Iain Gray Freelance Writer

Deja-vu or Re-record?

Iain Gray remembers Betamax - even if Sony doesn't

Back in the 1980s, at around the same time as perms, Pong! and Pat Sharpe, consumers could walk into an electrical retailer and be faced with a choice between two video formats - Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS.

Each had their merits and flaws but the difference in quality between the two was negligible. So when VHS achieved market dominance and Betamax was confined to car boot sales and charity shops, it was costly blow to Sony. However, never one to give up, Sony is now heavily embroiled in another format war. This time the battlefield is High Definition home cinema and the company is up against the not-inconsiderable might of Toshiba and Microsoft.

What is high definition?

High Definition (or HD) discs deliver a superior quality picture to your home cinema system.

A VHS tape has 240 “scan lines”, or horizontal lines of information displayed on your TV screen (Betamax had 250). DVD increases that to 520. Now, Blu-ray and HD DVD, the two high-definition formats, have increased that again to 1080. In essence, a Blu-ray or HD DVD picture on a high-definition television will be noticeably clearer and sharper, with greater contrast and colour than a DVD picture. And, as more people buy flat-screen televisions and the technology becomes cheaper to produce, Blu-ray and HD DVD should start to dominate DVD.

What are the two formats?

Blu-ray: Created by Sony and developed and licensed by the Blu-ray Disc Association, an industry consortium of more than 250 companies. A Blu-ray player is included in Sony’s next-generation console, the PlayStation 3.

HD DVD: Developed by Toshiba and NEC, and backed by Microsoft - which has released an external player that plugs into their hugely successful gaming console, the Xbox 360.

What are the differences?

With regards to picture quality, the two are so similar (as with VHS and Betamax) that it is nearly impossible to tell them apart.

HD DVD, being closer to the DVD format, was initially easier and cheaper to produce and could use more interesting forms of extra content (picture-in-picture commentaries for example), whereas Blu-ray had a greater storage capacity, so could include longer movies with more content and less-compressed video and audio. However, with advances in Blu-ray technology and multiple layers on HD DVD, these issues are now almost irrelevant.

There are also a number of players in development (by companies such as LG and Samsung) which will be able to play both formats since, unlike Betamax and VHS, the discs are the same size (as a CD or DVD).

And as the most popular way to watch high-definition movies is still via the two gaming consoles, if you have one of those in your house the chances are that the decision has already been made for you.

If not - and you are determined to select one format or the other - it will come down to the movies themselves.

A film for each format

If your idea of a perfect Christmas is watching Transformers or Shrek 3 in high definition, then HD DVD is the format for you. If, on the other hand, Die Hard and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 are more your taste, then Blu-ray could be more your bag.

Here are three of the best exclusive titles in each format.

Best of Blu-Ray

Die Hard 4.0
Bruce Willis is back as John McClane in this exhilaratingly dumb action movie that reaches the delirious highs of which other films can only dream.

Spiderman Trilogy
All three of the webslinger’s adventures in one amazing box-set, as Peter Parker deals with adolescence, villainy and the responsibility of being a superhero. The cartoon-like visuals are super-sharp, to the point where you can see individual grains of sand on the third episode’s main bad-guy, the Sandman.

Apocalypto
Either proof that Mel Gibson has gone completely off the deep end or is a film-maker at the height of his powers; this is a breathless ride through the last days of the Mayan empire and a disc that you could use to show off the true potential of high definition.

Best of HD DVD

Children of Men
One of the best films of last year, this is a thriller starring Clive Owen as a man who might just be able to save the human race. The HD DVD transfer is almost flawless, displaying the dystopian nightmare and terrifyingly realistic action sequences in alarming clarity.

The Bourne Supremacy
If you can’t wait for the release of the final Jason Bourne film on DVD, catch up with the superb second instalment, containing chase sequences that will leave you exhausted.

King Kong
Peter Jackson’s magnificent homage to the 1933 classic. Its ambition, scale and passion are awe-inspiring and there are enough unforgettable moments to fill a dozen lesser movies.


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