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Blu-ray Triumphs, HD-DVD R.I.P.

In one of the oddities of video format wars, Toshiba’s stock price went up after the announcement that it would pull the plug on its HD-DVD operation at the end of March, a signal that the company’s losses would be minimized by the cessation of the high-def disc format battle with Sony’s Blu-ray. This offers little consolation to the 750,000 HD-DVD player owners worldwide (600,000 in the US), who are now stuck with a component that, while capable of excellent HD video playback, will eventually grow dusty on a shelf for lack of movie titles and software to play on it. Like my old Laserdisc player buried at the back of my electronics closet, HD-DVD players will join the ranks of failed audio/video formats.

In the general scheme of things, it’s perhaps significant that after the Sony Betamax videotape debacle of decades past, this was one video format battle that Sony and the Blu-ray group were determined to win. Nevertheless, Toshiba can still point to its enormous influence in the original development of the standard DVD format and the establishment of a worldwide DVD standard without rancor or format battles, no small achievement.

Crucial to the success of any video format is the major backing of the movie studios, and Toshiba never quite garnered enough support for HD-DVD in that department. When Warner Brothers deserted the Toshiba camp in early January, followed by announcements from Blockbuster, Netflix and Wal-Mart that they would drop HD-DVD from their rentals and stock, the writing was on the wall.

On the bright side, the end of this annoying conflict will let all those consumers who’ve just bought Hi-Def TV displays and have been reluctant to get a companion high-definition disc player for fear of picking the “loser” in the format war go out into the marketplace and upgrade from standard DVD to a high-definition disc format (Blu-ray) worthy of their 1080p or 720p displays. On a side note, millions of DVD viewers are entirely happy with standard DVD playback, and up-converting DVD players have become very good and very inexpensive. Still, as good as up-scaled and up-converted DVDs can look, it’s not true HD, and I expect that in a year or so when Blu-ray player prices begin to drop into the $200 range, there will be a huge worldwide market. Sony’s inclusion of the Blu-ray player drive in its Playstation3 (and its reduction of PS3 prices) has already helped increase the popularity of the Blu-ray format. For many enthusiasts, even those who aren’t gamers, the PS3 Blu-ray player is still the one to beat: it loads and displays Blu-ray discs much faster than any standalone Blu-ray player and has HDMI 1.3 compatibility, able to decode or stream most of the new lossless high-resolution audio formats over its HDMI 1.3 connections in either PCM or bitstream form.

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