High definition DVD: pass, for now

1 Jun

June 1, 2006

By Geoff Meeker

The weak link in any high definition (HD) TV home theatre system has lately been the DVD player. That is, HDTV has 1080 lines of resolution, while a DVD player only puts out 480.

That has changed in a big way, with the release of two new high def DVD formats, from Toshiba and Sony.  Toshiba has launched the HD DVD format, which uses compression to triple the capacity of conventional DVD, while Sony has developed Blu-ray, a new innovation with up to 10 times the capacity of DVD.

However, home video purists have welcomed these latest developments with muted praise and even hoots of derision.

There are some good reasons for that.  The most obvious problem is competing – rather than compatible – formats, much like the battle over beta and VHS in the late Seventies. Toshiba and Sony have both lined up industry partners, including a range of electronics and computer manufacturers, as well as movie studios, to help push their new formats. Both sides are digging in deep, but someone has to lose.

Then there is price, which, as usual, is high for new technology. The Toshiba model is priced at more than $600 (Cdn), with the Sony ringing in at more than $1100. That’s a lot of money to pay for technology that may not endure.

On the plus side, the picture quality is every bit as good as one would expect, given the higher resolution. I haven’t seen this new format in action, but early reviews have raved about the clarity and sharpness. Apparently, it is noticeably better than the HDTV cable feed, something that really grabs my attention!  However, you need a big screen TV to really appreciate the difference.

On the face of it, there is a good reason to introduce a new format. Although the picture quality is good, especially with progressive scan players, conventional DVD can’t fulfill the image potential of HDTV.

However, my cynical side is agreeing with David Pogue of the New York Times, who points out that the vast majority of homes already have at least one DVD player. “To electronics executives, all of this can only mean one thing,” Pogue writes. “It’s time to junk that format and start over.”

The fact is, I don’t mind being herded toward a new technology, when the going is easy and the path is clearly marked. If Sony and Toshiba had worked together on developing a standard format, they would have won us over. By launching non-compatible formats, they will stall the momentum of both products as consumers put off making a decision until the dust settles.

As tempting as the better image may be, my advice is not to buy this new technology until a clear winner emerges, or the industry actually gets together and agrees on a universal format.

Useful links:

You can locate numerous articles on HD DVD, including the David Pogue review, by doing a Google search for ‘hi-def DVD’s’.




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