In This War, How to Ally With Both

February 6, 2008

The electronics industry has spent billions of dollars on a stupid and unnecessary battle between the next-generation DVD formats: Blu-ray and HD DVD. And so far, it’s all been pretty much for nothing; consumers aren’t touching the things. Nobody wants to risk buying a DVD player that can play only half of the world’s movies.

The DVD format war continues, so Samsung, above, and LG have products that play both Blu-Ray and HD DCD discs. VideoMore Video » This column was supposed to be a celebration of technology’s triumph over corporate pigheadedness. It’s a review of two dual-format decks: DVD players that can play both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs (not to mention traditional DVDs). You could buy one of these players — the LG Super Blu BH200 or the Samsung BD-UP5000 — and be future-proofed. You’d never worry that a certain movie won’t play on your machine. You’d sleep well, knowing that even if one format or the other loses the battle and disappears, your player will serve you well.

But a couple of weeks ago, there was a seismic shift in the format war: Warner Brothers Entertainment, one of the biggest movie studios, announced that starting in June, it would issue its movies in the Blu-ray format instead of HD DVD. At that point, three-quarters of all high-def movies will be offered only in Blu-ray.

Plenty of pundits applauded the Warner departure, declaring the format war essentially over.

The HD DVD camp, however, is declaring itself not dead yet. Toshiba, HD DVD’s inventor, started by cutting the prices of most of its players in half; for example, you can buy its basic player, the HD-A3, for $130 online, complete with seven free movies. Blu-Ray players still cost at least twice as much.

Toshiba points out, furthermore, that every HD DVD player has an Ethernet jack for connecting to the Internet (something that Blu-ray players will start to get only this year), and that HD DVD movies are never “region encoded” (copy protected so that they can be played only in one region of the world), as Blu-ray discs are. The HD DVD consortium is about to introduce an enormous marketing blitz, in print and on TV, that stresses how not yet dead it is.

Callous as this may sound, the world would be a lot better off if HD DVD would just go ahead and die; the lingering format war is keeping the whole new world of high-def movies on DVD from blossoming.

But as long as there are movies issued only in HD DVD — and in the next few months, that list will include “Bee Movie,” “Beowulf,” “The Kite Runner,” “Atonement” and other popular titles — then HD DVD still has a pulse. Therefore, the war isn’t over, and it’s still a bad risk to buy a single-format machine.

Which brings us back to the new dual-format players from LG and Samsung. True, they may not be the world-changers they might have been before Warner made the battle tip in Blu-ray’s favor.

But they should still be attractive to anyone who wants to dive into the high-def DVD game now without worry. They should also appeal to anyone who’s already started buying movies in one format. If it turns out you’ve backed the wrong horse, a combo player means your early investment in movies won’t be lost — and you won’t have to buy a new player to accommodate the winner, either.

These two rival decks have more similarities than differences. Both are sleek, shiny black boxes that provide an absolutely stunning high-definition picture (a so-called 1080p signal) , sharper and better than anything cable or satellite can deliver. Both decks handle advanced features, like the picture-in-picture commentary of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” and the Web-based trivia tracks on “Shrek the Third,” without batting a pixel.

Both players “upconvert” traditional DVDs, making them look extremely sharp and crisp on high-def screens. Both machines are slower to handle high-def discs than regular DVDs, however; for example, you’ll wait 30 seconds for either machine to turn on, and another 20 or 25 for a high-def disc to load. It takes that much time for the player to figure out what kind of disc you’ve inserted.

If you press Stop during playback of a Blu-ray movie, both decks remember your place. If it’s an HD DVD movie, you have to resume from the beginning.

Samsung’s remote control has a few glow-in-the-dark buttons, but is otherwise a disastrous array of touch-indistinguishable buttons of uniform size and shape. LG’s remote is easier to navigate by touch, but has no illumination.

Super Blu BH200 from LG.
VideoMore Video » Super Blu BH200 from LG ($750 online) is the successor to last year’s BH100, which was a true-blue Blu-ray deck with profoundly crippled HD DVD playback; for example, it couldn’t display any of the menus on an HD DVD disc, which is something of a drawback. (One of the joys of both high-def DVD formats is the way its menus pop up without interrupting playback, so you can summon or dismiss subtitles or director’s commentary without going to a separate screen.)

The new LG model gives HD DVD discs first-class citizenship. It does not, however, show the same respect to high-end audio gear, which has caused some grumbling among home-theater aficionados. For example, the LG lacks jacks for coaxial digital audio cables (which can carry the signal long distances in your home) or multichannel analog audio jacks (which are prized by purists with high-end gear).

The Samsung ($800 online) has both of those jacks. It also offers another high-end feature that the LG lacks: the ability to switch on something called 24p movie playback, which is supposed to offer smoother movie playback on TV sets that accept that special signal.

And now, the inevitable price comment: For the price of one combo player, you could buy both an HD DVD player and a separate Blu-ray player. For example, you could buy a Toshiba HD-A3 and a PlayStation 3 game console (which can play Blu-ray movies) for $530.

Sure, you save $200 or so, but that approach is a royal pain. First of all, it means that you have to fuss with putting the right type of disc in the right player; with a combo deck, you can just shove any disc in and hit Play. Furthermore, a single player takes up less space, requires only a single cable, entails only a single new remote and doesn’t involve learning and maintaining two different decks. (Yes, “maintaining.” Both of the combo decks are works in progress, requiring occasional “firmware updates” to fix bugs and install new features from the Internet, courtesy of the built-in Ethernet jack. For example, LG plans to offer that 24p feature with an update “in the next few weeks.” Nobody ever said progress was simple.)

Because of the superior high-end audio and video features, and because it feels slightly more refined than the LG, the Samsung is the better choice — if you can find it. It’s sold out everywhere at the moment.

But despite the tantalizing notion of a futureproof player that protects you no matter how the format war ends, there may be an even better choice: keep waiting.

Some people plan to wait for the even-cheaper combo decks, like the less expensive one that Samsung has already announced for late 2008. Some are waiting to see if HD DVD can survive its recent setbacks.

And some are waiting to see if Internet movie stores will make the whole idea of plastic movie discs obsolete. An effortless, convenient, high-quality, reasonably priced movie-download service is still years away. But its arrival sure would wrap up this whole sorry saga of clashing corporate egos with a nice poetic conclusion.

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