Off the Fence

November 25, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

Yikes! Next weekend is an awful release weekend - only two movies: The Savages in limited release and Awake in 1500 theaters. And Awake isn't being screened for critics. Fortunately, things pick up considerably the following week.

No ReelThoughts last week because I was moving. It turned out to be a challenge to post the four reviews I did last week but I managed to get them up (mostly) on time. As far as the home upheaval is concerned, things are winding down. I'm moved in and everything is unpacked. There are still a few acclimatization details to work through as well as the final sale of my old house but, by the time I get to December, I should be in good shape to begin ramping up the content for the site.

As part of my move, I created a new home theater. Some of the equipment is still on order but, by the time it all arrives, I should have something more impressive than what I had before. The size of the screen will decrease (from 65" to 52") but the overall quality of the video will be better. However, this raised an unsettling question for me: What good is a beautiful 52" 1080p LCD if there's no 1080p content to play on it? My current plan is not to hook up a cable signal but, even if I did, the best cable can offer is 720p, which isn't what I'm looking for. An upconverting DVD player will output at 1080p, but the source material is still 480p and looks like it.

Which brings us to one of my recurring topics: the high def DVD format war. Circumstances have forced me to get off the fence and order something. None of my views have changed. The number of impressive titles is way below critical mass. The format war means that, regardless of which solution I choose, I'll be stuck with a group of titles that I can't watch in high def (unless I go out and buy one of the other players, doubling my cost) and all the really good movies aren't available on either format yet. The recent cutthroat tactics of both camps have brought the price points down to a reasonable level so at least it doesn't cost an arm and a leg to buy an HD-DVD or Blu-Ray player.

A quick perusal of the Black Friday circulars indicated that an HD-DVD player could be had for around $150. Included in that package was an offer for five free discs (picking from a pool of largely unimpressive titles, however). At first, this appeared to be one of those deals that was too good to turn down. But, as always with that sort of thing, there was a big, nasty catch. The cheap HD-DVD players were the old ones with a maximum output of 720p/1080i. Not good enough. Not something I'd spend any money on, even if it's only $150.

It turns out that the new HD-DVD players that output at 1080p retail for around $400 (and up) and can be found on sale for about $300. Not bad, but much closer to the Blu-Ray price range. The least expensive stand-alone Blu-Ray players list for $500 but can be found at $350. The "support" packages are similar: 5 free discs by mail with one or two in the box with the player. So price-wise, it's almost a toss-up. But Sony has an ace in the hole: PS3.

When PlayStation 3 was initially released a year ago, it was widely booed. The unit was prone to glitches, there weren't enough games, and the price was exorbitant. A year later, many of the bugs have been worked out, the price has been driven down, and the number of game titles is on the rise. Every PS3 unit has a perfectly functioning Blu-Ray player with 1080p output via HDMI. And it's only $400 (with one disc in the box and the five freebies). So, for only $50 more than the cheapest stand-alone Blu-Ray player or $100 more than the 1080p HD-DVD player, I can get a complete gaming system... I'm not the world's biggest gamer, but I do occasionally use computer and video games for recreational purposes, and this deal is a little too good to pass up, all things considered.

I'm sure I won't be the only one to have purchased a PS3 primarily for the Blu-Ray player. People will undoubtedly give me games as presents and I'll used them in the intended spirit, but primary purpose of the PS3 will be as the source for my new home theater. It also upconverts standard DVDs to 1080p so I'm saved the expense of buying a new upconverting player. (Yes, I'm aware that every HD-DVD and Blu-Ray player does this...)

I want to add a clarification here. I chose Blu-Ray because it fits my needs best, both in terms of economics and because there are more Blu-Ray titles that interest me than HD-DVD titles. This doesn't mean that Blu-Ray is "better" or that HD-DVD is "worse." For those who don't care about 1080p and are happy with 720p or 1080i, HD-DVD is clearly the better economic choice.

I believe a few things will happen. On Christmas morning, more stand-alone HD-DVD players will be opened than stand-alone Blu-Ray players. But more PS3s will be opened than both of the above combined. The format war will persist. Both sides are too deeply entrenched and nothing out there - not cut-rate HD-DVD prices, more PS3s, or a raft of "exclusive" titles on either side - will shake anything enough to avoid the inevitable stalemate. Barring a major coup (like Warner Brothers abandoning format neutrality and choosing a side), neither HD-DVD nor Blu-Ray will be able to win this war. The formats will continue to exist side-by-side until something replaces them both. And it seems unlikely that mainstream acceptance will follow a split format. Some people will do what I'm planning to do: choose a player, buy titles in high def when they become available for that format, and stick with standard def when they don't. It's not a perfect solution but it's the best the grinches at Sony and Toshiba have provided us with. Humbug!