Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Home movie fans may have heard this week that Blu-ray has all but won the high-definition format war with competing HD DVD technology. But what does it all mean?

For starters, here’s a quick primer for those who are unfamiliar with the issue: Blu-ray, backed by Sony, and HD DVD, backed by Toshiba, are high-definition DVD formats that are vying for the title of next-generation DVD. Both technologies have partnered with electronics manufacturers and Hollywood studios, creating uncertainty for consumers and electronics retailers alike.

Making matters more difficult is the lack of key differences between the formats — Blu-ray discs have more capacity, but that’s about it; both support the same video resolution and audio quality. (Channel Surfing has viewed clips in both Blu-ray and HD DVD formats and cannot tell the difference.)

In terms of 2007 sales data, the formats were close. According to research firm DisplaySearch, HD DVD disc players accounted for 52 percent of all stand-alone high-definition players, compared with 47 percent for Blu-ray.

That’s why this week’s Blu-ray endorsements from Best Buy and Netflix are significant. Both companies cited the momentum of the format and the fact it now has five major studios behind it after Warner Bros. last month decided to side with Blu-ray, joining Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Sony Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox and Walt Disney. HD DVD has Paramount Pictures and Universal Studios.

“The format war is pretty much over for the most part,” said Dan Ackerman, a senior editor at “If you’re thinking about making the jump now, I think your choice is pretty clear.”

As for those who have already purchased HD DVD players, Warner Bros. is committed to offering its films in both formats through May, and Best Buy, despite recommending Blu-ray, will offer both technologies in its stores.

“It’s not something anybody needs unless you’re really any kind of a cinemaphile,” Mr. Ackerman said of high-definition disc players, noting that standard DVDs still look great on a good TV.

But, he added, “Once you go Blu-ray it’s hard to go back.”

Got digital?

The vast majority of Americans with cell-phone service receive their signals over a digital network. But those still using analog handsets have less than a week before AT&T and Verizon discontinue their analog networks on Monday, as allowed by the Federal Communications Commission.

AT&T said the switch affects only a tiny portion of the company’s customers, as 99.9 percent of all minutes used are over the company’s digital GSM network. The company has been informing customers for 18 months, spokesman Warner May said. Analog customers won’t be charged the standard $18 fee to upgrade their phones and plans.

“AT&T is on track to transition all interested customers before the Feb. 18 turndown date,” Mr. May said.

Similarly, Verizon spokeswoman Sherri Cunningham said less than .005 percent of the company’s traffic is over an analog network. The company has been using direct mail and personal phone calls to alert customers, she said, even offering free digital handsets to those who upgrade their plans.

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