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Occasional ramblings by an anesthesiologist/mother (and sometimes her husband).

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD: Another Reason Why It Wasn't Betamax

With the withdrawal of Toshiba from the race, it seems that the battle between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray is finally over. During the struggle, many compared it to the battle between VHS & Betamax. The comparison, however, falls apart on a number of levels. There have been many discussions of the technical aspects. What has been lost, however, is the human element.

The short story of Betamax is that a higher quality format was defeated by a cheaper one. Why didn't that happen with Blu-Ray?

The basic answer is that the battlefield was much smaller. Far fewer people got involved in this battle. Those participating were a rather select group.

Let's look at the landscape during the Betamax era. If you didn't have a VHS or Betamax device, there was no way for you to record video content from, or play pre-recorded content on, your tv. All you could watch was what was broadcast. Pretty much everyone had a tv. Either device would give your existing setup a capability you did not have before.

Did you care about the quality? Maybe. What, however, were the chances that you actually owned a television good enough to tell the difference? Even if you could, VHS was probably "good enough." And if it's cheaper, well that's what you're going to go for.

The VHS/Betamax battle was fought on a large scale. The scale of this current battle was a lot smaller than tech-savvy people realize.

Take my in-laws, for instance. They like gadgets and toys. They have an iPod Nano. They have a Sony CRT HDTV and watch HD channels from the satellite. On the other hand, they've had their home computer for as long as ES1 & I have been together (our 4 year wedding anniversary is coming up in April and we were engaged for close to 3 years before that), and I'm fairly certain that they have yet to purchase a digital camera.

Basically, they like toys, but want them to work. On their 4x3 aspect ratio TV, for example, they zoom and chop the HD signal so that they actually use the whole screen. They lose some picture quality and some content, but they'd rather use the whole thing.

To put this battle in context, neither of them had heard of the conflict between HD-DVD & Blu-Ray.

Let's look at the landscape now:

HD-DVD or Blu-Ray is not even an issue unless you have an HD set. Roughly 10% of households out there have one. Of that 10%, approximately half are strictly watching Standard def signals, and about a quarter of those think they're watching hi-def.

So, for the overwhelming majority of people out there, this argument was a non-issue.

Now, lets look at the tech-savvy who would be involved. They all remembered the Betamax issue and didn't want to get stuck with the loser. A lot of them, therefore, stayed out of it. Hundreds of dollars for something that might be obsolete? Even the gorram cables are expensive!

This is not to mention the elephant in the room - Standard Definition DVDs. They're ubiquitous. They're cheap. They work on everything. Pretty much everything is available on them now. And, when done right, they look and sound really good.

Sure, HD looks and sounds better if you have the right equipment. But for most people, the additional quality was not going to be worth the added expense and hassle of all the equipment, especially when you add in the risk factor. Good HDTVs are still really expensive. Good audio setups are expensive. So many low-quality "surround sound" systems are sold which frigtardedly violate Dolby's 5.1 specs by having the center channel speaker be larger than the surround speakers.

A setup to truly let you appreciate hi-def picture and sound is going to run you a metric assload. Or you can just throw in a DVD on what you have and you'll get a very enjoyable experience.

In the end, this battle was waged between geeks with money. The result was that the higher-cost, higher-capacity format won.

Even now, what does this victory mean? It may mean that more companies will be making the players, and that they will drop in price until everyone can afford them.

It may also mean nothing. It's still only a niche market. And what about downloads?

AppleTV Take 2 is a great idea. It is, however, expensive when compared to Netflix or Blockbuster. It may bridge the gap from online content to your tv, but until the problems of bandwidth and storage are solved, it's also going to be a niche.

Besides, many people (myself included) prefer to own a physical copy of video media. I'll download music as much as I please. Video, however, I'd really want to have on a physical item for durability and longevity.

What we have here is a war being fought in a bubble. Most people are going to stay out of it for a long time to come. The DVD will eventually be replaced. HD-DVD has lost. It's far from clear, however, if Blu-Ray has actually won.

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