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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 July 2006, 09:20 GMT 10:20 UK
Next generation DVDs tested
Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Later this year two competing next generation DVD formats will hit shelves across Europe. To find out how they compare, BBC News went along to the offices of the British Video Association to see them in action.

Rival DVD format stands
The two DVD formats are battling for supremacy

The battle for the hearts, minds and wallets of next generation, high-definition DVD consumers started in earnest in March of this year when Toshiba launched the first HD-DVD player.

Three months later Samsung returned the initial volley with the release of the first Blu-ray players.

The opening salvos, already likened to the 1980s tussle between VHS and Betamax, meant that consumers were once again thrust into an uncertain world where a DVD player they purchased could be obsolete within a year.

On one side is the Toshiba-led HD-DVD format and on the other the Sony-led Blu-ray.

In the 1980s Sony lost out to rival JVC in the video format wars. But it took nearly 10 years for consumers and industry to decide which player had a place in the world's living rooms.

Digital push

According to the British Video Association (BVA), by the end of this year there will be 14 million HDTVs in Western Europe.

Already, they say, 75% of all televisions sold are HD ready.

The high definition push is already upon us and there is clear demand for the new technology.

Other than a sticker confirming which format they play, there is little difference in looks between the rival format players.

Disc: 25GB or 50GB
Supporters: Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, Sharp, Philips, Hitachi, Pioneer, Apple, Dell
Studios: Sony, Disney, 20th Century Fox, Warner, Paramount

But that is where comparisons end.

First up in the test was Blu-ray. On one screen, the beautiful House of Flying Daggers was shown in standard DVD format, while on another the high-definition version played.

The difference was immediate: the picture was crisper, the colours more vibrant and there was an almost hallucinogenic 3D-like quality to the film on Blu-ray.

In one scene, one of the characters rode a horse through a field of flowers. As he galloped past, plumes of pollen rose into the air as they were kicked up by the horse.

Instant gratification

But some of the strengths of the new format only become apparent when you try to access extra features on the disc.

There is no more stopping the film to access the menu. Pop up displays and navigation can all happen as the film continues to play in the background.

Blu-ray disc
Sony's Blu-ray discs can hold up to 50GB of data

Other features include a picture within a picture, allowing a "making of" or director commentary to be shown within the same screen as the main feature.

The high capacity of both new formats - 50GB for a dual-layer Blu-ray disc and 30GB for a dual-layer HD-DVD - also means that there is a potential for even more content.

At the moment most distributors use the 30GB HD-DVDs and single layer 25GB Blu-ray discs.

But the 5GB edge HD-DVD currently enjoys does not seem to make much difference when viewing.

Digital divide

Unfortunately, it is not possible to watch House of Flying Daggers on HD-DVD because the film is a Sony Pictures release. It is only available on Blu-ray.

Disc: 15GB or 30GB
Supporters: Toshiba, NEC, Sanyo, Microsoft, Intel
Studios: Universal, Warner, Paramount

And that is part of the problem with the competing formats.

They have already split the Hollywood studios.

Disney and 20th Century Fox have sided with Sony, while Universal supports HD-DVD.

Warner Bros and Viacom have said they will support both.

But until more studios take this middle road or there is agreement on one format, consumers will either have to buy two players or make a choice of which studio's films they are not going to watch.

Net extras

On the HD-DVD player they showed King Kong.

Again the picture was outstanding, allowing you to make out individual hairs on Kong's body.

The sound on HD-DVD was incredible too. The extra capacity of discs of both formats allow 7.1 surround sound.

Image of next generation DVDs
HD-DVD is backed by official industry body, the DVD forum

Like Blu-ray, HD-DVD allows far more interesting menus and interactive features.

Both players have an internet connection, which adds a further dimension to these extras. For example, instead of having the same trailers at the start of a film, the DVD player could automatically download the latest film teasers.

Directors could also do live streaming commentary over a film, or music videos could have extra hidden content that could be unlocked over the internet.

Digital decision

But with both formats offering similar picture quality, sound and extras, how do you choose which one to buy?

There is a price difference. The Toshiba HD-DVD player currently sells for $500 (270), while Samsung's Blu-ray machine is priced at $1000 (540) in the US.

Two DVD formats
Both formats will be on sale across Europe by the end of the year

These are the first machines on the market and other cheaper models will follow.

Trade bodies like the BVA say they are platform agnostic. Others, like Deluxe Digital Studios who make DVDs in both formats, say that neither has an advantage.

It seems it is only really the companies making and backing the different technologies that have strong opinions on which the consumer should invest in.

So for now, people have a choice: to buy into one technology, hoping it will not be superseded by another format in a year's time, or to sit back and wait.

There may still be agreement between big business, or both formats may continue to exist side-by-side. No one knows.

What is certain is that the release of the two competing formats across Europe later this year marks the start of what could become, if past format wars are anything to go by, a long campaign to dominate the global living room.

Next generation DVD war hots up
22 Jun 06 |  Technology
Next-generation DVD battle begins
19 Apr 06 |  Technology
DVD battle heads for showdown
03 Mar 06 |  Click
Tech giants move on next-gen DVDs
27 Sep 05 |  Technology
Next gen DVD rivals fail to agree
23 Aug 05 |  Technology
Tech giants explore 'hybrid' DVDs
21 Apr 05 |  Technology
What high-definition will do to DVDs
31 Jan 05 |  Technology
Games win for Blu-ray DVD format
07 Jan 05 |  Technology

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