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Spinning Discs

When it comes to HD DVD and Blu-ray, which platform holder has taken the right path?

Of all the differences, variables and statistics thrown about regarding Sony and Microsoft's respective positions in the current console popularity contest, one of the most frequently referred to is Sony's allegiance to the Blu-ray format and Microsoft's loyalty to HD DVD as a standard.

This difference is grasped by commentators as a hard factual division between the two consoles - one which places them on opposite sides in a separate, parallel battle for home media dominance. However, what this means for the consumer, and the industry, is less obvious. Is it actually that big a deal what movies play on which console, and will it mean anything for the profile and sales of each?

DVD has been an immensely popular format for home entertainment, one which has grown over the last few years at a speed far more voracious than the expansion of home video in the 1980s. Part of this success has been due to DVD's sense of permanence, of being a resilient media that won't snap or unspool at the slightest provocation.

It has helped that since the technology had matured, the cost of manufacturing a DVD is not only cheaper than video, but its digitally sourced nature makes it easier - DVD manufacturers can burn off a varied batch of different products very easily and with a low rate of failure. This has made it a natural successor to CD as the format for the publication of PC games and, in various proprietary, protected variations, for console games too.

This is not to say that the DVD format is perfect. The technology has variations, with the dual-layered DVD-9 format holding nearly double the data of the single-layered DVD-5. As the ability to ram larger quantities of data on to a single disc increased, so did the desire for a stable, single successor format - one which would utilise advances in production beyond DVD's capabilities.

This isn't the place for a detailed narrative of the long, torturous argument between Sony/Panasonic and Toshiba as to whether Blu-ray or HD DVD should be the industry standard successor format. Suffice it to say that an agreement was never reached and we are where we are.

While there are technical similarities between the formats, there are also significant technical differences. In terms of capacity, comparing like-for-like in terms of layers used (e.g. a single-layered DVD versus a single-layered Blu-ray disc) in each format, both Blu-ray and HD DVD have over triple the capacity of a standard DVD.

Using the same layer comparison, a Blu-ray disc has almost double the capacity of a HD DVD. However, from a production perspective HD DVD is closer to current production techniques, and therefore easier (and cheaper) to produce.

To put it in the simplest terms possible, HD DVD is designed for an immediate future of increased HD TV use, and is a straightforward step-up from current DVDs, while Blu-ray seems designed to be a more powerful, future-proofed format.

Games being a more voracious user of storage capacity than mere visual media, the replacement format would inevitably be of importance to the games industry. As well as providing new, higher capacity formats for games to be sold on, HD DVD and Blu-ray are also part of a move towards consoles as all-round media centres, entertainment devices that are not just for playing boxed games but for watching movies and accessing online functions.

Sony's use of Blu-ray and Microsoft's use of HD DVD fit with the companies' strategies for their consoles in general. Sony's logic with Blu-ray on PS3 seems very sound - that a very powerful console should have a very high-capacity format, one which is barely used now but which will meet the demands of future as developers get to grip with the power of PS3.

By building in Blu-ray from the beginning, at a point where standalone Blu-ray players are expensive, Sony is offering putative long-term value for a higher payout up front.

Microsoft's logic seems more nebulous. The 360 doesn't support HD DVD out of the box, instead it has an optional HD DVD drive, essentially making it risky bordering for developers to make games that rely on the presence of HD DVD - after all, the history of console gaming is filled with peripherals that were supposed to provide a permanent, widely adopted upgrade to the host machine, but didn't sell enough to justify their use by anything more than a handful of titles.

By making the HD DVD drive inessential for 360, presumably for a combination of cost and technical issues, Microsoft raise the question of whether anyone, consumers or developers, is going to bother with it at all.

The most significant unasked question in all this is, regardless of the advantages to the industry, do consumers really want a DVD replacement at all? After all, with DVD as successful as it is, is anyone really in a hurry to upgrade? Are consumers ready to abandon their large DVD collections, to scrap the big DVD player in the front room and the cheaper ones for the kids?

If not, then both HD DVD and Blu-ray could join Minidisc, SVHS, Betamax and Laser Disc on the big pile of entertainment formats that nearly didn't quite make it to true mass consumption, that had their merits but failed to persuade the general public to abandon their format of choice en masse.

This particular format war comes at a time when the future of solid, boxed media is uncertain. To look briefly at the music business, no one wants a CD replacement such as SDVD because consumers are upgrading not to another type of disc, but to downloaded MP3s and AACs.

The threat to Blu-ray and HD DVD could come from within the box of the PS3 and 360, from the online marketplaces and download facilities that both consoles present. Consumers could want neither disc format if moving over to virtual media becomes as entirely acceptable in films/TV as it has become in music. In a download dominated world, the choice of disc in the machine might be completely irrelevant, a means to back-up software rather than a serious consumer choice.

At the moment, this current format war, both in terms of consoles and the discs within them, is in its very early stages. Publicity stunts which use the Blu-ray format, like embedding the movie âHard Boiled' in the game âStranglehold', are cool, but ultimately gimmicks that won't make a major sales difference.

The fate of consoles and formats are intertwined, but not co-dependent: in other words, while the right combination of a console with enticing games and the opportunity to jump on a popular format bandwagon could result in a vital piece of home entertainment kit, that doesn't mean that, say, the 360 will sell purely on its ability to play HD DVDs, or that a market failure for Blu-ray will torpedo PS3's chances as a console.

A games console, regardless of the various secondary functions, will always remain a games console first and foremost, and it is on the basis of the games available that consumers will make their purchasing choices - not what movies can be played on it.

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