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A New DVD Format War
by: Roger Faraway
Just when you thought it was safe to buy a nice new all-singing all dancing DVD player/recorder, along comes a new format war to add to an already confusing marketplace.
Once the original DVD standard settled down, DVD players quickly became one of the most successful consumer items of all time. The new format revitalised the home entertainment market, and hardware manufacturers benefited both directly and indirectly, as enthusiasts clamoured to buy bigger and better televisions and sound equipment to get the best from their new DVD players.
Then came recordable DVD, but the problem, as is so often the case, was that there were a number of different recording standards, all of them incompatible. It was just like Betamax versus VHS all over again. Now low-cost multi-format recorders supporting all the standards are hitting the streets, the recording problem is becoming less of an issue, and so one could be forgiven for thinking that's the end of the format wars.
But technology has a habit of advancing at a relentless pace, and now a new battle is set to commence. The hi-tech companies are fighting it out to establish the standard for next-generation "high capacity" DVDs. Higher capacities will allow for even better picture and sound quality than the existing standard, and will become more popular as high definition televisions really start to take off.
There are two competing high capacity DVD technologies, HD-DVD (High Definition DVD) and Blu-Ray. HD-DVD works by using multiple layers on a single disk, and its main advantage is its low production costs. Blu-Ray is technically superior – it uses blue laser light instead of the red light used by existing players. This blue light has a smaller wavelength, and so the pits that it creates on the surface of the DVD to encode the data, are smaller. Smaller pits means more pits in the same space, which means higher capacity. Blu-Ray can store more information than HD-DVD, but presently is more expensive to implement. When Blu-Ray is combined with the multi-layering technology behind the competing format, it will see capacities rise to as much as 200 Gigabytes. Existing DVDs hold only 4.7 Gigabytes.
The battle will most likely be won by the format that gets the most support from the big Hollywood studios – nobody is going to opt for a DVD standard with a small catalogue of titles. With Blu-Ray being backed by the likes of Hitachi, HP, and Sony (who own MGM studios), it would appear to have the edge. Hollywood however, is remaining non-committal, afraid of backing a losing horse. For now then at least, the formats are caught in something of a chicken-and-egg situation. As has been the case so many times in the past, only time will tell which format will come out on top.