MANILA, FEBRUARY 5, 2008 (STAR) By Alma Buelva - The battle between the next-generation DVD formats Blu-ray and HD DVD is getting more complicated and far from over that buying one of those combo units that play both formats and common DVDs would be the safest route to future-proof consumers for now.

Both factions are claiming victory over the other and at last month’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the Blu-ray Disc and the HD DVD advocates were again at loggerheads, brandishing new products and parading movie studio allies, respectively.

The “format war” had reached a stalemate a few days before the CES when Warner Bros. decided to abandon HD DVD and publish only in Blu-ray Disc format. This offset the earlier win of the HD DVD camp in September when Paramount and Dreamworks Animation dropped their support for Blu-ray to go exclusively with HD DVD.

While happy that Warner Bros. has joined the 170-plus Blu-ray companies, Sony would not declare a victory yet in this drawn-out format war. Toshiba, HD DVD’s inventor, is also not giving up the fight and vowed to continue rolling out HD DVD products and announced steep price cuts, making Blu-ray machines comparatively even more expensive.

Singing the Blu

Market figures from Media Control Gfk International, Nielsen Media Research point to a Blu-ray Disc dominant position against HD DVD: 90 percent of all software sales in Japan, more than 70 percent in Europe, and a two-to-one edge in the most competitive North American market.

Sales of PlayStation 3, that can also play Blu-ray movies, obviously helps a lot in putting more Blu-ray Disc players into the market. According to Sony, a 40GB PS3 model at $399 is not only the lowest-priced Blu-ray Disc machine in the market since its introduction in November 2006, it has also been one of the most robust, offering DVD upscaling and out-of-the-box HDMI support, among others.

Sales figures from Sony Computer Entertainment America show that with nearly three million PS3s in North American homes, Blu-ray Disc has a nearly 10-to-one advantage over Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on drives. The company expects worldwide sales of PS3s to reach 11 million units in March.

Adams Media Research projects that the global number of homes with either a Blu-ray stand-alone player or a PS3 will go from about nine million this year to 62 million by 2010 and more than 100 million by 2012.

To whet consumers’ appetite for Blu-ray, 12 companies — LG Electronics, Panasonic, Pioneer Electronics, Hitachi, Sharp Electronics, Philips Consumer Electronics, Samsung Electronics America, Sony Electronics, Mitsubishi, Hewlett Packard, Dell, and the Blu-ray Disc Association — staged at this year’s CES an exhibit of what’s available and coming soon.

Philips, which played a key role in the development of Blu-ray Disc, launched its first stand-alone player (the BDP7200 at $399) that offers real-time picture-in-picture (PIP) and multi-channel audio decoding, as well as Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD High Resolution Audio.

Panasonic showcased the first in-car Blu-ray Disc entertainment system along with its Blu-ray stand-alone players. Panasonic did the same by unveiling its latest stand-alone Blu-ray player, the Elite BDP-95FD at $999.

Sony brought in the big guns: two high-end Blu-ray players and the HES-V1000 Home Entertainment Server priced at $3,500. The machine features a full HD 1080p 200-disc Blu-Ray Disc/DVD/CD changer and 500 GB hard disc drive that can store up to 137 hours of videos, 40,000 songs or 20,000 digital photos. It is Sony’s first Blu-ray Disc capable component other than a VAIO notebook or optical PC drive that can burn content to Blu-ray Discs, as well as DVDs.

Dell introduced Blu-ray Disc configuration options on over a dozen different notebooks, desktops and even workstations, and also unveiled its first all-in-one system, the XPS One, which features Blu-ray Disc.

Samsung used the International CES to show off its second-generation HD Duo dual-formal HD DVD/Blu-ray Disc player (BD-UP5500) and its fourth-generation single-HD format Blu-ray Disc players (BD-P1500).

The Samsung dual format combines Blu-ray and HD DVD playback and is scheduled for May delivery at $599. The fourth-generation Blu-ray Disc player will also start shipping in May at $399.

HD DVD moves on

Warner Bros. may have embraced Blu-ray, but the HD DVD companies, especially Toshiba, are still on a mission to win the format war. At Toshiba’s CES-eve press conference, executives tackled Warner Bros.’ blow by dishing out market figures that assert HD DVD’s leadership.

Akio Ozaka, Toshiba Ame­rican Consumer Products CEO, said he was surprised with Warner Bros.’ decision especially because it came at a time when they have experienced strong momentum for HD DVD players and PCs. Ozaka claimed that they have outsold Blu-ray in the US market in 2007.

Jodi Sally, Toshiba Digital AV Group vice president for marketing, said that because Toshiba has repeatedly delivered on its promises, declaring that HD DVD is dead is groundless.

“We’ve been declared dead before. The reality is we entered 2007 with a majority lead in year-to-date market share. Our unit sales for the fourth quarter were the best to date for HD DVD and now nearly one million dedicated HD DVD players from all brands are in the market in North America,” Sally said.

She added that HD DVD from the very start already included features such as Web-enabled extras and PIP running commentaries and an Ethernet jack for connecting to the Internet and that HD DVD movies are never “region-encoded” unlike Blu-ray discs. Some of these features, she said, are just starting to find their way in Blu-ray players this year.

More importantly, HD DVD boxes cost cheaper compared with Blu-ray Disc players. With Toshiba’s recent price cuts, one could buy its basic player, the HD-A3, for $130 online, bundled with seven free movies. Blu-ray players still cost at least twice as much.

Best of both worlds

Meanwhile, the HD-DVD consortium recently approved a process to theoretically catch up to Blu-ray with a 51 GB disc. Over at the Blu-ray camp, a 200 GB disc has already been demonstrated in Japan.

Significant improvements like these will make it harder for consumers to choose between two formats unless one of these two things happens: consumers just buy a combo player such as the LG Super Blu BH200 or the Samsung BD-UP5500 and be given assurance that all movies they want will run on these machines, or the movie studios agree on one format to support and end the costly war once and for all.

The battle for format supremacy is doing little but to bewilder consumers and this ultimately slows down the adoption of high-definition optical discs, according to market analyst Understanding and Solutions. Who will be victorious in the end no one really knows. With the contenders so pigheaded, it is going to be like Harry Potter vs. Lord Voldemort wherein “Either must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live while the other survives.”

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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