High-Def Format Wars: The Summer Skirmishes

It has been one year since the first Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD products met head-to-head on store shelves. With no end to the format tussle in sight, backers of both high-definition optical drive formats are actively campaigning for your attention--and your dollars--with rebates, price cuts, freebies, and new features. It's time to check the scorecard and see what they're doing, as well as what impact their efforts might be having.

Lower Prices, Oh My!

Major HD DVD vendor Toshiba was first to initiate a price drop, in the form of rebates introduced last spring. Now, however, those promotional prices are the real McCoy--no pesky rebates required--and if you shop around online, you can find street prices that are even lower than the new "official" prices.

This means you can get an HD DVD player, namely the HD-A2, for as little as $250--if you're willing to forgo "full high-definition" 1080p playback. For that, you'll have to pony up $400 for Toshiba's HD-A20--still inexpensive in comparison with Sony's $500 PlayStation 3 (60GB version).

The PS3 got a price cut to reach $500, and it remains the cheapest Blu-ray player around. Other Blu-ray drives and players have dropped in price as newer, cheaper Blu-ray models from Pioneer, Samsung, and Sony hit the market in early summer.

Impact: Positive. Let's face it, at $250 the hardware investment is a lot more palatable than it was at $500--or even $1000 or more, as some of the early players cost. HD DVD is leading the price war, which is not unexpected given HD DVD's less costly manufacturing process.

But price alone isn't the issue here. Yes, lower prices will help high-definition discs go mainstream. But they don't address the issue of disc compatibility--and the lingering fear of buying into the latter-day equivalent of an 8-track or Betamax system.

It's somewhat like choosing a game console: You invest in the hardware up front, but the real investment comes in the ensuing years, after you've amassed the software library to go along with it. And no one wants to end up with a movie collection that's tied to the losing side.

Free Movie Bonanza

In freebies, Toshiba again led the way: Much as it did with its DVD players a decade ago, Toshiba this spring began a mail-in promotion for five free HD DVDs. The company extended the promotion to July 31 (and I wouldn't be surprised if it continues beyond that).

Blu-ray vendors are playing catch-up. This month the Blu-ray Disc Association launched its own five-free-movies promotion. Buy a qualifying player from Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sony, or Sony Computer Entertainment, and you can choose your five movies from offerings by seven Blu-ray studios.

Impact: None. I remember similar promotions from the early days of DVD. The prospect of free flicks was a nice bonus, but it wasn't something that prompted me to buy. I don't see the results being any different for high-definition. I doubt the prospect of a handful of free starter movies will get you to buy, either.

It's similar to an unexpectedly good featurette on a DVD. The promotion is an incentive for people who were already planning to buy a particular film. But it probably won't make you buy a movie that you don't want in the first place.

Now Playing: Web Interactivity

Besides stunning picture quality and sound, what can these next-gen discs offer? Connected interactivity. Although both formats are capable of delivering interactive content via the Web, Toshiba and its HD DVD players are again first in this regard. In late June a firmware update enabled all of Toshiba's players, including first-generation models released last year, to handle new interactive features on discs from Bandai Visual (Freedom, Volume 1) and Warner (Blood Diamond).

The concept of Web-connected interactivity--the ability, through the disc, to access additional, related content from the Web--is one of the most promising aspects of next-gen media. Unfortunately, none of the current Blu-ray Disc players can handle such interactivity. In fact, all but the PlayStation 3 lack even the basic requirements (an ethernet connection for Internet access and at least 1GB of storage), and though the PS3 is technically capable, it does not have such abilities enabled as of yet.

I don't expect to see interactivity for Blu-ray until later this year; manufacturers have an October 31 deadline for conforming to the adjusted specifications for connected (referred to as BD Live) and unconnected players.

Impact: Uncertain. Remember, it's still early for both new formats. Sure, interactivity is no longer the stuff of science fiction, but until we see how studios creatively implement interactivity, no one can easily gauge how important it will be in promoting the disc technology. Right now, the extras on high-def movies--polls and trailers--are not terribly appealing, but the potential for cool interactive features are so tremendous (especially for a title such as Universal's upcoming Heroes, Season 1) that my mouth waters in anticipation.

If the studios backing HD DVD aren't ready to develop more than a handful of titles with interactive content, interactivity will remain a gimmick. And by the time it becomes interesting, Blu-ray's hardware and software may have caught up.

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