The next generation high definition video disc players have arrived. Along with the anticipation of beautiful details and vivid color, also comes the apprehension of an impending format war.

The new players are based on HD-DVD and Blu-Ray Disc formats. There is no question that this new generation of players can produce superior picture and sound versus traditional DVD players – Both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray can provide up to 1080 progressive lines of picture resolution, with multiple channels of uncompressed digital surround audio. Early adopters and reviewers have applauded the immersing home theater experience. Despite glitches of the first batch of player models and disc titles, the new formats and players visibly set the trend for future home theater systems.

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The number one concern for consumers is the battle between the two formats. Each format is backed by a large consortium of consumer electronics brands, computer hardware software manufactures, and movie studios. The two camps are competing aggressively via advertising, product introductions, and content releases. HD-DVD initially led the race with Toshiba first releasing their HD-DVD player and flattering reviews of the early HD-DVD movie titles. Blu-Ray most likely suffered a set back with glitches of its first Samsung player and sub-par mastering of its initial batch of discs. However, the expectation is still high with Sony’s own Blu-Ray players, PlayStation 3 game consoles, and new movies on dual-layer Blu-Ray discs.

While competition is generally positive for consumers, there is a serious problem in this battle – the two formats are mutually exclusive. Consumers are facing a host of problems due to the format war: discs of one format cannot play in another formats player; some movies will be available only in one format but not the other; and consumer electronics companies announce and then back off from making a universal player model.

On the other hand, universal players or a unified format are not completely impossible. While both formats are vying for the pole position in the format war and ultimately market domination, the technologies have numerous similarities.

* Both use the ever familiar five and a quarter inch optical disc shape;
* both utilize blue laser;
* and the video compression and audio encoding algorithms are common between the two formats.

Ricoh recently announced an optical pickup head that is capable of reading both formats. In addition, there is industry news indicating the two camps are still in talks with each other about the possibility of a unified format.

This excitement, anxiety, and confusion are reminiscent of previous format battles. Every advancement of home entertainment technology appears to bring forth a format war. The battle between VHS and Betamax concluded with VHS dominating the home video recorder/player market, leaving early Betamax users to succumb to an early retirement of their equipment. The format war of DVD-Audio versus Super Audio CD, two high resolution audio disc formats, settled with both formats surviving, thanks to the introduction of universal players. Yet, both formats completely failed to achieve the goal of replacing the ever present CD as the primary digital music media. For recordable video discs, the DVD-R and DVD+R format war also ended with most recorders/writers supporting both formats.

If a lesson or two can be learned from the history of format wars, it is that the best approach for consumers right now is to wait for the dust to settle. No matter if one format becomes the winner and dominates the market, or if a universal player and unified format obtain development, early adopters risk wasted investment in obsolete equipment or incompatible collection of discs. Early adopters of technology are very commendable – they are the driving force of this progress in home entertainment technology. However, for consumers with limited disposable incomes who must adhere to a budget for their home theater setup, sitting out the format war is a wise choice.

Sitting out the format war does not mean consumers have to sacrifice their home entertainment experience. A new crop of up-converting DVD players have established their value in getting the most out of any HDTV display and DVD collections. These players, such as the OPPO OPDV971H and DV-970HD, are relatively inexpensive, and use sophisticated video processing technology to convert the standard definition video stored in DVD discs to high definition digital video signals. Customer experience, expert reviews, and benchmark tests all indicate that these players do a remarkable job in producing stunning high definition video with significant details, accurate colors, artifact-free images and fluid motions. Compared to standard or progressive-scan DVD video enlarged by the TV, using an up-converting DVD player offers a great leap in picture quality. As a result consumers can enjoy a high quality home theater experience on their HDTV with their existing collection of DVD discs, right there and then, with minimal incremental investment.

While waiting for the winner of the format war of next generation video discs and players, another easy tweak that can vastly improve the home theater experience is to properly adjust the picture controls of the TV and DVD player. In other words, to “calibrate the system.” The enhancement to raw pixel resolution by up-converting DVD players or next generation players is just one factor of picture quality. More importantly, proper setting of basic picture controls, such as brightness, contrast, sharpness, and color can often make an enormous difference in visual satisfaction. While professional calibration is more desirable and produces an unbeatable result, in-home self-calibration is easy to do, costs little, and usually yields major improvement.

In-home calibration should begin with a DVD player that outputs video with standard brightness, contrast levels, and color density. The above-mentioned OPPO players, with their factory default settings, are a fine choice for this. There are many DVD players that cannot output correct video levels. If you are shopping for a new player, be sure to checkout reviews and benchmarks. On the other hand, if you already own a player with non-standard output levels, the calibration will continue to improve the picture quality, albeit somewhat limited.

You will also need a reference DVD disc to produce the calibration patterns. The famous Avia Guide to Home Theater by Ovation Software is such a disc. You may also use the free THX Optimizer commonly found on many THX certified DVD movie discs. First watch the guide or optimizer video once or twice to familiarize yourself with the calibration patterns and their usage. Read the TV user’s manual about the picture control adjustment to become better acquainted with the control menus.

When you start the calibration, simply follow the instructions in the guide or optimizer and set the TV’s brightness, contrast, sharpness, and color levels so the calibration patterns displayed on the TV screen meets the requirements set by the reference discs. For example, when setting brightness, the Avia test pattern should display only one moving dark grey bar over a black background, and the THX Optimizer pattern should make the THX icon barely visible and the drop shadow invisible. The most important controls are the brightness and contrast. Once these two are properly set, you will be able to see fine details in the shadows and bright scenes of a movie. The sharpness level should be set to a minimum or neutral position so there is no artificial edge enhancement of objects; however, this is mostly a personal preference. Similarly, the color setting is also mainly a personal preference. Professional calibrations use special instruments to measure the color and adjust the TV to produce uniformed color density across all brightness levels; Avia Guide to Home Theater comes with three color filters to visually adjust color; The THX Optimizer requires the use of special “THX blue glasses”; some experienced users adjust color based on skin tone of their familiar characters in their favorite movies. After a round of initial adjustments, repeat the calibration process again for another round of fine tuning, as some picture controls may affect each other.

With a high-quality up-converting DVD player and a properly calibrated HDTV, an educated consumer is well positioned to sit out the HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray format war. With more rapid development of technology and more aggressive marketing, format wars tend to settle sooner than expected. The VHS vs. Betamax war took almost 10 years, but the DVD-R vs. DVD+R war was over in about a year or so. Who knows, maybe by this time next year there will be a clear direction for new high definition discs and players. While waiting for this to occur, consumers do not need to risk investment. Impeccable home entertainment experience is easily achievable with an excellent up-converting DVD player such as the OPPO OPDV971H or DV-970HD, and a properly calibrated HDTV display.

Enjoy the show!

About OPPO Digital, Inc. Based in the heart of Silicon Valley, OPPO Digital, Inc., manufactures and markets digital electronics that deliver style, innovation, value, and performance to A/V enthusiasts and savvy consumers. The company’s leading R&D, high-performance products, and strong customer focus distinguish it from traditional consumer-electronics brands.

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