While some people are still trying to figure out how to use their DVD remote, a battle has broken out over which type of DVD format will rule the next generation of home movie players.


Each technology is supported by rival coalitions of movie studios and technology companies.


On one side is HD DVD, with backing from about half the movie industry but a minority of the technology companies involved. Its supporters include Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios and Warner Brothers Entertainment, along with Japanese technology companies NEC Corp., Toshiba Corp., and Sanyo Electric Corp.


Its challenger is Blu-ray, a new DVD technology from Sony Corp., that is backed by Walt Disney Studios, Miramax Films and ESPN. It has amassed a larger following among tech companies, including Dell Inc., Samsung Corp., Philips Electronics, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Panasonic Corp.


The formats are not compatible with each other. Both promise a spectacular viewing experience. Both promise dozens more gigabytes of memory, meaning extra features, superior menu functions, and interactive options. Both claim to be the future of the home-entertainment world.


Background battle for the future
At least 11 million or so consumers now own HDTV-capable TV sets. While some channels already broadcast in high definition, most are still gearing up with the production changes it will require.


Devotees swear that HDTV is crisp and clear the most vivid entertainment experience they've ever had in their living rooms. These turbo-charged TV sets work best when watching a channel that broadcasts in HD. Entertainment companies are now trying to figure out the best way to get that high definition experience onto a DVD disc.


Since its introduction in 1997, the DVD player has reached consumers twice as fast as the VCR. But according to both studios and hardware makers, the market has already matured. Sales of DVD movies have slowed as penetration hit 80 percent of U.S. homes.


"The growth the studios have enjoyed over the past eight years driven by DVD sales will not be there in the future," said Steve Nickerson, senior vice president of marketing with Warner Home Video, a member of the HD DVD camp. "To have a replacement product and a replacement technology is very important."


HDTVs are in about 10 percent of U.S. homes, but industry estimates project 10 million new customers per year for the next four years, according to Andy Parsons, senior vice president for Long Beach-based Pioneer Electronics (USA) Inc., a unit of Japan's Pioneer Corp. and a backer of Blu-ray.


The sophisticated features of high definition require more memory space for data, and that's where the debate begins. "The market reality is that you can't really fit a high-definition movie on a standard DVD," said Marty Gordon, vice president of Philips Electronics, also on the Blu-ray team.


In this corner, HD DVD
HD DVD, short for high-density DVD, is envisioned as an upgrade to existing DVD players. "DVD is in itself a brand, and consumer satisfaction with it is incredibly and unusually high," Nickerson said.


HD DVDs are made on a similar disc platform as conventional DVDs, but the little "bumps" that contain the data read by the laser beam are much smaller, fitting more information.


It comes in a double-layer disc, which is essentially two thin layers on one disc, with a 30 gigabyte capacity. Toshiba recently announced a proposal for a triple-layer disc with 45 gigabyte capacity.


One benefit to this approach: It will be relatively inexpensive to upgrade current manufacturing facilities. Japanese disc manufacturer Memory-Tech said HD DVDs would only cost 10 percent more to produce. "It's just an extension of the current DVD format," Nickerson said.


HD DVD's critics call it a stop-gap measure a product that doesn't go far enough, considering the technology available, and one that doesn't offer as much data capacity as Blu-ray.


In this corner, Blu-ray
Blu-ray's backers say it is a superior technology that offers more space for data, and more complex and sophisticated features. "If you're going to make an HD-TV format, you need to make the features the best they can possibly be," said Parsons.


Though the disc may look the same to the naked eye, it's not. The layer of data is much thinner than HD DVD or standard DVD, enabling it to store more information offering 50 gigabytes, well above HD DVD's 30.


Blu-ray has been available in Japan and South Korea since 2003 in recording devices by LG Group and Samsung, and it can support recording of high-definition video. The thinner layer of data combined with a thicker layer of plastic requires a new manufacturing process, which means it will be more expensive to make, at first.


"The notion that manufacturing costs will be an issue is really a red herring," Gordon said. "The bottom line is we will figure out how to make Blu-ray costs more affordable once we have economies of scale, just like we did for DVDs."


Outlook
There is no chance for the two camps to come to an agreement, as Sony made it clear in April that it would not compromise on its Blu-ray technology.


To ease the consumer's transition, both formats offer the double layer disc that has an HD movie on one side and a standard DVD on the other for backwards compatibility.


With 30 percent more storage capacity and its roster of technology companies, Blu-ray seems to be the superior format. But as the Sony Betamax experience showed, the best technology doesn't always win in the marketplace.


The flexibility of HD DVD and its ease of manufacture will give it a head start, and the entertainment companies supporting the format will put out as many titles as possible. In addition, the effort to build a triple-layer disc takes some steam off the capacity issue.


But the buzz around Blu-ray is unmistakable, and with more than 40 million new PlayStation 3s coming out next spring with the technology embedded, it could give consumers an incentive to wait for Blu-ray movies rather than go buy an HD DVD player.


Though companies have picked sides already, none of those agreements are exclusive and many are still waiting to see what happens.


HD DVDs are set to begin shipping by the end of the year, while Blu-ray isn't scheduled to be ready until later in 2006. "We'll be getting product to market significantly faster, with a window of quite a few months and the consumer will decide," said Mark Knox, of the HD DVD promotion division of Toshiba Corp.

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