Monday, February 18, 2008

The "next gen" high def war - only a pyrrhic victory?

As many of you may know by now, Toshiba's HD DVD is on life support, and it's not looking good. I'd like to point out right now that I'm a HD DVD owner/"supporter," I will be as objective as I can be about this.

I'd like to take a quick look at some things that people may be overlooking about this entire joke of a "format war." A few quick musings/facts (I don't attest to the accuracy of what I post here - as most of the values are approximations from everything I've read over the last months)"

HD sales make up less than 5% of all disc media sales at the moment, while this is expected to increase over the next years, don't expect the explosion that DVD had in 1997. DVD had little competition from VHS - which was inherently inferior compared to DVD. DVD was a huge leap in technology and quality over the VHS. You could skip to any point in the film in seconds, the image quality didn't degrade after each viewing, and they took up less shelf space.

Most people don't even have a high definition television (less than 25% of households) at the moment and even fewer have screens that really benefit from high definition treatment (a large portion of these televisions are smaller than 32 inches).

The success of DVD (image quality, extremely long lifespan - thanks Toshiba!) have just made it unlikely that most people will pay to replace their discs for quite a few years. Sure they may start buying new releases exclusively on a high def format, but the costs of mastering (or remastering) some older films will be almost cost prohibited on Blu-Ray (or will extremely expensive to sell). Who cares about the increase in "quality" if you can't even see it? The tens of thousands of films that haven't even gotten the proper treatment for DVDs after a decade is a perfect example. Some can't really get any better - as the source material just doesn't benefit from the transfer, and some of the HD films do have a sharper picture and richer colors, the faults are almost even more apparent when it comes to pops, crackles, and hair. Grain can even be a huge deterrent, as it becomes even more obvious with the high def transfer.

DVD players are cheap - even the budget 15 dollar ones produce a decent picture, remember most people aren't video or audiophiles. While it's true that VHS players were cheap as DVD was rising to prominence - the quality that I mentioned above was a larger factor to this. Trying to sell a $350 dollar BluRay as a good alternative to a DVD upconverter (which you can get for a good one for around 75 dollars) just doesn't make sense.

Americans are close to a recession - sensible people will spend their money on what they really need - not a $250+ Blu-Ray machine. The slowing economy might do more harm than anything else listed. The idea that people would throw their $600 government "hush money" wouldn't surprise me. The American public doesn't manage money well at all.

DSL/Cable internet was in its infancy in 1998, now it's the norm. People thought T1 line speeds would never make it to home use. It took 30+ minutes to download a song, now it takes just seconds. People can now view digital downloads/streaming content with high quality image quality, something even Blu-Ray cheerleader Michael Bay now shills (see Bay's "Fios is 'awesome' ad"). He warned against "digital downloads" in December - even concocting a conspiracy theory that evil Microsoft was trying to hurt good and kind Sony and stupid Toshiba by keeping the "war" going on. I can only guess Verizon threw enough money at him for this change of heart.

While *I* see the merits of high def films, most people frankly don't see the huge difference that was fully apparent with the advent of DVDs. Give people unlimited streaming movies via Netfix at "sub DVD" quality - and I guarantee you that a huge portion of the people won't care (every person who has Netflix that I know attests to this).

In the end both are niche formats that will lose out to DVD and whatever digital download service grows fastest. Heck, I could be entirely wrong about this, and am even willing to purchase a BluRay player - if and only if a number of films come out (I've written them down and kept the list in a safe place.

I'll be looking forward to the Toshiba HD DVD/BluRay combo player that they'll most likely start producing. The most ironic thing in all of this is if Toshiba can develop a cheap dual player and beat Sony (et al) at their own game.

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