Walt Mossberg

Don’t Get Caught In a Losing Battle Over DVD Technology

Competition in technology products is often a good thing. Microsoft and Apple spur each other on by competing in computer operating systems. Research in Motion’s BlackBerry smart phones and Palm’s Treo models have the same sort of rivalry.

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Partisans of these platforms can argue all day about which is better. But the competitors have some things in common. Windows computers and Apple Macintoshes can both display the same photos and office documents, and play the same MP3 songs and YouTube videos. BlackBerrys and Treos can receive the same emails and call the same phone numbers.

It isn’t perfect. There are some files that don’t play well across platforms. But most common content does.

Yet there’s another technology competition that doesn’t share content well and offers few, if any, benefits to consumers. It’s the fight among two groups of technology companies and movie studios to sell a successor to the DVD. Each has developed a new type of disc that has the ability to show movies in high definition. To my eye, the pictures they deliver are identical.

Neither of these competing new discs, called Blu-ray and HD-DVD, works in current DVD players. They require very expensive new players, and the new players can’t handle both new disc formats, only one or the other.

Adding to the annoyance: Some movie studios release movies only in one of the two formats. Paramount and Warner Brothers support both formats, but Universal supports only HD-DVD, and Disney, Fox and Sony only Blu-ray.

So, in order to be sure you can play any movie released as a high-definition disc, you would have to replace your old DVD player with two new, much costlier players. It would be like having to buy separate TV sets to watch different networks’ programs.

Now, however, one gutsy company, LG Electronics, of Korea, a longtime member of the Blu-ray camp, has broken ranks and introduced a new combo player that can handle three formats: Blu-ray, HD-DVD, and regular old DVDs. It’s called the BH100 Super Multi Blue.

I’ve tested this combo player and found that it plays both new formats, as well as regular DVDs, just fine. But it’s more expensive than most single-format players and has some serious limitations when navigating through the menus on HD-DVD titles. For now, I can only recommend it for serious videophiles with deep pockets, but I’m hoping it’s the start of a trend that will end the foolish war.

The BH100 costs $1,200. That’s vastly more expensive than the newest DVD players, which, for less than $100, can take a regular DVD and “upscale” it so it looks better on a high-definition set. But that $1,200 isn’t so outrageous if you compare it with the price of buying two separate Blu-ray and HD-DVD players, which can reach or exceed $1,000 total. And the new LG takes up only one input on your TV, occupies less space on your component shelf and requires just one remote control.

I tested the LG combo player on my high-definition TV with this year’s Oscar-winning best picture, “The Departed,” and with “Superman Returns,” each of which is available in both of the new formats, as well as on DVD.

All played perfectly. The picture looked great in both formats and was noticeably better than an upscaled DVD image, which the LG unit also can produce. The LG outputs both new formats in a high, but grossly overhyped, resolution called “1080p.”

But the BH100 did a much better job with the Blu-ray discs than with the HD-DVD titles. That’s because while the combo player can play HD-DVD movies perfectly, it can’t display the HD-DVD discs’ menus for selecting scenes or accessing special features.

These menus usually offer the title and a photo to identify a scene, and the title and/or a description of the special feature. But on the LG BH100, the HD-DVD menus have no pictures, titles, or descriptions and look nothing like the original. They only identify scenes by number and duration. That makes it hard to find, say, the deleted scenes from “The Departed,” or the documentaries on the Superman disc.

The BH100 was based on a Blu-ray-only player and lacks the special chips HD-DVD players use to display the menus properly. LG had to concoct its own rudimentary replacements for those menus. The company says a future combo model could include the chips and thus display the HD-DVD menus as well as it does the Blu-ray menus, but it hasn’t decided whether to make such a product.

One reason for that decision may be the competing approach to solving the stupid disc war. Warner Brothers is working on a combo disc, instead of a combo player. This disc would hold both the Blu-ray and HD-DVD versions of a movie, so you could pop it into whichever type of player you own.

Until the electronics and movie companies support universal high-definition players and/or universal high-definition discs, I don’t recommend that most people invest in either technology. Why prolong a war that’s bad for consumers?

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com. See video versions of my reviews at wsj.com/mossbergvideo.


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