Sony's Blu-ray carries the day

The Baltimore Sun

Here's one good thing about the postmillennial movie format war: It lasted less than two years, instead of dragging on for a decade, like the struggle between VHS and Betamax videotapes of the 1980s.

As a result, there are less than a million "victims" of this conflict. And don't feel too bad about them. They ignored every warning (including several from yours truly) to hold onto their money until a clear winner emerged in this stupid fight over incompatible formats for high-definition movies on disc.

That winner turned out to be Sony and makers of compatible Blu-ray DVD players, along with the customers who bought those players and Blu-ray movie titles. When Toshiba backed out of the market this week, it stranded early adopters who bought its competing HD DVD players and the handful of movie titles issued in HD DVD format over the past year.

Bottom line: Yesterday, I found Toshiba HD DVD players offered on eBay for as little as $50, including a half-dozen recent movies - and these were straight sales, no bidding. Luckily, the losers didn't have enough time to amass large collections, which cost far more over time than the players themselves.

Now for the questions I've been getting:

Does the victory of Blu-ray as the format mean it's time to buy a Blu-ray player?

Not necessarily. In fact, this format war matters far less than the last one, which defined the market for commercial recordings for two decades.

There are two reasons for this. First, the public - young movie fans in particular - seems more interested in getting films online than in buying them on a particular physical medium. Second, cable TV, satellite and fiber-optic providers are working frantically to increase their libraries of high-definition, on-demand videos.

As a result, owning a movie on disc may not be as important in the future as the ability to watch it whenever you want for a few dollars - or as part of a subscription service.

Why do I need a high-def DVD player in the first place?

Right now, you don't, unless you have an HDTV set and want to buy or rent new titles in a format that takes advantage of your TV's enhanced resolution.

By way of background, the original DVD format - a smash success because everyone in the industry agreed on it ahead of time - provided far better quality than VHS videotape. But it was still designed for normal TV screens with 480 horizontal scan lines. The movies recorded on DVDs were likewise encoded for optimal display on those sets.

But new HDTVs can display up to 1080 scan lines, a technology that provides startling detail and clarity, especially on large screens.

Although HD sets will do their best to display a signal from a standard DVD player, these movies often look worse on HD sets than they did on old-fashioned analog TVs. One solution to this problem is a so-called "up-converting" player - a standard machine designed to provide a better picture on HDTV with traditional DVDs.

These work very well, and for many casual viewers, an up-converting player may be enough, especially since they are available for $100 or less.

High-definition DVDs and players were designed to provide the dense HD data stream required to make recorded movies look as good as the best HDTV broadcasts, or even better. In fact, they're spectacular. And these players are the only source of images that take full advantage of the detail in high-end 1080p HDTV sets.

What if I bought an HD DVD player? Am I out of luck?

First, like any piece of technology, an HD DVD player will do whatever it was designed to do until the day it breaks down and you can't fix it any more. So it will play whatever high-def titles you've acquired. But given Toshiba's abject surrender, you won't find many new HD DVD titles coming out, and I wouldn't invest in them at anything but bargain-basement prices.

The good news: Your HD DVD player will still function perfectly well as an up-converting player for your old-fashioned DVD collection. Those old movies will look great on your HDTV set. So don't throw it out. Swallow your pride, wait a few months and buy a Blu-ray when prices come down.

If I buy a Blu-ray player now, can I still use my old DVDs?

Absolutely. In fact, most high-definition players (Blu-ray and HD DVD) will do an excellent job of up-converting standard DVD signals on HDTV sets.

Should I buy Blu-ray now, or wait for prices to come down?

When I checked the big-box retailers yesterday, they were charging $400 and up for Blu-ray players in-store, with Sony's entry-level model available online at Wal-mart.com for $374. That compares with $120 or less for a progressive-scan, up-converting standard DVD player.

In fact, the best deal may be a Sony PlayStation 3 game console for $400, which has a built-in Blu-ray DVD player. That will make you a real hero if there are young people in the house.

Otherwise, I'd suggest waiting. With more manufacturers jumping onto the Blu-ray standard, prices are likely to plummet over the next six months. Also, the Blu-ray standard - which involves all sorts of goodies, including great interactive content - is evolving. Not all of today's machines support all these features. Wait a while, and you'll get a better machine for the money.

If you're a film buff who absolutely has to have new, high-def movies the day they are released - and you don't mind spending extra for a gadget to play them - go right ahead. Now that the fight is over, your investment will be a safe one.

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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