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What are HD-DVD and Blu-Ray?

Both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD are new types of laser-disc technology for storing high-definition video, using shorter-wave “blue” lasers rather than the red lasers used in today’s DVDs.

Both have been developed because discs using today’s standard DVD technology are not capable of storing a high-definition feature-length film. The larger screen size and better picture clarity required for high-definition films means that a large amount of data storage is required.

Today’s standard DVD technology only stores about 5 gigabytes (GB) of data - much less than that required by a feature-length high definition film, whereas Blu-Ray holds at least 25GB and HD-DVD at least 15GB.

Both formats are still being developed. Blu-ray players are available in some Asian countries but neither format is expected to be widely available until 2006.

Why are there two different formats?

The two formats are competing to become the dominant next-generation video disc. Blu-ray was mainly developed by Sony while HD-DVD was developed by Toshiba and NEC.

Although Sony was a founding member of the DVD Forum, which developed the DVD format, it announced the Blu-ray format independently of the forum in February 2002. It has set up an organisation to promote the format, the Blu-ray Disc Association, whose members include other electronics and media groups.

Meanwhile the DVD Forum supports HD-DVD, but a separate body, the HD-DVD Promotion Group, promotes the format. Some companies are members of both the HD-DVD group and the Blu-ray group, but most are favouring one over the other.

Will I have to choose which one to buy?

The often-quoted “Beta vs VHS” situation - in which two competing incompatible home video formats were released in the early 1980s - is the worst case scenario. It is expensive and damaging for the industries who stand to benefit from high-definition video, and frustrating for consumers - who will tend to postpone making a purchase rather than risk buying a player that will become obsolete if another format is more successful.

High-definition enthusiasts can take comfort in the fact that competing formats have been attempted several times since the Beta/VHS era and been resolved with relatively little impact for consumers.

The DVD format itself arose out of a battle between two competing technologies: Sony and Philips’ MMCD, and Toshiba’s Super Density Disk, which had more support from electronics companies.

Peace was brokered by IBM’s president Lou Gerstner, but Toshiba’s technology dominated the DVD standard, which goes some way towards explaining the current antipathy between Sony and Toshiba over next-generation DVDs.

Another possibility is that the two formats co-exist: a similar conflict loomed between two DVD recording formats - DVD-A and DVD-RW - but was resolved by the market when electronics manufacturers such as Samsung made devices that supported both. Samsung in September said it would make a player that supports both HD-DVD and Blu-ray.

Will I still be able to play old DVDs in either of the new players?

Yes - both Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats must also support DVD.

So what’s the difference?

Essentially, it’s a matter of price versus capacity. HD-DVD is cheaper to manufacture, both for reading devices and the disks themselves. A single-layer Blu-ray disc holds 25GB of data and a four layer disc, holding 100GB, is in development. Single-layer HD-DVD discs hold 15GB and a three-layer disc, holding 45GB, is in development.

However as the Beta and VHS format war demonstrated, technological superiority does not guarantee any format success over its rival. For this reason, both factions have sought to shore-up support from content and device makers.

Who’s supporting HD-DVD and who’s supporting Blu-ray?

In late 2004 HD-DVD had more support from film studios, but many have since moved to support Blu-ray.

Warner Brothers, for example, was a long-time supporter of HD-DVD but announced in November it would also support Blu-ray. Hewlett-Packard had originally supported Blu-ray, but after Microsoft decided to support HD-DVD it said it may have no choice but to follow suit.

So which format will win?

Although Blu-ray appears to have more big supporters, it’s arguably too early to say. The decision in September by Microsoft and Intel to support HD-DVD was seen as a huge blow for Blu-ray. However Blu-ray has support from many large electronics companies, and it will benefit from featuring in Sony’s PlayStation 3.

In April, Sony and Toshiba held talks with a view to agreeing on a single format. It was thought that they might agree on a technology that was largely based on Blu-ray but incorporated some features of HD-DVD. (April 10). However in August, the talks broke down.

In September, Microsoft and Intel both announced they would back the HD-DVD standard. Sony quickly moved to dismiss concerns over the future of Blu-ray.

More reports:

Blu-ray anti-piracy technology agreed upon (August 9)

Apple chooses Blu-ray (March 10)

Sony Blu-ray wins over Warner Brothers (October 21)

Sony and NEC plan link on DVD drives (November 17)

technology@ft.com

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