New DVD players resolve battle of formats

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Many consumers have put off buying new high-definition DVD players, wary of the battle between two competing formats. Now, some electronics hardware makers are hoping to make the question moot by rolling out machines that play movies in both formats.

The two new formats, known as HD-DVD and Blu-ray, have been duking it out to become the next-generation DVD format of choice, each offering high-resolution video to match the HDTV sets that more families are buying.

But at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next week, at least one hardware provider, LG Electronics Co., is expected to showcase DVD players that work with either technology. Hewlett-Packard Co. will also have products that support both formats in the marketplace this year, a source close to the company says. Others are expected to follow suit.

The news should come as a boon to consumers who are weighing which player to buy to go with their new big-screen, high-definition TV sets. While regular DVDs work on the new sets, DVD players specifically designed for HD offer exceptionally sharp pictures and more features.

But the burgeoning format war between the backers of HD-DVD and Blu-ray has caused many consumers to pause before taking the plunge into high-definition movie discs. Many studios aren't releasing movies in both HD-DVD and Blu-ray, so choosing one player or another could mean that the high-def version of a favorite title isn't available. Universal Pictures, for example, releases movies only in HD-DVD, so its remake of "King Kong" isn't available in Blu-ray. Walt Disney Co., News Corp.'s Twentieth Century Fox and Sony Corp. release films only in Blu-ray, meaning there is no HD-DVD version of Disney's "Pearl Harbor." Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures and Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros. release movies in both formats.

The new dual-format players will work by using optical drives and integrated circuits that can run with both HD-DVD and Blu-ray. Developing the drives proved tough because they needed to pull data from two different places on the discs, close to the top edge for Blu-ray and closer to the middle for HD-DVDs.

For now, the dual-format players are likely to carry high price tags, expected to be around $1,200 or higher. That's actually lower than some of the Blu-ray players out there -- Pioneer Corp.'s Pioneer Elite BDP HD-1 costs $1,500, although Sony and Samsung Electronics Co. offer less-expensive players at $1,000 and $800, respectively -- but more than double the $500 it costs for a Toshiba HD DVD player.

Sales of stand-alone DVD players have been slow, but there is an alternative for consumers looking to try high-def discs: game devices. Sony's PlayStation 3, which costs around $500, comes equipped with Blu-ray. And for $200, consumers can pick up an attachment that plays HD-DVD movies for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360, which costs $300 to $400.

About 695,000 consumers own either a Blu-ray or an HD-DVD player, according to Tom Adams of Adams Media Research in Carmel, Calif. But only about 25,000 have purchased stand-alone Blu-ray players. Another 400,000 consumers have Blu-ray because they bought a Sony PS3 game console. Meanwhile, about 120,000 or so have a stand-alone HD-DVD player while about 150,000 have an HD-DVD upgrade kit for their Xbox 360 game consoles, Mr. Adams says. He adds that those numbers are well in excess of the 300,000 DVD-player sales in 1997, when that technology rolled out.

Some consumers have dodged high-definition players because they already own top-of-the-line DVD players that add higher resolution onto regular DVDs so they look crisper on HDTV sets. For those viewers, there might not be much advantage to the newer technologies.

San Francisco computer consultant Tyler Dikman, for example, owns a high-end Denon 3910 DVD player that he uses with a 60-inch Sony Grand Wega rear-projection HDTV set. Mr. Dikman had heard the buzz about next-generation DVDs for a couple of years and shelled out $1,000 for a Sony Blu-ray player in November. After watching movies like Paramount Pictures' "Mission Impossible III" and Columbia Pictures' "The Fifth Element" on the new player, he decided that, although the text was crisper on subtitles and there were fewer glitches like blurring, overall the Blu-ray movies didn't look much better than regular DVDs on his Denon player. The Sony player also wouldn't play his audio CDs. He took it back to a Best Buy Co. store last month.

"I was waiting for this night-and-day difference, and I don't feel I got it," says Mr. Dikman, who says he still plans to buy a high-definition DVD player once the players have overcome snafus like the CD issue. Sony says there may be changes in future models, and overall, consumers have responded favorably to the product. "Of course, performance is affected by several factors, including what other components are included in the home theater system, how they are connected to one another and how the content was encoded," a Sony spokesman says.

Even if more hardware companies introduce dual-format players this year, it doesn't mean the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD war is over for the movie studios. The same goes for the the major hardware backers of each side: Sony for Blu-ray and Toshiba Corp. for HD-DVD. "We're fully expecting a couple of years of format war," says Mr. Adams.

Both formats offer similar extra features, including an option to inset smaller video clips into the main movie. That allows the movie to run with discreetly placed boxes showing, say, directors discussing their techniques.

The two formats allow consumers to get extra information with the click of a button while watching a movie. In Universal's "Miami Vice" on HD-DVD, users can click on a button to get a series of on-screen pop-up boxes with details like who made the boats or planes in a scene, what some of their features are and how much they cost. In Fox's globe-trotting "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" in Blu-ray viewers can turn on a "trivia track" feature explaining tidbits like where each scene was shot.

Because the Blu-ray-capable PS3 game consoles came to market only late last year, and many buyers are using them primarily for games, HD-DVD movies were far outselling Blu-ray titles, Mr. Adams says. Before the PS3s were shipped, HD-DVD titles were outselling Blu-Ray titles by two to one, he estimates, although the difference has narrowed considerably in recent weeks.

Both sides are offering plenty of incentives for consumers. The HD-DVD add-on for the Xbox 360 comes with "King Kong" in HD-DVD, for example, and anyone who buys a Toshiba HD-DVD player can choose three out of 15 movie titles as by-mail freebies. The first PS3 shipped with the Columbia Pictures movie "Talladega Nights" bundled in the package, and buyers of Blu-ray players receive coupon booklets good for $70 in rebates off various titles.


Evan Ramstad and Christopher Lawton contributed to this article.


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