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Rhapsody in Blu.

Byline: Lewis Taylor The Register-Guard

While video geeks across the country were busy proclaiming Blu-ray DVD players the undisputed champion of the high definition DVD world, Bill Gonzalez wasn't buying it.

"I don't need that," said the Eugene resident, pointing to a Sony Blu-ray player selling for $379.99. "At least not until the price comes down."

For those who missed it, there was a very short, very intense bout recently between the makers of Blu-ray and rival technology HD DVD. Both formats offered essentially the same thing: incredibly sharp, vivid high definition pictures, high definition audio and more than five times the storage capacity of conventional DVDs.

With no clear victor based on quality, the contest came down to a marketing grudge match, the results of which were a surprise to almost no one.

For months there were signs that the Blu-ray format - which was supported by a growing contingent of movie studios, computer makers and teenagers who play video games - was going to emerge victorious. Salesmen at electronics superstores that sold both formats quietly steered consumers away from HD DVD and in the direction of Blu-ray.

Also, sales of Sony's PlayStation 3 (which includes a Blu-ray player) were increasing steadily, and, in close succession, Netflix, Wal-Mart and the Warner Bros. movie studio all got behind the fighter in the Blu corner.

The two-year boxing match came to an end last month when Toshiba, the primary manufacturer of HD DVD, announced it would stop making high definition players.

To the experts and business analysts, the fight was reminiscent of the VCR battle of the 1980s, which pitted Sony's Betamax against the rival VHS format. They proclaimed Blu-ray to be new VHS, the new standard for DVD players.

For now, though, consumers such as Gonzalez still aren't ready to upgrade to a player that costs 10 times as much.

"I can still watch high definition (programming) coming in off my cable," Gonzalez explained.

Gonzalez, who owns a 52-inch high definition TV set, clearly is not afraid of new technology. But standing before an array of DVD players, he seemed more interested in a standard definition model selling for $49.99.

Meanwhile, another shopper at the same store, Harry Rickard, already had purchased himself a Blu-ray burner for his computer, which he was in the process of setting up in his Florence home. He planned to use Blu-ray discs to hold his old record collection (a double layer disc can hold up to 50 gigabytes of data).

Rickard and other shoppers marveled at the ridiculously low prices on a stack of now worthless discontinued Toshiba HD DVD player. The players were going for $79.99 and included two HD DVD movies and an expensive HDMI connection cord.

"Don't buy that," a salesman cautioned a shopper.

Blu-ray basics

While it's clear to most people that buying an HD DVD format player is not a good idea, less clear is whether it's worth it to buy a Blu-ray player.

The answer, of course, varies from person to person. For those who are just getting into the market, here's a quick Blu-ray primer.

Blu-ray, or Blu-ray Disc as it's technically called, takes its name from the blue-violet laser used to read and write data instead of the red one used for standard definition discs. High definition video offers five times the amount of detail as standard definition.

Blu-ray players provide high definition only when hooked to high definition TV sets, but almost all Blu-ray players will play standard definition DVDs. Some Blu-ray players will read music CDs and CDs with MP3 files.

Blu-ray discs are available at most video stores, though not in the same quantity as you'll find regular DVDs.

At the Blockbuster Video store on Coburg Road, where a Blu-ray player is constantly screening "Spiderman 3," "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" and other eye-popping videos, there are well in excess of 200 Blu-ray discs on the shelves. Typical stores stock about 5,000 DVDs, company spokesman Randy Hargrove said.

Blockbuster stocks more Blu-ray discs online - more than 500 titles - and plans to expand that selection as customer demand grows. Rival online movie renter Net-flix offers 900 high definition titles.

Blockbuster will continue to stock a limited amount of HD DVD discs in its Internet store for those who purchased HD DVD players before they were discontinued.

The PlayStation 3 equation

Blockbuster hasn't just gotten behind Blu-ray, it has embraced the Sony PlayStation 3 video game console, which doubles as a Blu-ray player and is selling at some Blockbuster stores.

