The Format Wars: Is Peace a Good Thing?

[Peter Suderman] Greetings, Andrew Sullivan readers! Many thanks to Andrew for inviting me to help look after his place while he’s gone this week.

I should say up front that I’m a bit of a gear head, and also a complete movie fanatic. That means that for the last few weeks, much of my attention has been devoted to what appear to be the final moments in the high-def format war. The good news for movie geeks is that the high-def format war is all but officially over. After a series of developments in which all the news seemed to be bad for Toshiba and its HD DVD format, the company has leaked that, sometime early this week, it will officially announce that it’s ceasing production of HD discs and players. This unequivocal winner here is Sony’s Blu-ray format, which will now become the standard in high def video. And it means that, for film and gadget nuts looking to upgrade to high definition home video, now’s the time.

But although peace may be a good thing, the end of a battle doesn’t necessarily mean that the right side won. And in this case, a triumphant Blu-ray regime may not actually be the optimal outcome for those of us on the buying end. For one thing, the discs and the equipment are more expensive. Increased demand may take care of some of the cost difference, but prices are likely to remain higher for a longer period of time than they would have had HD prevailed. For another, up until now, whenever Blu-ray and HD released concurrent versions of the same title, the HD releases tended to have more features, and many folks reported preferring the interactivity of HD.

The biggest problem, thoughat least as far as I’m concernedis that Blu-ray was released as an unfinished format. Early players aren’t able to play all the features on newer discs (this has already resulted in some legal trouble for Sony Samsung*), and players with the final hardware profile aren’t expected to hit the market till late this year. So although there are some clear benefits to Sony’s format (larger storage capacity, multiple lossless audio tracks, ubiquity via the PS3), I’m not sure the winner here was really the best.

On the other hand, I’m also currently researching Blu-ray players with the intention of upgrading as soon as possible. To the victor go the spoils.

*Corrected to say Samsung.