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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

paralyzed by DVD options

Speaking of the battle between HD and Blu-ray…

I finally indulged in a widescreen HDTV recently (as some of you may have read). I’m in love with it, and I can’t believe I waited this long to buy one. But I’m making do with a standard upconverting DVD player for the moment — it’s a hand-me-down from a friend who’s a couple of steps ahead of me in the new-toy game, and it’s a beauty — because I’m seriously in the grips of techno-fatigue lately. Even if the starving-writer lifestyle I currently “enjoy” weren’t prohibitive enough of buying every cool digital device than comes out of Japan, the movie industry seems determined to paralyze consumers in the home-theater arena.
Look: I’ve always been an early adopter. I was the first person I knew to buy a DVD player, almost a decade ago. The first DVD I bought was Goodfellas (since supplanted by a newer edition): it had no extras and had to be flipped over in the middle of the movie like it was a damned vinyl record or something. (And I had to walk four miles through the snow uphill in both directions to buy it; these kids today, with their Netflix and their Amazon Unbox, they have no idea how easy they have it.) It was a snap to buy DVDs in the late 90s: you just hoped to God your favorite movie had been released in the new format, and then you went and bought it. And that was it.

But now? Sheesh. 300 — still one of my favorite movies of this year so far — was released on DVD on July 31. In five different versions: single-disc widescreen, single-disc fullscreen (do people really buy those?), two-disc special edition, HD, and Bu-ray. The single-discs are extras-free, as usual, but the other three editions all feature different bonus material, so even if you’re one of those early-early adopters who can’t wait for the format war to end and already owns both HD and Blu-ray players (my hand-me-downing friend is one), which one do you buy? Costs aside — and that’s not really something most people can put aside in this, ahem, spartan economy — does it really make sense to run out and buy three different versions of the same movie? Just what does Hollywood expect from us, anyway, dammit? Crap, does anyone really think that We Are Marshall, coming to DVD September 18, really demands regular, HD, and Blu-ray versions?

I thought the proliferation of editions had reached the greedy, grasping pinnacle of getting-out-of-handedness with the 18,000 options for ownership of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that was nothing to what’s happening today, with HD and Blu-ray still at each other’s throats. If you really care about getting the best image possible, buying a DVD today means you’ve got a 66.66 percent chance of getting it wrong: If you choose Blu-ray and that goes the way of Betamax, you’re screwed. If you choose HD and it loses the battle, you’re screwed. (And actually, you’re 100 percent screwed if you buy the basic non-HD version, because that will certain go the way of the dodo in the near future.)

Used to be, I snapped up every DVD I could possible pretend to justify the purchase of. I love having my favorite movies at my beck and call 24/7. But I’m done for now. I remember, in the late 80s, having to repurchase all my vinyl albums on cassette tape, which I probably wouldn’t have done if I’d known that a mere few years later, I’d be buying them all over again on CD… and if I’d known that, another mere few years later, I’d be ripping those CDs and uploading them to my first MP3 player. (Yeah, I was one of the first to buy one of those, too. Today its best use is as a doorstop.) I’m tired of this nonsense, and I’m much poorer because I gave in to it. I hardly buy DVDs these days — it seems much smarter to just rent the ones I really must see from Netflix. Let them deal with the constant format upgrades.

Personally, I can’t wait to see the geeky hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing that is sure to go on in December, when Blade Runner: The Final Cut, arrives on DVD, in a two-disc special edition, a four-disc “Collector’s Edition,” and a five-disc “Ultimate Collector’s Edition”… which will appear in regular, HD, and Blu-ray formats. That’s five versions. That’s ridiculous.

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  • I have the HD-DVD add-on for my Xbox 360, and I love it… got some really good movies on HD-DVD, including 300, the first two Bourne flicks, Children of Men, the Matrix movies, etc. HD-DVD is awesome.