For anyone looking to invest in a Blu-ray player, it's hard not to consider a PlayStation 3, which starts at $399.99, just a few dollars more than most entry-level Blu-ray players. It is considered a very reliable player.

The gadget Web site CNET?.com rated the PlayStation 3 as "by far the most recommendable Blu-ray player available today." Only audiophiles and serious home theater diehards will find things to complain about, the site's Web reviewers concluded.

Another gadget-lover's Web site, Engadget.com, also endorsed the video game console/DVD player, with few reservations.

Blu-ray competitors

Although the future looks bright for Blu-ray, even the experts aren't sure how quickly it will catch on. Some have pointed to Internet movie downloads as the real next big thing on the horizon. The format allows consumers to download compressed video files that self-destruct after watching.

The appeal of such technology is obvious, but as The New York Times' David Pogue pointed out in a recent article, Internet movies offer poorer picture and sound quality and afford none of the director's commentaries, deleted scenes and other bells and whistles you get with a DVD.

Pogue points to several other Internet movie delivery services, including Apple TV, Tivo's Unbox, Xbox 360 and a black box viewer by a company named Vudu. The on-demand service offered by Comcast cable promises to be another competitor.

But Pogue thinks Blu-ray will, ultimately, reign supreme, and says the Internet-movie industry is still in its infancy.

"Someday," he concluded, "We'll look at these limited-selection, limited-time services and laugh."

Blu-ray in store locally

The news of Blu-ray's recent victory may have been well reported, but it wasn't exactly causing a stampede of interest at local stores.

Shoppers at Blockbuster Video stopped just long enough to gawk at the Blu-ray player/video game console on display, but they weren't necessarily snapping up PlayStation 3s. And electronics superstores and audio-video retailers didn't appear to be in danger of selling out their Blu-ray stock.

"We've had a couple of people (inquiring) about Blu-ray," said Jeff Vandervelden, co-owner of Bradford's Home Entertainment in Eugene. "But I wouldn't say they're flooding our doors."

At local electronics warehouses, Blu-ray players were going for $388 and up.

At Best Buy, there was a fire sale on HD DVD players and hybrid players that will accommodate both Blu-ray and HD DVD formats. HD DVD movies were going for as little as $14.99, as compared with the $20 to $70 being asked for Blu-ray titles.

Vandervelden, who caters to a higher end audio and video clientele than the electronics superstores, sells Denon Blu-ray players for $1,000, but says less expensive players will do the job. He's seen players selling for as little as $299 and expects prices to go even lower now that the battle for format supremacy is over.

DVD disc formats

The high definition DVD battle may be over, but the confusion surrounding various formats remains. Here's a brief look at what you need to play the three main DVD formats:

Standard Definition DVDs: Can be played on a standard DVD player. Also can be played on a Blu-ray player or HD DVD player, and in most cases, the player will upconvert or upscale the standard DVD, providing a simulated high definition picture

Blu-ray DVDs: Can be played on a high definition TV with a Blu-ray player (or a Blu-ray/HD DVD hybrid player) and HDMI cables

HD DVDs: Ideally played on a high definition TV with an HD DVD player (or a Blu-ray/HD DVD hybrid player) and special HD cables; some HD DVDs are manufactured in a dual format that can be played on either HD or standard definition players

STUCK WITH HD DVD

The Web site Engadget recently published a list of possible uses for now useless HD DVD players. Here are a few:

Have an accident: "Plug it into your clothes dryer's 240-volt outlet. Whoops, honey! My bad. Guess we have to buy a Blu-ray player."

Save it: "Put it in a time capsule, just to confuse future generations."

Build it: "Buy a few dozen of 'em and build a little hut for your Blu-ray player."

Death with dignity: "Lock it alone in a room with a few lethal weapons ... let it die honorably."

Stomp on it: "Destroy it. `Office Space' style."
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Title Annotation:Personal Life
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 3, 2008
Words:1480
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