High-Def DVDs Usher in New Format War Two new and competing formats of DVD are vying for consumer's money. The news discs both offer high-definition images. But the discs are incompatible with each other, bringing up memories of the old VHS versus Beta debate.
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High-Def DVDs Usher in New Format War

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High-Def DVDs Usher in New Format War

High-Def DVDs Usher in New Format War

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LYNN NEARY, host:

That thick layer of dust on your old videotapes might soon be piling up on your DVDs.

Movies on DVD look pretty good, but there's a new generation of disks hitting the U.S., and the picture quality is so crisp it'll seem like every lock of Brad Pitt's hair is right there in your living room.

But there's a catch. There are two competing formats, which means your favorite movie might not play back on your machine. Joining us to sort it all out is New York Times technology columnist David Pogue. Good to have you with us, David.

Mr. DAVID POGUE (Technology Columnist, New York Times): Good morning.

NEARY: So how good are these? I'm not entirely sure I really want to see every lock of Brad Pitt's hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POGUE: Surely, there was a better example than that. Well, if you buy one of these new players and you replace your old movie collection with these new ones that play on them, the picture and sound quality are really, really great. However, there are a few footnotes.

First of all, the average person from across the room, I'm willing to say, probably won't see a big difference from a regular DVD unless somebody calls your attention to it or you see them side-by-side - especially on smaller screens.

And the other thing is, these new format DVDs are supposed to have some cool features like, instead of hearing the director talk about what he did in each scene, you can actually see his little talking head pop up in a window. However, to my knowledge, not a single one of the movies out so far have exploited this feature. So a lot of it remains theoretical.

Oh, and by the way, you still can't skip over the FBI warning at the beginning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Well, the really big news about this is that there are two formats of these new DVDs. And I'm sorry, but I have déjà vu about that, because I'm old enough to remember the old Betamax versus VHS when videotapes came out, and that caused a lot of problems for Betamax owners.

Mr. POGUE: Oh, yeah! You're not kidding! They're about to live through it again, because this is the same darned thing. There's two formats: one's called Blue Ray, one's called HD DVD. On one side you've got a consortium led by Toshiba, followed by Microsoft, Universal Studios, and a bunch of other companies. On the other side you have a consortium led by Sony, and they have Apple, Twentieth Century Fox, Disney, and some other movie companies. But mainly, this is about corporate greed and the inability to remember what happened with the VHS and Betamax. It is a stupid, stupid format war.

NEARY: So do you have any advice for people in terms of making a decision about this, if they decide to go ahead and buy one of these?

Mr. POGUE: Well, it's really, really early. So far there is only one - count them, one - player available in each of these two formats. The Toshiba HD DVD one costs $500. The Blue Ray one, from Samsung, costs double that, $1,000. And you're really an early adopter masochist if you buy either one of these things now.

Let these big corporate behemoths kill each other and wait till the dust settles before you wind up investing a lot of money and you turned out to have backed the wrong horse.

NEARY: But there's going to be - there are going to be some people out there who want to be early adopter masochists, aren't there?

Mr. POGUE: Yes, there are. And, if you're dying to fill your high definition screen with some high definition DVD, at this point, I would go with the HD DVD - the Toshiba one. It's half the price. It's big and it's ugly, and it's really slow to load a disk. Like a minute long. But the picture quality is sensational, and again, it's a bargain compared with the other one.

NEARY: Okay, you don't want to be an early adopter. But eventually, these are the DVDs we're going to be watching. Is that right?

Mr. POGUE: Well, that's not entirely clear, actually. There's a good precedent for this whole format war, a very recent one. You may not even have heard of SACD and DVD audio, and the reason you didn't hear about them is that it was another stupid format war. In this case, putting music on DVDs rather than CDs. And basically, nobody bought either one of them and the whole thing is essentially dead.

So, one possibility is that both formats will die. Consumers will just wait out the whole mess and in the meantime, a movie delivery mechanism will surpass them and come sooner - like downloading movies from the Internet. Another possibility is that maybe the two formats can co-exist, like Macintosh and Windows, or XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio. Oh, am I allowed to talk about them?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POGUE: Anyway, so maybe movie studios will eventually have to release every movie in both formats. And finally, there's one other possibility for the future. And that is there will be a stupid format war, but there will be a player that can play all formats in a single machine.

NEARY: David, thank you so much for setting us straight on all this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POGUE: I hope so. Thank you.

NEARY: David Pogue covers technology for the New York Times and for MORNING EDITION.

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