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The Revenge of Betamax

February 18th, 2008

If you bought an HD-DVD player and/or recorder and some HD-DVD titles, then it looks like you’ve got a nice, new Betamax machine on your hands. That’s right: Toshiba has apparently thrown in the towel as Blu-ray takes the prize as the winner of the new high-capacity DVD battle.

The turn came when Warner Brothers made the switch to Blu-ray. This kind of surprised me, because over the past few years, there were all kinds of dips and turns in the battle, where each maker seemed to suffer big setbacks, but then charged back later when the tide turned. When Warner–just one studio of many–announced their switch, there was a lot of buzz that this was some momentous turn. Beats me as to why–a variety of studios had been turning this way and that for a while now, and it never seemed to change anything.

Toshiba fought back, primarily by slashing prices on their players, which had always been cheaper and had come out earlier than Blu-rays. But that didn’t seem to work. Vendor after vendor decided to go Blu-ray, until the lethal blow came with Wal-Mart deciding to drop HD-DVD. That signaled the end that had begun with Warner’s move. Toshiba has not made its formal announcement yet, but it seems pretty much set:

A source at Toshiba confirmed an earlier report by public broadcaster NHK that it was getting ready to pull the plug.

“We have entered the final stage of planning to make our exit from the next generation DVD business,” said the source, who asked not to be identified. He added that an official announcement could come as early as next week.

And here I was, figuring that it would last until somebody came up with a hybrid drive, like they did with the DVD±R/RW format. For a long time, people thought that the plus-minus wars would produce a single winner, but now everyone uses optical drives that allow for both types (although it’s getting harder and harder to find “plus” disks; “minus” seems to be the anti-climactic winner there).

Instead, everyone who bought an HD-DVD player will start to find it harder and harder to get disks to put into their machines, and eventually will have to buy a Blu-ray device.

The competition was good for at least one thing: it drove prices down a lot faster than might have happened otherwise, and spurred development and releases. Hopefully, that trend won’t slow down too much now that Sony can take a breather and relax, its dominance assured.

Oh, and guess who championed HD-DVD? Microsoft. And who picked Blu-ray from the start? Apple.

The only downside I can see: now we have to get used to a weird format naming system. Until now, it had been simple: everything was -ROM, -R, and -RW, and the initial letters made sense–CD and DVD. For some strange reason, Sony decided to go with “BD-R” and “BD-RE” for the recordable and re-writable formats. One would have expected “BR” (for Blu-Ray) to be the initial string instead of “BD” (for Blu-ray Disk), but when you think about it, that would have made the full designations “BR-R” and “BR-RW”–which sound a bit “chilly.” But “RE”? Apparently, that’s for “RE-writable,” instead of the long-used “Re-Writable” (“RW”). Why Sony changed that, beyond the desire to confuse people, is anyone’s guess.

But what really blew me away was this map:

400Px-Blu-Ray Regions With Key

Those are Blu-Ray regions, as in the DVD regions that have created so many headaches for international travelers. Just last night, I got an email from an old student who was having trouble getting American DVDs to play on his Japanese computer. That’s because Japan uses Region 2, strangely aligned with Europe, but not with America, which uses Region 1. But look at the new map: Japan and America use the same region. That means we can use American BD-videos in Japan! Which means that potentially, I could buy films from Amazon.com for movies that are only just coming out in theaters in Japan, and for a price which is less than the two movie tickets Sachi and I would have to buy here. That’s nice. (Although it should be noted that HD-DVDs were region-free–oh well.)

So, what will you be in for with a Blu-ray upgrade from your old DVD? Well, for starters, Blu-Ray has a minimum of 5 times the capacity–25 GB vs. the old DVD’s 4.7 GB (though I find a DVD-R will only take 4.3 GB when you actually want to record something). However, multi-layer discs are becoming available; you can buy 50 GB Blu-rays now. There is talk about BD’s with up to 10 layers, or 250 GB of storage on a single disc. No news on when those will be out, though. Blu-Rays, having so much capacity, will take longer to write; currently, it’s supposed to take a half hour to burn a 25 GB BD-R with the fastest available writer.

Blu-ray movie discs should have a more powerful and varied interface, allowing for more features the user can control. Let’s just hope they did away with that idiotic you-can’t-skip-past-these-ads “feature.” BD’s also sport a much thinner but tougher plastic coating, supposedly resistant even to scrubbing with steel wool.

So, should you buy your Blu-ray today? As always with computer equipment, it depends–future equipment will always be cheaper and/or have more features. Drives bought today might not be able to handle higher-capacity discs released in future years. On the other hand, optical disc drives do have a tendency to crap out after a few years of steady use; there’s no telling how long the new machines may last. And by the time those better-featured machines come out, prices may have dropped to a level where you might not mind buying a new machine so much.

Me, I’ll have to wait until I get a Hi-def TV. However, they do sell Blu-ray drives for computers, and I do have this nice, big, HD-ready 24-inch iMac screen… but looking at what Yodobashi Camera is selling, their cheaper units seem to only work with Windows PCs–ironic, since Apple supports the Blu-ray format, and Microsoft went HD-DVD. Figures.

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  1. Paul
    February 21st, 2008 at 04:36 | #1

    Microsoft went HD-DVD for a pretty simple reason; it was a lot cheaper. Blu-Ray’s patent and licensing was more complicated (no single license package available- companies had to negotiate with individual patent holders) for a longer time, and they had a higher price, too.

    HD-DVD, on the other hand, bundled it all up and made it as easy as possible for licensees. Of course, HD-DVD’s cheaper licensing was a selling point, as was the cheaper manufacturing.

    I predicted HD-DVD would win based on a kind of goofy point- it’s the format that the porn industry chose to go with. Porn has turned into a giant business over the years in the USA, thanks to video and DVD players (and now the internet) allowing people to sneak it into their own homes without having to actually (gasp) go into a dirty bookstore to get it.

    (Personally, while I’m okay with some porn, I’m not entirely sure I want to see all that stuff in super-hi-def glory. Yikes!)

    Ultimately, though, I think that Blu-Ray won because of two main factors. First, Sony put it built-in with the Playstation 3. While MS’s XBox 360 has an HD-DVD add-on drive, the total number of those drives sold was a lot fewer than the total number of PS3s (even though the XBox has sold a lot more systems total than PS3 has).

    But I think the bigger factor is that the tight-assed movie studios are just terrified at the thought of the less-DRM-heavy HD-DVD format being out there. Even though Blu-Ray cost them more, the studios that went Blu-Ray exclusively did so mainly because they don’t want people having the ability to copy their movies, and they figured that HD-DVDs would be copied easier than Blu-Ray discs.

    Of course, before too long, someone will start building decent Blu-Ray burners for computers, and soon after that some hacker kiddies will develop software that will allow for copying of discs anyway. One thing about the move to digital content is that making all the information just bits of data means that creative minds will, sooner or later, figure out how to snag, manipulate, and copy that data.

    Personally, this means that I’ll be getting a PS3 at some point. I just bought an XBox 360 (I prefer the games available for it to the Wii and PS3) but if a PS3 costs the same as a Blu-Ray player, and not only plays the discs but also can play some games, why not?

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