    But I realize that the odds are heavily stacked against HD-DVD, and not because it did anything wrong. In fact, HD-DVD is a superior format to Blu-ray in many ways. But Blu-ray has a trump card: Very wide studio support. Only one studio (Universal) is HD-DVD-only; the others all support Blu-ray, and of them a few don’t support HD-DVD at all. (Dirty little not-so-secret: The studios love Blu-ray because it has an extra layer of copy protection that HD-DVD lacks. Greed, as usual, dictates function.)

    There is a solution to your woes, though: Get a combo player that plays both HD-DVD and Blu-ray. LG sells such a player now, and Samsung is releasing one later this year. The Samsung is what I plan to get… I have enough HD-DVDs now to justify not wanting to have to repurchase them all in Blu-ray format, and there’s still no guarantee of who will win the Format War. So a combo player is a good solution for anyone who just wants to buy an HD movie disc and be able to play it without any problems.

  • JSW

    Personally, I plan to just stick with DVDs until they start making movies HD-only. The jump from VHS to DVD was significant because DVDs didn’t have to be rewound, didn’t degrade under normal usage, were smaller, required a smaller player, and could include commentaries and other bonus features, in addition to the bump in image quality. Plus I could play them on my computer, which as a student with somewhat cramped living space was pretty significant for me at the time.

    Blu-Ray and HD-DVD are just DVDs in higher resolution, and movies already looked perfectly fine on DVD.

  • amanohyo

    Clayj is right, it seems like Blu-ray is the safer bet. Besides having more studio support, it also has a catchier name (who wants to say HD-DVD over and over?). I’m cheap, so if I don’t watch it in the theater, the only way I’ll see it is checking it out from the public library where they still have regular DVDs and *gasp*… VHS.

    Out of the approximately 3,000 movies I’ve seen there are maybe thirty that I would ever want to see a second time. I do like widescreen, but really as long as the colors are reasonably accurate and the screen isn’t covered with static, a good movie is a good movie no matter what the format is.

    But that’s probably anathema to geek filosophers. If you’re really torn about the 300 extras, you should buy the Blu-ray version and your friend can get the HD-DVD one. That, or you can hold off buying any more movies until one format wins… which is what most of the country seems to be doing… which means it will be a while before one of them wins… hmm that is a dilly of a pickle…

  • misterb

    There’s another option:
    get HBO-HD wait for the movies to come out on cable. While this has cost disadvantages, not all movies are on HBO vs its competitors, you have to wait until they show the movie instead of when you want it, you do get a high quality video experience, and for the current price of an HD player, you can get 2 years of:
    Sopranos, Deadwood, Curb your Enthusiasm and Flight of the conchords.

  • Well… The Sopranos isn’t on anymore, obviously, and neither is Deadwood. And The Flight of the Conchords isn’t filmed in HD.

    But I agree that there are a lot of quality movies in HD on HBO HD… it’s one of the channels I watch the most. Here in Charlotte, HBO HD comes free of charge with an HBO subscription, which is only $7 a month. Definitely money well-spent.

  • Same thing happened to the music industry, circa 1948 to 1950. Two vinyl record formats came out during those years, both with direct advantages and disadvantages compared to the other. It only ended when both formats found different niches, but it was a disaster for the music industry; for almost three years, nobody bought records at all.

    And of course, there’s VHS versus Betamax…

  • Doa766

    would someone mention please at least one aspect where the HD-DVD is superior to the blu-ray?

    and it doesn’t count because you like it more or because you already have it on your game console

  • MaryAnn

    It doesn’t matter, for the sake of my argument here, whether HD is better than Blu-ray or the other way around: that won’t have anything to do with which format wins.

  • Ryan

    well prognosticated clayj!

  • Thanks, but it really wasn’t that difficult to predict. What surprised me is how quickly the HD-DVD house of cards came tumbling down.

