Deciphering high def

To the average consumer, technical statistics on gigabytes of storage, DRM standards and compression codecs can be more confusing than helpful.

HDTVs and high-definition movie players are a definite step up for home theaters, but it’s easy to get lost in all the technical details. Those thinking of investing in an upgrade really only need to know a few things.

The TVs

One of the main trends driving high-definition is the increasing popularity of larger digital TVs, which have more screen room and smaller pixels than the old-style analog TVs. This allows for far more detail even on normal-size high-definition TVs, and the bigger the TV is, the more improvement will be seen. If the main reason for buying a new TV is to get a bigger screen, anywhere around 42″ or larger is going to be high-definition by default.

Of course, programs still recorded or broadcast in standard definition will look pretty much the same, HDTV or not. And even high-definition cable services or players will have to be hooked up to the HDTV with the proper cable connectors; the best is HDMI, then DVI, then component video.


High-definition players

Two HD formats, Blu-ray and HD DVD (see right), have emerged to vie for control of the market. However, various sources put both formats together as only making up around 2 percent of total DVD sales, even though the Nielsen Company estimates 13.7 percent of U.S. homes are equipped with HD-capable TVs.

Whereas DVDs had strong advantages over VHS tapes (such as being more compact and durable, and having instant chapter skips), the only advantages HD formats offer are sharper resolution and more storage space. The average consumer may never see this as a big enough advantage to buy a whole new player and movie library, likely making both Blu-ray and HD DVD a niche market for the foreseeable future.

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Although Blu-ray discs have outsold HD DVDs since the launch of PlayStation 3, there is no clear winner yet, making consumers wary of picking a side.

The choice between HD disc formats is more about studio support than technical differences. Some movie studios like Warner Brothers continue to release HD titles in both formats, while other studios have accepted exclusivity deals, making DVDs the only way to watch every movie in the same format.

So far, corporations have shown more interest in HD formats than consumers have, mostly because of better copyright protection than DVDs. The ability to download HD movies through various online services may also limit the need for next-generation consumers to even have physical discs, although downloadable books have yet to drive everyone paperless.

Whichever HD format one chooses, even if it’s both, high-definition movies are the best way to take full advantage of an HDTV.

The numbers game

HDTVs advertise their numbers as 720 or 1080, with an i or p attached to the number, but few people really care what those stand for. What matters is that 1080 is better than 720 and p is better than i, so 1080p is the best on the market right now as far as resolution goes.

Realistically, though, not everyone can see much difference between standard and HDTV, and even less difference between 720 and 1080; even those with perfect eyesight may not always want to see the details of pores on an actor’s face in close-up. If there’s a big difference in price, a 720p HDTV will be good enough for the casual consumer. But those who want the best should get a 1080p.

And although PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game consoles can support up to 1080p output, the majority of games are only set at 720p, although games are now shifting to the higher resolution.

Since resolution is somewhat tied into size, mid-size TVs may only offer 720 resolution.

Blu-Ray

HD DVD


Major backers:
Sony, Dell, Apple

Exclusive studios:

Sony (“Spider-Man 3”)
Disney (“Pirates of the Caribbean”)
Twentieth Century Fox (“Live Free or Die Hard”)
MGM (“Casino Royale”)

Selling points:

Blockbuster stores offer more Blu-ray titles

Every PlayStation 3 console can play Blu-ray discs

Outsells HD DVD movies by 2-to-1 ratio

More storage capacity per layer


Major backers:
Microsoft, Toshiba

Exclusive studios:

Universal (“Bourne Supremacy”)
Paramount* (“Transformers”)
DreamWorks* (Shrek 3″)
*older titles available on both formats

Selling points:

Dedicated players cost much less than stand-alone Blu-ray players

Optional add-on for Xbox 360

Similar structure as DVDs allows combo format that can play on DVD or HD DVD players