The technology

Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD players use blue lasers, which have a shorter wavelength than the red lasers of standard DVD players. Blu-ray Discs and HD DVDs feature smaller pits and tracks that are closer together. This means they can store more information and read faster than standard DVDs. Think of it as the difference between writing with a fine-tipped pen and a magic marker.

Upconverters use red lasers to read standard DVDs. They allow the digital information stored on a standard DVD to be transmitted directly to a high-definition TV without ever having to be converted to an analog signal.

High-definition DVD players playing the blues

By Stacy Downs


KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Consumers are in fast-forward mode when it comes to upgrading to high-definition televisions. But they're stuck on pause when it comes to buying high-definition disc players.

That's understandable: It wasn't that long ago that everybody made the switch from videotapes to DVDs, and now they're faced with yet another "new" technology. Does everything have to change again?

The good news is you can hold onto your standard DVD collection for your high-definition TV. But you'll probably want to buy a new player. Here's why: DVD movies played on standard players hooked up to high-definition TVs make screen images look bleary, as if they're coated in petroleum jelly.

Demand for high-definition disc players - either Blu-ray Disc or HD DVD, both of which use blue-laser technology - is rising because so many people, including my average-joe parents, have purchased a large-screen high-definition TV.

I wanted to see the differences in the player technologies for myself, so I bought the movie "Superman Returns" in three formats - standard DVD, Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD - and watched scenes on a colleague's 50-inch 1080p high-definition television, using a range of disc players.

- UPCONVERTERS: I watched the standard DVD on both a standard DVD player, which provided the petroleum jelly effect, and an upconverting DVD player, which salespeople often pitch as a less expensive, stopgap solution until the prices of superior Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD players come down.

Upconverters start at $125. They use microprocessors to mimic a high-definition resolution, smoothing out jagged edges and cleaning up grainy dots and swirls of color. Think of it as taking a small picture and making it bigger on a high-quality photocopier.

The difference in a scene with a dog was astounding. Its coat looked dull and soft at first on the standard player, but then its hair looked more detailed and textured on the Philips upconverter.

However, upconverters sometime leave out information, causing little errors on the screen, said Scott Huffman, co-owner of Independence Audio-Video. Also, they can't play high-definition discs such as Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD.

- BLU-RAY DISC AND HD DVD PLAYERS: I watched the same scenes on Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD in their respective players. The pictures from these players looked sharper than the upconverter (you could see the dog's individual hairs), and there was no noticeable difference between the two.

Sony's Blu-ray Disc and Toshiba's HD DVD formats look and act a lot alike, so basically I saw the same Superman flying around Metropolis on both. Each boasts much higher quality images, sound and storage capacities than standard DVDs.

Blu-ray and HD DVD discs are packaged in similar cases, thinner than a regular DVD case. The main way to tell them apart is that Blu-ray cases are trimmed in blue and HD DVD cases are in red.

Right now the two formats, while similar, are mostly incompatible with each other. Blu-ray Discs cannot be played on HD DVD players, and vice versa. And neither can be played on a standard DVD player.

"People are really confused," said Scott Samyn, a home theater salesman for Nebraska Furniture Mart in Kansas City, Kan. Customers sometimes buy Blu-ray Discs or HD DVDs not knowing they need the corresponding disc player for them and end up having to return them.

- HYBRID PLAYERS AND DISCS: A truce in the high-definition disc war might be coming, and the two formats could coexist for years. This month, LG Electronics started selling a high-definition disc player that plays both Blu-ray Discs and HD DVDs. It's pricy at $1,199, but other manufacturers have started producing or have expressed interest in selling players for both formats, so the price is likely to drop.

Studio support seems to weigh heavily on the Blu-ray Disc side. Every major studio except Universal is selling their movies on those discs. And Warner and Paramount are selling them in both formats.

But later this year Warner plans to sell discs that have Blu-ray Disc versions of the movie on one side and HD DVD on the other. Warner is calling them Total HD.

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