a lot less and improve the display of your current movie collection by picking up an inexpensive, standard DVD player that performs a trick called "upconversion." More about that later.

Just so you'll know who's on the current DVD fight card, in one corner is a group led by Sony and Matsushita (parent of Panasonic). It's backing a high-definition DVD standard called Blu-ray. This gang includes all of the major movie studios except Universal, which means they all plan to release DVDs in the Blu-ray format - although not always exclusively.

In the other corner is a group led by Toshiba with the backing of computer industry titans such as Microsoft and Hewlett- Packard, among others. They champion a standard called HD DVD. You'll find lots of movies in HD DVD format, too.

In fact, I predict that most moviemakers with any brains will start releasing titles both ways, as Warner and Paramount are already doing.

Some moviemakers plan to put both versions on the same disk, but it will take a while for that to play out.

In recent weeks, Blu-ray DVD Movie sales have been running ahead of HD DVD, according to industry analysts, but the market is still small and volatile, so I wouldn't read too much into it.

Meanwhile, ignore arguments about the technical merits of Blu-ray versus HD DVD. They both display terrific movies on high-definition TV sets, with greatly improved sound and nifty interactive features. The important question is who wins and who loses. That will be a marketing battle, just like VHS versus Beta.

Now, let's say you have more money than common sense and want to buy a high-def DVD right now. You have only a few choices. From a price standpoint, high-def DVD players are where the first generation of DVD machines was back in the fall of 2000. Figure on spending $500 to $1,200, which is still too expensive for a general public that sees perfectly good standard DVD players stacked in the aisles at Radio Shack for $50 apiece.

A brief survey of the Web shows Blu-ray machines advertised by major retailers for $600 to $1,200, including models from Sony, Samsung, Panasonic and Philips. With sales slow so far, Sony last month announced a new player, due out in the summer, the BDP-300, for only $599. That may force other manufacturers to price their machines even lower.

The cheapest and most enjoyable way to get a Blu-ray DVD player now is to buy a high-end Sony PS3 game console. Blu-ray is part of the $500 package, which analysts credit for the surge in Blu-ray DVD movies after Christmas.

On the HD DVD side, you'll find Toshiba, RCA and other models starting at $500 or less. Their main advantage is that they're cheaper to make than Blu-ray players, and the DVDs themselves are easier to produce.

Once again, you can get a good deal if you want to go the gaming route, this time with the Microsoft Xbox 360. Adding a $200 HD DVD drive to Microsoft's high-end model brings the total to $600 -- not bad for a DVD player and a hot game console.

The biggest news at this winter's Consumer Electronics Show came from LG Electronics, the South Korean giant, which announced a $1,200 high-definition disc player that can handle both formats. It's a full-featured Blu-ray machine that can play HD DVD movies but can't access other HD DVD content. Still, that may be enough for real movie buffs.

You can expect other manufacturers to introduce dual-format machines as time goes by, a development that could prolong the format war for years.

The real question for today's DVD collectors is which format to collect in. Choose the loser and you may find yourself with a big investment in disks whose only available players are in the antique bins on eBay. If you're in doubt, look at the amounts e-Bay customers are bidding these days for Betamax players in good condition.

In fact, it might be a good idea to hold off adding to your DVD collection for now, at least until reasonably priced, dual-format DVD players show up. There's no rational reason to buy new releases immediately - it's pure impulse. They'll still be around in a year or two.

Meanwhile, you can probably squeeze more quality out of your current DVD collection by switching to a standard player that performs "upconversion," a process that gets the most out of the original, analog DVD format on HDTVs. All high definition TV sets perform upconversion internally when they're playing standard movies, but good DVD players may do a better job by upconverting the video stream before it gets to the TV.

Check out the big-box retailers online and you'll find upconverting models from major manufacturers starting at less than $100. This is a selling point, and you'll find it mentioned on the box or the store's shelf label. Just make sure the output from the player you buy matches a digital input that's available on your HDTV.

If you're in doubt about this, find the manual that came with your HDTV and locate the illustration showing the ports on the back of your set. Now look at the back of the set, find the ports that have no cables attached, and circle their counterparts on the drawing.

Take the marked-up illustration to the store and tell a salesman that you're looking for an upconverting DVD player that will work with your set.

For the official word on HD DVD players and movies, visit For the Blu-ray side of things, surf to

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