An Expensive Doorstop or Paperweight

January 14, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Like an improperly balanced see-saw, the high def industry is tilting toward Blu-Ray. It's happening in slow motion, but it is happening, and it's hard to imagine that any force can stop something possessing the momentum of inevitability. Paramount and Universal, not wanting to anger a cadre of consumers, have pledged on-going support for HD-DVD (and Warner isn't cutting off the format until May), but they have been conspicuously silent about their Blu-Ray plans (if any). The expectation is that both companies will soon announce they will produce titles for both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, at least near-term. That will end the format war. Once every major studio in on-board the Blu-Ray bandwagon, it's all over - even if some of them are still supporting HD-DVD. It took Betamax a while to die after VHS won that war. Sony knows from experience that killing the enemy isn't necessary.

So what to do if you own an HD-DVD player, especially if it's newly bought? Hold a quick funeral before sticking it in some dank closet and purchasing its PS3 replacement? Use it as an expensive coaster or doorstop? Tell people it’s the latest in modern art? Offer it to a museum? Keep in mind that just because HD-DVD has lost the format war doesn't mean it's obsolete. The newer models provide 1080p as nicely as any Blu-Ray player. Watching something on HD-DVD is indistinguishable from watching it on Blu-Ray. 1080p is 1080p, irrespective of the source. Plus, it's an upconverting DVD player. There's value in that (even though Blu-Ray players offer the same benefit, Harry Knowles' claims not withstanding). The ideal would be for the HD-DVD owner to bite the bullet and purchase a Blu-Ray player, but such a decision requires cash that may not be available, especially in a time of fiscal belt-tightening. For those who have HD-DVD and can't afford an upgrade, there is a silver lining.

One way or another, deep discounts are coming. There are two possibilities. In a last-ditch, scorched earth policy to win the format war (or at least force a stalemate), Toshiba could elect to cut both hardware and software prices. Suddenly, there could be some really cheap HD-DVD titles available. Right now, the average HD-DVD disc costs around $20-$25, discounted. If Toshiba takes this route, $10 discs are not out of the question. At that price, it wouldn't take a lot of money to assemble a nice little library. Who cares if the format is going away? If you have the discs and a working player, you can enjoy them for years to come. It just requires one extra HDMI input into the TV or receiver.

Even if Toshiba elects to allow their product to fade away quietly, there will come a time when sellers will want to clear out their inventories. Clearance sales will spring up at some point and the prices will look really good. In addition, some HD-DVD adopters who want to make a clean break and covert to Blu-Ray will sell used HD-DVD discs at cut-rate prices. Patient HD-DVD owners should be able to pick up some titles for around $5 during this "dumping phase."

I will admit that the selection of available movie on HD-DVD isn't great. I only own four discs and wouldn't pay even the 33% discounted price for anything else. But if prices come down to the $10 range, there are some movies I would pick up. Even more intriguing would be if the high-def Season #1 Battlestar Galactica set dropped precipitously. Ditto for Star Trek. I wouldn't pay close to face value for either (especially the outrageously priced Star Trek), but that would change if they were slashed by 50% or more. Right now, if you have HD-DVD, it's all about maximizing opportunities rather than mourning one's loss.

I know a few collectors who made killings when DVD was replacing laserdisc. They picked up hundreds of LD titles at $1 to $5 per disc. (How about the 3-disc Criterion Brazil for $4?) Everyone was dumping their old laserdiscs and they could be had for pennies on the dollar. The situation isn't strictly analogous. Switching from LD to DVD represented a move to better quality and technology while switching from HD-DVD to Blu-Ray is largely a "lateral" shift. Also, laserdiscs had been around for over a decade when DVD arrived. HD-DVD has only been around for a couple of years and Blu-Ray is about the same age. Still, the point is easy enough to understand. Today, for $100, you might be able to add four titles to your HD-DVD library. In the not-too-distant future, it might be possible to add 15 titles for the same price. Don't buy anything now. Just wait. It will pay off in the end.

To those who are still on the fence, go Blu-Ray. It's the only way that makes any sense. Unless, that is, Toshiba cuts HD-DVD player prices to the point where they're cheaper than standard upconverting DVD players. Then one could make an argument that an HD-DVD purchase is a good buy. I have to admit, if I didn't have a player and I saw one available for $75, I'd buy it. You can never have too many upconverting DVD players; the HD-DVD capability is just a nice "extra."

Death is always painful, but the aftermath doesn't have to be. Two years from now, you might stumble upon an HD-DVD title in a discount bin for $1. For most people, that would have no meaning. But for the HD-DVD owner, it would be a nice little find.

That being said, I should mention that when I upgrade the "VideoViews" section of the website in the coming months, I will completely ignore the existence of HD-DVD and focus on Blu-Ray.