High-def optical discs: What you need to know now (3 of 3)

This is the last in series of three posts, which will also appear in the next C&I

Takeaways and Possibilities

This is my own conjecture. I’m not planning to invest in either format for some time (for one thing, we’re not ready to buy an HDTV), so I’m not actually betting on any of this.

People aren’t clamoring for high-def discs. When DVDs came out, they offered obvious advantages in picture quality, convenience, and extra features. The difference between high-def discs and DVD will, I suspect, be perceived by almost everyone as much less significant than the difference between DVD and VHS—and for most of us (everyone who doesn’t have a big HDTV), there is no useful difference.

That doesn’t mean (as David Pogue implies) that the only reason for high-def discs is because everyone has a DVD player and most everyone has most of the discs they want, and business wants to sell us all new players and resell the movies once more. There is a real difference in picture quality that almost everyone with good vision can see on good sets. Good high-def discs should yield significantly better pictures than broadcast and cable HDTV, just as regular DVDs yield much better pictures than standard-definition broadcast and cable TV. Despite his cynical lead Pogue admits, “The average person can see the difference in picture quality.”

I do not believe studios will try a muscle play, forcing people to buy high-def discs by dropping new DVD releases. Yes, the move to CD was in part a forced play by the record companies—but if you remember, studios didn’t stop releasing videocassettes until DVDs were already in most U.S. households (actually, some videocassettes are still being released). Record companies would have loved to get us to buy all our CDs again in SACD or DVD-A form, but when we didn’t cooperate, the CDs just kept on coming.

My best guess is that there will be a trickle of discs in both new formats for the next few months; predictions are that perhaps 200 in each format will be in stores by the end of the year, and those predictions may be optimistic.

A reasonably priced chipset is already available that can handle both high-def formats. I suspect we’ll see at least one “universal” player by this fall, probably at no more than $600, and that we’ll see a steady stream of them next year—if there’s any real interest in the high-def formats.

That’s a big “if.” It’s quite possible that neither format will catch on with the public. This holiday season will tell part of the story, but the 2007 holiday season is probably critical: If players aren’t selling by the hundreds of thousands and there aren’t thousands of discs, both formats may be headed for niche status or failure.

If I had to bet on one of the formats, I’d bet on Blu-ray. It has the best technology, the most studios, the broadest range of supporters—and although it’s theoretically more expensive, I note that Amazon’s prices for early Blu-ray (pre)releases are consistently as low or lower than HD DVD prices. But it’s a tough bet: You could make a good case for HD DVD as well.

For now—well, if I was a librarian, I’d wait a year or two to see what develops. Meanwhile, you know I’ll be following the story.

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