I have not yet weighed in on the end of the high definition format war, now formally over following Toshiba’s announcement that shortly they will be ceasing production of HD DVD devices. This obviously leaves Sony’s blu-ray as the victor, presumably having learned from the famous failure of their betamax format to VHS and thus being willing to spend vast sums to win over major studios. It is, of course, content that decides competitions like this, not innate quality. On paper blu-ray the higher capacity blu-ray certainly looked to be the better format but as it stands things are not quite so clear cut for the consumer.
HD DVD was arguably a more direct evolution of the old format so production of both media and, more visibly, the players were much cheaper. The consumer is now saddled with the more expensive format and with the early victory for blu-ray, there hasn’t even been the competitive need for major cuts in player prices. The other issue is that the blu-ray movie format is still in flux. The java system used to provide interactive features has caused issues and there are already three tiers of players. The earliest adopters with profile 1.0 players are left out in the cold, while profile 1.1 and now profile 2.0 players leave one wondering whether there is any guarantee to the consumer that the format is going to be properly finalised at all. Certain discs have severe problems playing on earlier players, while others experience boot times of up to 90 seconds. The PS3 is the only blu-ray player that can be updated to keep up with these changes. Buying a standalone (and often more expensive) player is just too risky even with the war won.
A strange aside to all this is that, as well as blu-ray, Sony have spent a huge amount developing the cell processor which powers the PS3. Last year they arranged to stop production and transfer the technology to Toshiba who would produce the processors for them. The finer points of this deal were only recently settled leading some to suggest Toshiba may have been bought off through favourable terms in return for ending the format war early.
So the end of the format war does not make it safe for most consumers to bite the bullet and buy a blu-ray player just yet. If you want one now, the PS3 is the safest bet since it’s impressive processing power means that firmware updates should be sufficient to keep it on the cutting edge (and really it must be up-to-date if the Sony wish to maximise the advantage of holding the winning format).
Another question several people have asked me is what this means for Microsoft and the Xbox 360. Not a huge amount really. They hedged their bets supporting HD DVD via an external add-on rather than integrating it into the console. It is almost inevitable that a blu-ray add-on is in the works (rumour says they already have operating units in Redmond). The real difference is that the PS3 has suddenly become a much more appealing prospect as a second console and so it seems the gaming world will have a three-horse race after all…