CES 2006: No Clear Winner on Blue Laser DVDs

Traditional DVDs using a red laser and MPEG2 compression do not have the storage capacity for a full-length movie in HD format. Using a blue laser with shorter wavelength light allows designers to use smaller pits and thus store more data on a disc the same size as a standard DVD or CD. Two camps — HD DVD and BluRay — are competing to become the blue laser standard. Both camps worked hard at CES last week to demonstrate that they were going to be the inevitable winner in the contest, but neither made a convincing case.

One of the best discussions I heard on the topic the entire week was the session at the HDTV Business Conference held by Insight Media. The two presenters gave balanced and informative accounts of the different technologies, with a minimum of hype and misleading claims. Both sides have their advantages; BluRay has a larger capacity, and HD DVD should be easier and cheaper to build. Both have their big friends in the playground; Sony will be releasing PlayStation 3 with BluRay drives, while Microsoft is planning an HD DVD drive option for the XBox 360. Each side has a list of movie studios supporting their format.

One of the speakers said that he thought the deciding factor would be which technology had the “coolest” content. If the movies you want to watch are on one format, that’s what you’ll buy. I think that this is a reasonable statement, but a look at the satellite radio market shows that this isn’t enough to achieve dominance. Football fans get Sirius Radio, while baseball fans get XM Radio.

I did hear one factor that may turn out to be the tipping point: the HD DVD makers plan to release new movies in a “flippy” format, with standard DVD on one side, and HD DVD on the other. This is apparently not an easy option for BluRay discs. I think that this could turn out to be the deciding factor because people are not going to make the switch to an expensive new HD player right away. And the video rental stores aren’t going to want to stock three versions of a movie: standard, HD DVD, and BluRay. If many movies come out in dual mode, when it comes time for someone to upgrade to a new DVD player for their HDTV, then they will already have HD DVD titles in their personal collection and readily available at the rental store. I’m guessing that this could make all the difference.