Blu-Ray DVD vs. HD-DVD: Who’s Winning the War

Click here to enlarge. So Close. There was news this week, in fact, it was probably the first good news from the somewhat beleagured HD-DVD camp, in quite some time.

The short of it, is that Paramount Studios (part of Viacom), announced that they would, in the future, be supporting only HD-DVD. Paramount is one of the studios that has been offering up content in both formats. Other Viacom studios are supporting both.

There is one big caveat, however, Paramount’s Steven Speilberg produced movies will continue to be on both formats, and as we all know, the man is responsible for a number of huge blockbuster movies.

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Pirates of the Carribean, Blu-Ray DVD, and the Mitsubishi HC4900 1080p home theater projector (under $3000). Click for larger version.

That now has two major studios only offering HD-DVD; Paramount, and Universal. Everyone else out there, is either producing in both formats, only in Blu-Ray, or in some cases, have not put out any hi-def content.

Paramount has been on a roll, in terms of box office success, this year, most notably with Transformers, and Shrek 3. While both of those are huge successes, those movies do cater to a younger market, and may not have as huge an impact in terms of hi-definition dvd sales as movies that appeal more to the adult crowd. My own 15 year old daughter, for example, could care less about having hi-def DVDs – to her, SD-DVD is just fine. As a result, for myself, and many families, those types of movies don’t figure in significantly into a HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray purchase decision. (More significant, are movies like Lord of the Rings (expected in both formats), and the Bourne series (HD-DVD only – Universal) Speaking of Lord of the Rings, a rumor had been circulating, that when released, the Blu-Ray version would be the “extended edition” while HD-DVD would be the original (and about 40 minutes shorter, per movie) theatrical release. Whether this rumor is true, or not, I have no idea.

Well, of course there is Universal studios exclusive (since the start), and now, Paramount, however, strangely, the biggest win to date, for HD-DVD, has to be the Nintendo Wii game machine.

No, the Wii doesn’t support either format, but it is a blockbuster success, coming out of nowhere, has dramatically impacted predicted sales of Sony’s Playstation. Without the Wii, Sony would probably ship twice as many (or more) Blu-Ray playing game machines, this year, then they are curently selling. I don’t follow that closely, but I gather Nintendo’s low price point has it selling well more than twice as many game machines as Sony, and that means the Blu-Ray folks will have probably at least one million less Blu-Ray playing devices in the US market, by year end, than they had anticipated.

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Can you say ouch?

On that same subject, it is reported that PS3 owners buy less hi-def movies than people who buy dedicated hi-def players (hardly a surprise), but the sheer number of PS3′s out there, guaranty significant Blu-Ray DVD sales.

Other recent Blu-Ray DVD, and HD-DVD developments include:

Blockbuster (the movie rental chain) will not stock HD-DVD in their stores, but will make them available online. That is a big win for the Blu-Ray camp.

Target stores will also only carry Blu-ray, a second, but less significant win.

Samsung joins LG with a dual format offering. Unfortunately, the current high cost of the dual format players, pretty much makes them niche products. Afterall, you can easily buy a Sony PS3 for Blu-Ray, and an entry level Toshiba HD-DVD player, and still save hundreds of dollars compared to the dual format players.

Sony PS3 - Blu-Ray's trump card

For playing Blu-ray disks in my theater and in my testing room, I use the Sony PS3, and the results are great. I was very pleased with overall performance (expecially for the low price compared to other DVD players), when I got my first PS3 shortly after they started shipping.

Even better, the PS3′s easy wireless interfacing to my home’s internet setup, is great. Downloading the PS3 upgrades is a snap, and now my PS3 supports 1080p/24, which, represents the way you really want to be displaying those hi-def movies. The PS3 is not perfect, of course, but, the experience with the PS3 has been excellent, as compared to my Toshiba HD-DVD player.

Where do we go from here?

I’m still of the belief that it is Sony’s (Blu-ray) war to win or lose. Here’s why:

So far, Blu-ray players are still significantly more expensive. You can buy an “entry-level” HD-DVD player for $249, and will have to spend about twice as much for the equivalent Blu-Ray player. That, of course helps explain the popularity of the PS3 as a movie player. Spend the $600, and get a great game machine and hi-def player combined.

The price point for the Blu-Ray players, I suspect, is largely controlled by Sony (licensing agreements, etc.), and, if I am correct, their decision to keep Blu-Ray player prices high, is hurting them. I only barely buy into the “more advanced technology” excuse for the higher prices. The huge numbers of PS3′s sold, should give Sony the kind of economies of scale to bring those prices down.

The other key thing the Blu-Ray camp needs to do, is break that HD-DVD – Universal exclusivity agreement.

By Christmas, it’s almost dead certain you will be able to buy an HD-DVD player for under $200, and that’s a mainstream price point. If the Blu-Ray camp can get close – a $299 player, by then, I think that will be close enough to further strengthen the Blu-Ray advantage.

Conversely, if the cheapest Blu-Ray players are still $400 – or even $500, and HD-DVD is down at $199, then I expect we’ll see more defections from the Blu-Ray supporting movie studios.

Blu-Ray has had the momentum. Get at least price competitive on the players (a $100 or less spread should do it), and get those Universal movies, and Blu-Ray will be in position to knock out HD-DVD once and for all.

Personally, I’m rooting for Blu-Ray, to dominate. As I see it, they have the ability to win the war. The alternative, is not an HD-DVD win, (at least not in the near term), but rather a long war that could drag on like Iraq, with no definite win in sight.

The sooner there is a winner, the sooner we’ll be able to buy hi-def movie titles for under $20, and that is what will further drive sales (along with sub-$200 players).

I’ll take another look at where things are, at the height of the Christmas shopping season, to see if there have been any significant shifts.

Now it’s time to fire up my PS3, and the new Optoma HD81-LV 1080p projector, which I’m in the middle of reviewing. I can tell you this, the Optoma – now the brightest under $10,000 1080p projector – and PS3, on my 128″ screen, produces a magnificant image. Last evening I watched Shooter in Blu-Ray, and also some short segments from the movies House of the Flying Daggers, and Night at the Museum.

Awesome – no wonder our family only goes to the movie theaters now, when it’s a movie we must see immediately. One such was Bourne Ultimatum – which it turns out was a bit dissapointing – it could have benefitted by having a plot, but, on the other hand, the action was great.

A last word. If you don’t yet have a large plasma display, or LCD TV, or better still, of course a projector, it’s hard to imagine what a difference a hi-def player makes. While the jump in resolution alone (over SD-DVD) is easily dramatic, the real plus is picture quality. Although the jump from SD-DVD to hi-def isn’t quite as great as from standard TV to HDTV, it is still a massive improvement in picture quality.

With a good front projection system (and if you go 1080p, that starts at about $3000 with a screen – just add player and audio), most people will swear that the experience is just plain superior to walking into a movie theater (yes, even the digital ones).

And, NO, you can’t stop by my place to check it out. You’re on your own.

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