A Beta vs. VHS Redux

TapeOne of my favourite alt-pop bands these days is VHS or Beta. It’s a great, almost ironic, name for this particular group. Their sound, led by the Robert Smith-inspired vocalist Craig Pfunder, is totally 80s. And, as we all know, that decade was the battleground of the last great video media format war.

The scene is set for another such clash.

In one corner, we have Blu-ray, backed by the major studios Sony Pictures, MGM, and 20th Century Fox plus major technology companies including LG Electronics, Panasonic and Philips. Opposing is HD DVD with Microsoft, Intel, Toshiba, NEC and Universal Studios showing support.

It’s kind of silly, really. The two technologies aren’t really all that different. I mean, they’re different enough to be incompatible obviously, but not as different as, say, VHS and Beta. Those old tape formats came in totally different cases so there was no way you could accidentally stick a Beta cassette into a VHS machine.

Blu-ray and HD DVD, on the other hand, are almost identical in a physical sense. They’re both flat, round, silver and twelve centimetres in diameter. The Blu-ray discs are apparently tougher; rumour has it you can scrub them with steel wool and they’ll still play.

Both require a “blue” laser with its shorter frequency response to be read (hence the name, “blue-ray”). CDs and regular DVDs on the other hand use a red laser.

Apparently still, they’re different enough to warrant enlisting we consumers as pawns in a retail war.

To their credit, the various parties involved in the development of these two media standards did spend some time trying to reconcile the technological differences. But in the end it was ego override (apparently led by Microsoft and Sony) that nullified any possibility of “one disc to rule them all”.

What should we expect, though? These are the same parties, essentially, who couldn’t come to terms over something as simple as a recordable DVD format. Now we have both DVD-R and DVD+R. The difference? Well, one has a plus sign and the other has a minus sign in its name. Most DVD recorders can work with either format.

You might wonder why we even need a new video format. In short, DVD isn’t up to the task of delivering the massively improved entertainment experience of high definition (HD) video content. I can speak from experience when I say that HDTV is a brilliant new medium that enhances the home entertainment experience immensely. The technologies underlying both Blu-ray and HD DVD promise even better.

HD demands higher capacity media with higher quality and more consistent technology performance. The dual-layer DVD discs that currently deliver feature films hold about 9 gigabytes of data and the best audio they can achieve is 5 channel Dolby surround sound. Not bad, but not spectacular. In fact, DVDs look just mediocre on current generation HD televisions.

HD DVD can hold up to 30 GB of data, with Blu-ray holding up to 50. Both formats will support up to 7.1 Dolby digital audio.

But that’s just the beginning. Both technologies will move up to higher capacity media very soon. TDK has developed a 200 GB Blu-ray disc.

So you have to wonder: if both technologies support the same video and audio technologies and have the same goal to present the same quality of experience to consumers, what’s the point of this commercial warfare?

I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that one.

Back in the early 80s it was pretty clear: Beta really was better than VHS. In the end, though, VHS was cheaper; and that’s the variable folks tend to worry about in the midst of an energy crisis.

From the perspective of even the most discerning viewer seated on a sofa, though, any difference between Blu-ray and HD DVD will be virtually imperceptible. So if you consider VHS’ redeeming quality in view of our current energy-dogged economic climate, HD DVD may be set to kick some butt. Prices for Blu-ray media and devices are expected to be slightly higher than HD DVD’s.

On the other hand, on paper at least, Blu-ray does seem to be the superior technology. It can hold more data, the discs are tougher, and it has a broader corporate support base. Plus, it’s got one major ace in the hole: Sony’s much-anticipated Playstation 3 video game console will be based on Blu-ray media.

That said, HD DVD is out of the gate first, having hit the streets last month. You won’t see Blu-ray movies and players trickling into the market until early July. But the matter of time-to-market is moderately moot. With entry-level players retailing at $800 a piece, it’ll be quite a while before too many average consumers begin migrating away from standard DVD.

It’s almost certain that one format will fail and the other succeed, which means that until it all shakes down an awful lot of consumers are going to get swindled out of some serious cash for a dead-end technology. Most predictions hold that within an 18-24 month timeframe we’ll learn who the winner is. So don’t go crazy replacing your DVD movie library until the smoke clears.

Whatever happens, in 20 years I doubt any band will take their namesake from this format war. “Blu-ray or HD DVD” just doesn’t have that cool ring to it.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, June 2, 2006.

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