DVD format war reprises Betamax versus VHS

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October 06, 2005|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

In the early 1980s, two incompatible videotape formats called VHS and Betamax duked it out for the loyalty of the world's consumers. The losers wound up with Betamax equipment and tapes that eventually wound up as fodder for auctions on eBay.

You'd think the video industry might have learned something from that debacle - that it's good policy to agree on a standard for new technology ahead of time and then sell it. Indeed, that concept worked brilliantly for the compact audio disc, and later for the original DVD.

Unfortunately, the 21st-century version of Betamax vs. VHS is about to begin with a new generation of high-definition DVD players and disks. Over the coming months, you'll see new players and movie releases in two competing and incompatible formats known as HD DVD and Blu-ray.

The new formats are specifically designed for high-definition television sets (HDTVs). Like all new technologies, these gadgets will be expensive at first - in the $600 to $1,000 range, compared with less than $100 for a good standard DVD player.

Unfortunately, neither device will be able to play movies released in the other format. Given that the movie studios have also taken sides in the HD vs Blu-ray battle, buying one type of player may well shut you out of certain titles - unless you buy equipment to play the other format, too.

It's more likely that consumers with HDTV sets will wait out the war with their current DVD players to see which new format wins. There's no risk involved - studios will be releasing standard DVDs for many years to come. Still, it's a shame the industry can't agree on a single format, because the new high-definition DVDs promise a spectacular improvement in picture quality.

I'll admit I was oblivious to all of this until I hooked up my DVD player to our new high-definition television for the first time. I expected a spectacular home theater experience, but what I got was a lot less. Sure, the picture was okay - but not nearly as sharp and crisp as the HDTV broadcasts I was receiving via cable.

In some cases, the DVD picture wasn't as good as the one from my old analog TV set. Skin and faces, in particularly, took on a flat, angular, cartoon-like appearance.

What was going on? Shouldn't I be getting a far better picture from a DVD (a digital medium) on a new digital television?

Not necessarily, it turns out.

The issue is resolution - geekspeak for how much information a given picture contains. For TV sets, resolution is generally measured by the number of lines the display uses to produce an image. The more lines, the better the resolution, and the sharper and more detailed the picture.

Standard TV sets in the United States display 480 lines of resolution, and the original DVD format was designed to match that. As a result a good DVD player with a well-mastered disc will produce the best image possible on a good analog TV set.

High-definition TVs can display considerably higher resolution - typically 1080 lines. That means you can count the beads of sweat on a batter's face from the center field camera during an HD baseball broadcast.

But that level of detail requires far more data than traditional TV images, too much for DVDs to provide. When you hook a DVD player to a high-definition TV set or monitor, the set "upconverts" the 480-line image to a higher resolution. On a good HD set, the movie will look as good as it does on a standard set. But just as often, the image just doesn't look quite right.

The movie industry desperately wants to address this issue with the next generation of DVDs - and for good reason.

The home video market in the United States has already eclipsed theater sales as a source of revenue. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, home video sales were $16.6 billion in 2004, compared with $9.8 billion in ticket receipts. But the phenomenal growth in the DVD market that began five years ago is tailing off, and the studios are counting on high-definition DVD to keep consumers excited and keep the money rolling in.

The new generation of DVDs will store 2 to 5 times as much data as today's disks. So prerecorded movies will match the resolution and picture quality of the latest HDTVs, with plenty of room left on the disk for interactive features.

Software publishers, and game makers in particular, are also salivating at the thought of all that storage. For PC makers, higher-capacity DVDs will boost a computer's entertainment value and provide critical additional backup capability. Everybody's in a position to win from the new technology - if only the industry could agree on a single format.

Both types of high-definition DVD players use blue lasers, whose wavelength is shorter than the red lasers in today's DVD players and recorders. That means they can cram far more information onto a disc than current machines, which are limited to 4.7 gigabytes, or about two hours of video, per side.

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