Format Wars Part III: The HD-DVD Strikes Back

Back in the May 2005 edition of Electronic Design Europe, I commented on the format battle between Sony’s Blu-ray and Toshiba’s HD-DVD disc technology, comparing it to the great technology conflict between Betamax and VHS. I pointed out that despite all of the technical differences and advantages trumpeted by both systems, it would ultimately be the consumer who decided which system would reign supreme.

Sure enough they did, and VHS took the crown. Customers liked the price-performance positioning of VHS, even if arguments at the time pointed to Betamax as a superior technology So why, given that well-documented item of technological history to guide them, is Sony currently jeopardising its market position in the Blu-ray versus HD-DVD format battle by delaying the launch of Blu-ray’s platform—the PlayStation 3 games console? The answer: unresolved technical issues with Blu-ray.

An unhappy Sony feels these problems are a result of the failure of the Blu-ray Disc Association to come up with final technical specs. Sony’s difficulties are further compounded by the fact Toshiba is ready to grab the market now with its HD-DVD format. However, many think Blu-ray may be technically better in the long run. It uses a coating only one-sixth the thickness of the outside layer of a DVD or an HD-DVD. Blu-ray’s data layers are closer to the surface, which allows a Blu-ray player to read data that’s encoded with smaller markings. Smaller markings mean a higher density of data can be packed onto a single layer.

So, simply put, Blu-ray can store more data on each layer, and it will have more layers of data than HD-DVDs. On top of that, Sony plans to create future versions with increased numbers of data layers.

But—and it is a big but—from a consumer perspective, Toshiba and the HD-DVD supporters (including Microsoft and its XBox 360) have a timing advantage that consumers may find irresistible. And lest we not forget the price difference, too. Furthermore, because HD-DVD technology has the same layer dimensions as today’s disks, existing DVD factories can start producing HD-DVD quickly and cheaply.

So it will be interesting to see which technology feels the force of consumer purchasing power—the here-and-now or the jam tomorrow?

TAGS: Toshiba
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