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Another one bites the dust

March 12th, 2008     by Catherine Hayday     Comments

Hey team – inaugural Wired Wednesday post. w00t!

And I’m kicking it off with the hugely sexy topic of… hi-def optical disc formats!

No, come on, it’s gonna be good. I know, I should do all the shiny this week – when robots fall and Rock Band and Google 411 in Canada. And we’ll get there, I promise.

For this week though, we’re going practical. Because there’s nothing more Shameless than walking into a tech store and knowing your stuff.

I figured that if someone reasonably geeky, like myself, used to wonder WTF was the difference between Blu-ray and DVD and HD DVD, someone else was probably wondering too (though possibly with less profanity). And in the interests of spreading tech-savvyness amongst teh ladehs, I’ve written up below the cliffs notes to hi-def discs. What they are. What battle Blu-ray just “won”. And what to do with all your DVDs (<-keep them). Etc.

But first something from xkcd that has absolutely nothing to do with that:

Ahem, so, without further distractions: WTF is Blu-ray

What’s the difference between Blu-ray and regular DVDs? About 5x the amount of storage. A standard single-layer DVD stores just under 5GB of data. A single-layer Blu-ray disc stores 25GB. Or 26214400KB. Or… whatever, you’re with me.

But all that means is that optical disc technology is catching up with the existing high quality output options. We’ve had these huge high definition TVs around for a while now, but you just can’t stuff enough data onto a regular DVD to take full advantage of them.

With a hi-def optical disc, like Blu-ray, films can be recorded sharper, crisper, more colour/sound/everything-rich. They’re what these high-definition TVs are built for. Literally.

(Because if you don’t have high-definition media to go with your high-definition TV all it does is make everything look worse. It’s like walking into a candlelit dinner and flicking on overhead fluorescent lighting. Nothing looks prettier.)

Some hi-end players will “upscale” and try to pretty up the regular formats you’re putting in. But the real experience means investing in a high-definition player and high-definition discs. But which high-definition solution to get?

What is/was the news? About a month ago, Blu-ray won the high definition optical disc format war. Blu-ray (backed by Sony) was up against HD DVD (backed by Toshiba and Microsoft) to be “The” format for high-definition media storage.

The Blu-ray name was a little misleading (it’s actually named after the colour of laser used to read and write off the disc: a Blu-ray laser is blue, a regular DVD laser is red). Because if you have a high-definition TV aren’t you looking for a high-definition video? Yes. So doesn’t that mean you want HD DVD? No. Because even though HD DVD has a more intuitive acronym, Blu-Ray is also high-definition video. They’re doing the same thing. (It was sort of like one car company calling their new car “Car”).

All that meaning it’s been a big old mess in high-definition optical discs and players for the last, oh, 8 years. Because Blu-ray and HD DVD were looking to fill exactly the same need. The same need, addressed two different ways on two different formats with two different players.

Which is why it was such a big deal when HD DVD ran up the white flag. Because a whole lotta people with disposable incomes had remodeled their dens, bought big plasma or LCD flat-panel TVs, and 5.1 surround sound, then they put on their silk PJs, buttered their popcorn, and had nothing to watch.

Well, not nothing exactly. They just had to take a big ol’ gamble with yet another big chunk of money, and bet on which format was going to win when they bought their hi-def player. Because…shocker coming…for the most part, HD-DVDs don’t work on Blu-ray players and Blu-ray discs don’t work on HD-DVD players. Okay, so not shocking at all. Because while the future might be friendly, proprietary solutions aren’t.

Oh sweet jeebus, is this like when CDs came out? VHS became obsolete? Betamax kicked it? Do I have to replace everything? Again? Yes and no. You’ve only been betamaxed if you bought HD DVDs and an HD DVD player. There are a few players that read both Blu-Ray and HD DVD discs. But the market has basically said tough noogies to you, and all you can do is hoard components and existing HD DVD movies. The great offloading has already begun over at (Oh, and by the way Amazon? “Save 50% on HD DVDs for a Limited Time Only”? Sucks to that. Limited time until they start giving them away free with purchase.)

If, however, you stuck with your DVDs and DVD player, you’re fine. Blu-ray is the official new hi-end format, but it’s not replacing the standard DVD anytime soon. And unlike the great divide between VHS and DVD (where you have to lovingly coax and duct tape a little more life out of your VCR), there’s a good chance you’ll be able to play your old DVDs on new Blu-ray players.

Just bear in mind that while it looks like a DVD and tastes like a DVD, Blu-ray discs are not DVDs. They’re both optical discs, but they’re not interchangeable – they’re recorded and read differently (blue vs red). So if you go newfangled, make sure that your Blu-ray player is DVD-compatible.

So is it worth getting a Blu-ray player now? Meh. One of the reasons that Blu-ray wasn’t triumphant earlier is that the player is so friggin’ expensive. It was only when Sony included one essentially free as part of their Playstation 3, that any significant number of people even had a Blu-ray player.

Buying a Blu-ray player as part of the PS3 remains the most cost-effective way to own one. Though even that ain’t cheap. Even the 40GB PS3 is hovering around $400. But that’s still at least $100 cheaper than a standalone Blu-ray player.

And then there is the stupid high price tag of the Blu-ray discs themselves ($25 on sale, $40ish otherwise). So, conclusion: for everyday movie watching, your DVDs and DVD player ain’t broke.


If you do decide to get a Blu-ray player, I’d definitely go the PS3 route. Because then you can watch movies (yes, it’s DVD-compatible) and play videogames.

But we’ll talk about those next time. smile

Tags: geek chic

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