Q. I'm confused about the format war for next-generation DVDs. Should I get HD DVD or Blu-ray, or should I stick with regular DVDs for now?
A. Both HD DVD and Blu-ray discs store much more data than regular DVDs, meaning crisper and sharper images and sounds on your high-definition television. They also offer greater interactivity and even the ability to grab new information over the Internet.
Both use blue lasers, instead of red ones, to boost storage capacity. Blue light has a shorter wavelength, allowing data to be packed on the disc closer together. So while a regular DVD can hold about 8.5 gigabytes of data on a dual-layer format disc - the ones used for most movie DVDs - an HD DVD disc can pack 30 GB.
Blu-ray can hold even more - 50 GB. That's because the data layer is closer to the surface, so the laser can focus in even more tightly, said Andy Parsons, a Pioneer Corp. executive who is chairman of the Blu-ray Disc Association's U.S. Promotion Committee.
In addition, Blu-ray discs spin at about a time and a half the normal rate, meaning faster data transfers for even sharper pictures and sound.
But the new technology requires new manufacturing techniques and factories, boosting initial costs.
HD DVDs, on the other hand, are essentially DVDs on steroids, meaning movie studios can turn to existing assembly lines to produce them in mass.
Kevin Collins, a Microsoft Corp. executive on HD DVD's North American promotions committee, said movies have yet to require the additional space or faster transfer rate that Blu-ray offers.
What HD DVD does is require all players bearing its logo to offer picture-in-picture capabilities - allowing you, for instance, to watch commentary from a director in a small pop-up screen while the movie continues playing. Today's DVDs are limited to audio voiceovers.
All HD DVD players also must support Internet connections, letting you grab new movie trailers, look up movie show times and perform other tasks.
Those features are optional for Blu-ray, although Parsons said picture-in-picture capabilities should be standard by later this year. (LG Electronics Co. is making a dual-format DVD player, but it won't bear an HD DVD logo because it lacks the mandatory features.)
Both HD DVD and Blu-ray support basic pop-up menus, meaning you can change language and subtitle preferences without stopping the movie. Both have versatile, though competing, programming languages to offer features such as searchable databases of major events and characters in a movie.
And players out in both formats can read regular DVDs, too.
HD DVD players came first, but Blu-ray is rapidly catching up, with more manufacturers making Blu-ray and with players included with Sony Corp.'s new PlayStation 3 game consoles (The HD DVD player for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 is optional).
More Hollywood studios are also backing Blu-ray exclusively - The Walt Disney Co., News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures - compared with General Electric Co.'s Universal Studios for HD DVD. Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros. and Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures are releasing movies in both formats.
For now, though, each format has about 200 movies out in the United States.
Of course, little of this matters if you haven't yet bought a high-definition TV. You'll get the improved interactivity, but you won't notice the full picture quality.
If that's the case, better to stick with standard DVD players, save yourself hundreds of dollars and let the format war sort itself out. That way, you'll avoid ending up with the 21st century version of the Betamax VCRs