What’s Wrong With This HD Picture?

The Blu-ray format is widely expected to be the high definition (HD) replacement for the now aging DVD format. According to the hype, Blu-ray will gradually displace DVD, the same way DVD took over from VHS a decade ago. But there is something wrong with this HD picture.

At a glance, the Blu-ray format doesn’t look noticeably different from DVD. The players (like the Panasonic DMP-BD30K pictured below) look just like a DVD player. The disks are the same size as the disks we are already familiar with. And when Blu-ray promises a sharper picture, a more durable medium, and greater convenience, it sounds suspiciously like the promises that DVD made, but did not entirely keep. A new format can’t take over just by repeating the story of the format it replaces — can it?

Panasonic Blu-ray player

DVD finally caught on not because the picture was better — although eventually, it was — but because it was cheaper. It cost (and still costs) about $2 to make a high-quality copy of a VHS tape, and when the cost of stamping out a DVD fell below $1, while the cost of a DVD player fell below the cost of a VCR (videocassette recorder), there was no stopping the DVD format. But a Blu-ray is the same size as a DVD. It is made of similar materials, but requires higher precision. Blu-ray players also have to play DVDs. It is hard to see how Blu-ray can ever gain a cost advantage over DVD.

Then there is the issue of picture quality. Consumer reaction so far is mixed. Some say the HD picture of Blu-ray is an amazing step forward, while others say the HD video screen makes standard definition video look worse. Computer users may note that the Blu-ray picture is still not as sharp as an average computer display. Until consumers see a clear-cut improvement, they will not be going out of their way to get new HD equipment.

Blu-ray beat out HD DVD, a rival format that was dropped in February. Overcoming the recession will be harder. With prices still up around $400, demand for Blu-ray players is tepid, at best. And Blu-ray still has to separate itself more convincingly from DVD.

But the ultimate competitor to DVD may not be any of these. Now that you can buy movies on the Internet, is it really that important to have a dedicated movie player? Or is it just as easy to play movies on the computer, or by connecting the computer to the television?

I don’t have the answers yet, but I have a feeling that anyone who says, “I know how to keep up with these changes — I’ve seen this story before,” is likely to be missing out on what is really going on.

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