Universal, Paramount, New Line Cinema, and Warner Bros. just announced that, starting next year, they’ll ship high-definition movies on new high-capacity disks called HD-DVDs. The catch: You’ll need to buy a new player to watch them. (Some disks, like the prototypes announced today, may also play on your current player, but in low-resolution mode.) Moreover, lots of computer makers and two other big studios, 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures, have already pledged to adopt the Blu-ray format, which is expected to debut around the same time (and will also require a new player).
Tech writers are bracing for a VHS vs. Betamax-style format war, with consumers forced to choose sides or buy two separate, incompatible players. Last week’s stumping for HD-DVD, which is sponsored by Toshiba and NEC, can only be read as a pre-emptive effort to make Sony’s Blu-ray look like Betamax 2.0—a technology that’s doomed to fail because all the movies you want will only be available on its competitor. If Hollywood makes that story come true, consumers won’t get a happy ending. There’s only one real difference between these next-generation DVDs and today’s models: storage capacity. The best format, then, is simply the one with the most possible storage space. By all accounts, that’s Blu-ray.
This comparison chart shows that HD-DVD and Blu-ray disks will be pretty similar. Both should be able to fit an HD movie onto one side of one disk, and both HD-DVD and Blu-ray players will play your old DVDs. As the New York Times explained last spring, the only significant difference is in the coating. Blu-ray disks have a coating that’s one-sixth the thickness of the outside layer of a DVD or an HD-DVD. Blu-ray’s data layers are thus closer to the surface, allowing the laser in a Blu-ray player to read data that’s encoded with smaller markings. Since the markings are smaller, more of them—and, consequently, more data—can be packed onto a single layer. Sony also expects to boost the number of data layers from two to four by 2007 and ultimately to eight. Despite all the noise from Sony, Toshiba has been conspicuously quiet about adding more layers to HD-DVDs down the road. Summary: Blu-ray disks can store more data on each layer and will likely have more layers of data than HD-DVDs.
While HD-DVD backers tout 30-gigabyte, dual-layer disks, Sony already has a 50-gig, dual-layer model and has an eight-layer, 200-gig superdisk in development. So, why do so many Hollywood studios want their HD-DVD? Probably because they’re a whole lot cheaper to manufacture. Earlier this year, some Taiwanese disk makers told PC Worldthat prerecorded HD-DVDs will be cheaper to churn out than Blu-ray disks. Since HD-DVDs have the same size layers as today’s disks, existing DVD factories can start churning out HD-DVDs without much retooling. But Blu-ray disks, with their thicker data layers, won’t be so easy to make. New, expensive assembly lines will have to be built—that’s the kind of expense that cuts down profit margins.
It’s pretty obvious that HD-DVD isn’t being rolled out to benefit high-definition-deprived viewers. Consider that HD-DVD reps told the Times that, rather than increase capacity, they’re “considering more efficient software compression” to squeeze longer high-def movies onto their disks. Isn’t the whole point of these new disks that they’ll accommodate high-definition formats without stripping them of their high resolution?
The good news is that if HD-DVD does turn out to be a low-capacity sham, Hollywood probably won’t be able to force it down our throats. DVDs aren’t just for movies anymore: Whichever disk wins out will almost certainly become the standard for new computers, game consoles, and other gadgets, just as CD and DVD drives did. It’s unlikely that computer users—or computer manufacturers—will settle for a medium that stores 30 gigs of data rather than 200 because it saves Warner Bros. a little money.
No matter which side wins, this format war isn’t going to change how we live. The VCR upended the relationship between video producers and consumers, who could suddenly watch what they wanted, whenever they felt like it. All HD-DVD and Blu-ray do is pack more video onto an existing medium at a time when we’re discovering the joys of broadband connections, downloadable video, and hard drives big enough to hold a small movie library. If Sony, Toshiba, and the movie studios go to war, they might find that by the time it’s over, we won’t care about shiny silver disks at all.