    What irks me is that I now have something like 30 HD-DVDs. I can still play them on my Xbox 360s, but there’s no way I will buy a standalone HD-DVD player… and the combo players I mentioned previously turned out to be a bust (i.e., very expensive and not upgradeable). So while I have ordered a Blu-ray player and will only buy Blu-ray discs from now on, I have the issue of what to do with my existing HD-DVD library. I could liquidate it now for a fraction of what I paid for it, or I can hold onto it (the movies still look great, especially on my new Samsung 120Hz 1080p TV) and make sure to keep at least one Xbox 360 and HD-DVD add-on until such time as I slowly replace my HD-DVDs with Blu-ray movies.

    Format wars suck.

  • MaryAnn

    I’m leery even of buying Blu-ray. Before long everything will be downloadable (if we’re not in a Mad Max apocalypse in which even electricity is scarce, and then all bets are off), so I’m reluctant to repurchase all my favorite movies in yet another format that will rendered obsolete in a few short years.

  • MaryAnn, one nice thing about Blu-ray (and HD-DVD, before it died) is that the players also tend to be upconverting DVD players, assuming you are using an HDMI connection to your TV. So your existing DVDs will look “hi-def” when they are played; they’ll have (almost) the resolution of Blu-ray/HD-DVD, but they won’t have the same level of detail. For a true HD picture, Blu-ray will be the way to go.

    I don’t plan on replacing all 600+ of my DVDs with Blu-ray versions; a lot of my old DVDs I wouldn’t buy again, and old TV shows (like Monty Python’s Flying Circus or The Prisoner) wouldn’t benefit from being converted to HD. For these titles, upconversion will suffice. But for anything new, I plan only to buy HD titles… and that means Blu-ray.

    Either way, though, I certainly plan to be more picky about my HD disc purchases than I was with DVD purchases in the past. My movie library is pretty complete and now only requires new movies and old movies now available on HD, if I decide they’re worth buying in HD.

  • Actually, a thought that just occurred to me: Some company that makes Blu-ray players (Sony, Samsung?) needs to make a Blu-ray player that you can attach the Xbox 360’s HD-DVD add-on onto and control and playback with the same remote and video connection. This would be a very smart thing to do, to relieve us 360 owners of the need to keep our old videogame console hooked up.

    If you’re reading this and you work for a company that makes Blu-ray players, please pass this suggestion on to your product development group.

  • MaryAnn

    one nice thing about Blu-ray (and HD-DVD, before it died) is that the players also tend to be upconverting DVD players,

    I’ve already got an upconverting player, and the picture is very nice.

  • paul

    I’ve always been behind on the technological ladder. Does the quality of a TV screen or recording technology make the jokes funnier? The story better? The characters more engaging? I really, honestly, do not care if I’m watching Cheers or Star Trek or West Wing on a video tape or a DVD player, never mind Blue ray or HD-DVD. I actually rather resent it every time they make these improvements and expect everyone to buy all those movies and shows over. If anything proves that books are the superior format, it’s these damn upgrades.

    Of course, when I totalled my car I took the insurance money, I bought a bicycle and $500 worth of books, then lost 15 pounds in one summer because of this nasty valley between me and work.

    When I did upgrade my computer, my friends kept saying I needed to buy a top of the line computer to play all these awesome games, but since I consider a computer’s most important use to be for writing, I settled for a generation behind. Sure, I can’t play Warcraft online, I think I can’t, but I shouldn’t be playing Warcraft anyway.

    Now, technology is okay in of itself, but we have to be the boss of the technology, not the other way around. I’m not going to bullied into buying fancy new technology anymore than I’m going to be bullied into buying $300 shoes to impress a date. Maybe someday I’ll give up trying to be a writer and take the time to watch every scene of the Buffy universe in chronological order (instead of the order they were presented on the air; someone did take the time to make that list and put it on the Internet) and then I’ll need to buy some DVDs or whatever it is then, but it’s not today.

  • Luddite. ;-)

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