When Sony's Blu-ray and Toshiba's HD DVD launched their fight two years ago, high definition was spotty even in network prime-time shows, and only a few cable channels offered HD versions. Nobody thought about downloading an HD movie over the Internet. How times have changed. Sony's Blu-ray now faces stiff competition for HD dollars:
XStreamHD: Satellite networks DirecTV and Dish Network are fast adding high-definition channels to their services. XStream says it will launch later this year and promises an even better video experience, with full 1080p images and 7.1 surround sound coming directly into the home. The box will cost $400 plus rental/purchase charges, and we've yet to see which and how many movies XStream will offer. But even if XStream doesn't succeed, Blu-ray faces stiff competition in the added offerings from DirecTV and Dish.
Toshiba: You didn't think Toshiba was going away, did you? Toshiba and many competitors make standard DVD drives that do a good job of converting yesterday's disks to nearly high-definition resolution. The drives can be found at well under $100, in contrast to the cheapest Blu-ray drives, which run $300 on sale. Blu-ray will find it tougher to supplant standard DVDs than those disks did in replacing videotape. Many consumers will be happy to keep their current disk library with a good upscaling drive.
Comcast: The cable provider is leading its industry's efforts to offer more movie titles on demand, saying it hopes to have 6,000 a month available by year's end. Half of those would be available in high definition. Comcast is also adding HD channels and has reportedly said it could eventually offer hundreds. But that would mean a breakthrough in cable tech; today's coax systems limit most cable providers to a dozen or two HD channels.
Verizon: High-def content is a key motivation for Verizon and AT&T to spend billions of dollars to upgrade their systems for new television services. Verizon is running fiber optic cable to homes that can probably carry as many HD channels as Verizon can buy, including any that start offering movies in the top 1080p resolution that now only Blu-ray can produce. Verizon says it hopes to soon offer 150 HD channels. But so far, the telcos are offering only a few dozen channels in a lineup similar to those of most cable providers.
Vudu: This $300 box is the best dedicated device yet for downloading video from the Internet. Vudu has an innovative remote and software that makes video simpler to play than even Blu-ray, which means having to get and insert a disk into a player. On the downside, Vudu works just in homes with top-speed Internet access. Also, it so far offers fewer than 100 HD titles, the quality doesn't match Blu-ray's, and rentals are available only for 24 hours once they start playing.
Apple TV: This $230 box is fast becoming the best of the digital media adapters, which include Microsoft's Xbox 360 and are designed to link the TV to computers and the Internet. The latest Apple TV version can now function without a PC, enabling direct downloads from Apple's iTunes store and access to YouTube videos, among others. The iTunes store has only about 100 high-def titles available—and like Vudu, the quality doesn't match Blu-ray's, and rentals are available for just 24 hours once they start playing.
WNBC: Yes, the lowly antenna is more of a competitor than it was two years ago. The late-night shows have all gone high def, as has most prime-time and news programming. And while broadcast stations can't deliver 1080p as can Blu-ray, the HDTV delivered over the air is crystal clear—and cost free.