Just as DVD technology has taken hold in the market, with prices of players dipping as low as $30, sales going through the roof, and DVD movies blanketing the earth, a new, improved DVD is already on the drawing board. Whats the big rush?
As consumers move to high-definition plasma and LCD televisions, ordinary DVDs that pack a paltry 4.7GB just dont cut it. Sure, you can play a regular DVD on a high-definition display, but the disc wont take advantage of the displays extra resolution. DVD movies offer higher resolution than standard TV broadcasts (720-by-480 versus about 500-by-480), but they dont offer anything near the 1,920-by-1,080 resolution of a high-definition TV.
Fortunately, the companies that brought us the DVD are now putting the finishing touches on specifications for high-definition discs, with up to ten times the capacity of todays DVDs—potentially 50GB per disc. The drives will use blue lasers rather than red ones to burn discs. The blue lasers have a wavelength of 405 nanometers; red ones are 650. The shorter-wavelength laser can focus on a tighter spot on the disc and thus squeeze more data onto each DVD. (Most drives will also have red lasers to read todays DVDs.)
High-definition video demands vast amounts of storage space; the amount varies depending on the compression ratio and video quality but can reach about 200MB per minute. High-definition DVDs will each hold about 2 hours of HD video.
Thanks to the money-making potential of the new medium, companies are vying to get their own technologies into the standard, meaning—you guessed it—another format brawl. In one corner is Blu-Ray, supported by 13 companies including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, LG Electronics, Matsushita, Philips, Pioneer, and Sony. The first-generation discs will each have a capacity of 23GB.
Plans for copy protection are still up in the air but will undoubtedly be more secure than CSS, todays standard for DVD encryption. This year Sony shipped the first Blu-Ray drive, which sells for around $3,000, for the Japanese market. Blu-Ray drives will likely hit the U.S. market in 2005.
In the other corner, NEC and Toshiba are finalizing a competing specification, known as HD-DVD, for the DVD Forum. An HD-DVD will have a capacity of 20GB. A variety of compression algorithms have been proposed to increase capacity, including the one from Microsoft that is used in the Windows Media 9 HD format.
With the probable support of Microsoft, HD-DVD could garner key support in Hollywood. And that could be the deciding factor in this format war. A second advantage of HD-DVD over Blu-Ray: Since the discs will have the same thickness as todays DVDs, companies will be able to manufacture the discs on existing equipment.
HD-DVD is still a ways off, and other formats are jockeying for position in the meantime. The new DMD (Digital Multilayer Disc) format has six layers rather than two, for an initial capacity of 15GB; and the Asia-only EVD (Enhanced Versatile Disc) promises five times the resolution of a standard DVD. The DVD format wars have only just begun.