Clearer picture, unclear choice

Saturday, March 18, 2006
Pam Caldwell of Cairo, Ill., shopped for a DVD at Hastings in Cape Girardeau recently. The DVDs on the wall may become obsolete after high-definition DVDs come out. (Diane L. Wilson)

High-def DVD players will be popular -- after costs come down and a format fight is settled.

Renee Shandy and her husband, Dan, are self-described "vidiots." The Jackson couple loves everything to do with the high-tech world of home entertainment -- whether it's their flat-screen, high-def TV, their satellite dish or their TiVo-like digital video recorder.

Still, when the new high-definition DVD players and discs come out starting early next month, they'll probably hold off a bit before they buy.

"I would be interested in it, and even excited about it," said Renee, a graphics designer at Southeast Missouri Hospital's marketing department. "But I'd probably wait until the prices come down. That's how we do it. We're not the type to jump right in and do it."

That tends to be how consumers are -- cautious. When it comes to the new high-def DVDs and players, experts say they should be.

That's because not only are the players going to initially top out at about $1,000 and the new DVDs could sell for as high as $60, a so-called format war is looming that reminds experts of the VHS/Betamax war of the 1980s and the DVD/laserdisc square-off in the 1990s.

Sony's Blu-ray and Toshiba's HD DVD are rival formats for high-definition DVDs, which can only be viewed on high-definition televisions. Each is capable of holding far more data than a traditional DVD disc. Traditional DVDs are designed for television sets with 480 lines of resolution. But high-definition televisions have 1,080 lines or more, and more lines make for a sharper image.

Both of the new players will use blue lasers, which have shorter wavelengths than the red lasers current players use. This allows more data to be stored on the disc surface. The sound is also said to be superior.

Sony Corp. says its first Blu-ray disc player, the BDP-S1, will be available in July for about $1,000. The company had previously committed to an "early summer" launch.

Toshiba will be first in line with a March launch of its HD DVD format player. However, the date may be pushed to April in order to coincide with the first films to be made available on HD DVD. They haven't even hinted at a price, though.

Warner Home Video has said it will start selling high-def DVD titles in April.

Dr. Jim Dufek, a mass communications professor who teaches television courses at Southeast Missouri State University, said the rub is this -- discs that play on one will not play on the other. Dufek said the movie studios are currently choosing between formats.

So far, Sony and Disney are in the Blu-ray camp while Warner, Universal and Paramount are behind HD DVDs. That will leave consumers scratching their heads, Dufek said.

"And they're certainly not going to buy two DVD players," he said. "So I think until the industry finds out which is the better one, consumers will hold off."

It is reminiscent, Dufek said, of the war between VHS and Betamax. While the Betamax was higher quality, VHS saturated the market and offered a less expensive product. So Blu-ray players may hold more data, Dufek said, but that doesn't mean they'll come out on top.

Whichever does, he said, technophiles will notice a difference. He said some may have bought their high-def televisions thinking DVDs were already capable of being seen in high definition.

He saw a high-def DVD being played at a convention he attended in January. "It was impressive," Dufek said. "People will really see a difference."

These new next-generation DVDs and players will eventually replace the existing DVDs and DVD players, Dufek said.

Joe Belcher, a sales manager at Stereo One in Cape Girardeau, said the store already has a waiting list of customers interested in getting a high-definition DVD player.

"There are actually quite a few early adopters," he said. "There are people who like to get this stuff as soon as it's out there. There's a lot of interest starting to brew."

Belcher said a colleague at Stereo One has also seen the new players. "He said it was stunning," Belcher said. "The difference between a regular movie and these movies just blew him away."

At Blockbuster and Hollywood video, store managers said they didn't know when they would be getting in high-def DVDs. Hastings manager Robin Hester said the store already is already making room on the shelves for the new discs. She thought the new discs would be in within the next month or so.

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