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DVD War Starts Now

Last month’s release of a second format in high-definition DVD players conjures up images of money spent, or wasted, on Betamax recorders, laserdisc players and AM stereo radios.

Even Comedy Central’s faux pundit, Stephen Colbert, made the connection.

“Last week, Sony released the first movies on Blu-ray, which will battle with Toshiba’s HD-DVD to be the next generation DVD format. . . .

“All you need to know? The winning format will be the one you don’t buy,” the comedian cracked on the June 26 edition of his “Colbert Report.”

There’s a simple lesson to be learned by sifting through the dustbin of outdated electronic gizmos and high-priced gadgets:

Wait.

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This time, the contenders for your dollars are Blu-ray and HD-DVD, both promising video formats that match the quality of high-definition TV pictures, with more detail than the current generation of DVD players.

HD-DVD has been available since April, when a Toshiba player hit stores for about $500. Blu-ray came out last month, with the first player retailing at just under $1,000.

Even though it launched second, Blu-ray already has a larger library available: More than 100 movies have been released in the format, substantially more than those available in HD-DVD. And Blu-ray may get a leg up on its competitor because it’s due to be installed in Sony’s PlayStation 3 when it comes out in November.

Both systems will play older DVDs, but the two systems won’t play each other’s discs. Other applications for both formats are on the horizon, like a Toshiba HD-DVD recorder due out in Japan this month, and Blu-ray being installed in Sony personal computers.

But should you even care about high-definition DVDs at this point?
High-def hesitancy

Phillip Swann, a TV technology analyst who runs tvpredictions.com, says betting on one or the other this early could be a waste of money.

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“Look, you’ve got a situation where the industry has said, ‘We’ve got two formats.’ They’ve even hinted that both of ’em can’t survive, one will survive. So if you pick the wrong one, you’ll have an obsolete machine and obsolete movie titles.

“So why on earth would anybody do that?” Swann said. “There’s no reason, unless you’ve got money to burn, you just go out and buy new devices regardless of whether you’ll use them a year from now or two years from now, and you just do it because you like to be the kid on the block with the new toy.”

He says the viability of one system over the other may not be apparent until next year.

This latest improvement of the DVD, a remarkably successful format that has nearly swept aside the VCR, is targeting a relatively small percentage of U.S. TV viewers. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that about 20 million homes have the right equipment to receive high-definition TV images.

With all the unanswered questions, even HDTV’s early adopters don’t seem to be rushing into the high-definition DVD fray.

Tom Snyder is one of the founders of www.milwaukeehdtv.org, and other than some discussions on the group’s Internet forum, he’s not sensing any rush to choose.

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“I don’t think it’s been a real hot topic. The technology is just so new,” Snyder said. “Anybody that buys a high-def DVD player in the next year or two will be an early-adopter.”

And even Snyder drops the dreaded word “Betamax” when he talks about the reluctance to buy.

“People ended up being burned by making the wrong decision,” he said. “History has a tendency to repeat itself, and I think people are being a little more cautious.”
Catering to early adopters

But there are always people who simply must have the newest gadget, whatever it is, and a good place for them to start shopping is Amazon.com.

The Internet retailer has set up separate Blu-ray and HD-DVD “stores” at www.amazon.com/bluray and www.amazon.com/hddvd, respectively. Both pages offer detailed explanations of the format, along with links to players and DVDs available for purchase right now.

If you need to see one or even both of the formats in action, they’re only just now turning up in stores.

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Flanner’s Home Entertainment, 16220 W. Blue Mound Road, Brookfield, just received its Blu-ray stock in late June. The store also carries HD-DVD players.
Offering seminars

Sales manager Peter Kotsakis said the newest technology is still a “specialty item.”

The store has run seminars for potential buyers, and may offer more in August.

“If it’s their hobby, people are going to come in looking,” said Kotsakis. And he praises the picture quality on both formats.

TV analyst Swann agrees that “their picture is great, there’s no question.”

“That’s why, in the end, if you’re the guy who has money to burn, maybe you do it because it’s just such a great picture. The potential of this is clear.”

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Still, even some early adopters of HDTV aren’t in the high-def DVD market just yet.

Snyder, for example, is focusing his financial resources on upgrading his high-def TV. He’s replacing a 7-year-old rear-projection TV with two plasma-screen sets, one 46 inches, the other 37 inches.

“I’m just now getting my first flat-screen TV,” said Snyder, who hasn’t even begun shopping around for a new generation of DVD player.

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