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Last Updated: Monday, 16 April 2007, 09:33 GMT 10:33 UK
Does anyone care about high definition?
By Paul Rubens

iPod video
With video on the go proving popular, who needs high definition?
High-definition DVD players have finally hit the market, offering unprecedented picture quality. But movies and video clips are increasingly being watched on low-definition portable devices like video iPods, handheld media players or even mobile phones. So has high-definition DVD missed the boat?

Enthusiasm for the very best picture quality - in a cinema, at least - is certainly not what it was.

While annual cinema admissions in the UK grew steadily from 1984 until 2002, these figures have stagnated at around 167 million admissions per year over the last few years, according to the UK Film Council.

By contrast, the number of low picture quality videos watched on the internet has exploded over the last two years thanks to websites such as YouTube. Although precise figures are not available, on average an estimated 100 million videos are streamed off the site and more than 65,000 new videos are added every day.

Cinema tickets cost money while YouTube video clips are free so these figures can not be compared directly, but the success of YouTube shows that picture quality is not that important to a great many people.

And there is evidence that given a choice between picture quality and convenience, an increasing number of consumers are choosing the latter.

LoveFilm, one of Europe's largest DVD rental businesses, offers films which can be downloaded from its web site. Since DVD quality films are too large to deliver easily over the internet, they have to be compressed to a lower quality for Internet delivery. But Simon Morris, LoveFilm's marketing director, says that the number of movies downloaded by customers is growing steadily.

What we have found is that people are willing to trade quality for portability
Stuart Collingwood, Sling Media

The success of digital music players like Apple's iPod - sales of which recently passed the 100 million mark - shows that many music lovers are far more interested in portability rather than getting the very best sound quality.

The same is starting to be true of video: portable devices capable of displaying moderate quality video on small screens are becoming increasingly commonplace.

Spend a few minutes on a bus or train or in an airport lounge and you're almost sure to see someone watching a film on personal digital assistant (PDA), portable media player, Video iPod, Sony PSP handheld games console, or even a mobile phone.

You may even see someone watching television on their laptop or PDA.

This is possible using a device called a Slingbox, which sends pictures and sound from a home television through the internet.

A format war between HD-DVD and Blu-ray is raging
Stuart Collingwood, European vice president of Sling Media, maker of the Slingbox, says: "Obviously people want good picture quality, but what we have found is that people are willing to trade quality for portability.

"They'll trade it off for stuff they otherwise wouldn't be able to access."

Mike McGuire, a media researcher at analysts Gartner Group, believes that just as music lovers who may once have bought an expensive living room hi-fi system are now more likely now to walk around with a portable MP3 player, film buffs will now be less interested in high-definition home cinema systems than portable media players.

"I think that quality is still appreciated, but portability of content right now is crucial," he says.

This is an important point because while DVD movies are relatively easy to convert to digital files which can be played on portable players, high definition DVDs are more securely locked to prevent owners from doing this.

Attempting to subvert the copy protection of audio or video formats - even those legally bought - in order to play on other devices is against the law.

And there are thousands of TV programmes and movies ripped from DVDs available for illicit download via the net and most of them are in a format quality well below standard DVDs.

We would expect sales of portable media devices, including iPod Videos, to be greater than those of pure high definition DVD players over the next two years
Anna Berry, John Lewis

And from there those digital files can be converted into formats suitable for portable devices.

Using DivX, one of the best known compression technologies, it's possible to reduce a film copied from a DVD to about one tenth of its original size without a great loss in quality.

A PDA or mobile phone with a 4GB memory card would be hard pressed to store a single film from a DVD, but can easily store 10 titles compressed using DivX.

Ronja Hartmann, a DivX spokesperson, says more than 200 million people have downloaded its compression software to watch video on their PCs, and more than 70 million consumer devices such as portable video players have been shipped with DivX technology built in.

Mobile phones with DivX will also soon be available, she says.

Does this mean that high-definition DVD players are destined to fail?

Anna Berry, a manager at John Lewis, a UK department store chain, says sales of Blu-ray and HD-DVD players have so far been low.

But the company has sold 100,000 portable video players in the last year.

"It is an area which is very strong and getting stronger, " she says.

"We would expect sales of portable media devices, including iPod Videos, to be greater than those of pure high definition DVD players over the next two years."

There have also been warnings that the format war between HD-DVD and Blu-ray is putting some consumers off.

And while the physical formats stagnate, online delivery of high definition could be the future.

Xbox 360 owners in the US can download a growing catalogue of video in high-def, while Apple is expected to offer high-definition video via iTunes in the near future.

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