The War Between HD DVD and Blu-ray


By: Eric Flapjack Ashley (@flapjackashley)

A “Format War” is something that comes along rarely, but when it does, it can often be nasty, bloody, and bitter. For nerds like myself, I am a pretty early adopter to new technology, meaning I try to be one of the first to learn about and purchase new forms of tech and entertainment media. I remember being tempted by the Laserdisc because they offered a superior picture quality and digital sound compared to the VHS home video cassette. When DVD came about in the late 90s at a major consumer level, I was the first on my block to have one. DVD offered a picture resolution more than twice the definition of VHS, had Dolby Digital Sound, instant scene access, no rewinding, and they would not wear out over time like video tape does. The additional space of disc allowed for extra content and behind-the-scenes features that were like a dream come true for movie fans like myself.

The dawn of the High Definition age brought about a Format War that this nerd will always remember. Unlike the infamous on in the 80s between VHS and Betamax that I could only read about, this was happening right in front of my eyes. As an early adopter, there were two emerging formats that would eventually replace standard definition DVD for me to choose from – and the choice would not be an easy one.

The Same, but Different

HD DVD was the first out of the blocks, getting a four-month head start in the market over the competing Blu-ray format. Both offered HD 1080p pictures and had their own positives and negatives. Both players were extremely expensive at launch, with the cheapest ones falling into the $350-$400 price range, and movies averaged around $30 each. Both players came with very attractive offers that would include free movies. Start-up time on both machines was very slow, often taking almost a full minute before you could access anything on the disc. HD DVD and Blu-ray also redefined the home movie experience, allowing disc menus to be accessed without leaving the movie itself – common now, but it was revolutionary at the time. On the flipside, HD DVD and early models of Blu-ray would not remember your spot in a movie, even if you turned the player off with the disc inside – something that DVD could do from the beginning.

I chose to buy HD-DVD at holiday in 2006 for many reasons, and none of them I feel were wrong even today over a decade later.

A format war is similar to a video game console war: there were exclusives on each side, and the grass almost always seemed greener on the side that you were not on.

HD-DVD: The Look and Sound of Perfect

HD-DVD had the backing of many major studios, including Universal – which happened to be the home of many of my favorite movies. The players themselves, led by Toshiba as the main manufacturer, were superior to early Blu-ray machines: it had built-in wired and wireless connectivity for internet, meaning the players could easily download software updates and connect to online communities for sharing favorite scenes or view new content. HD DVD also had picture-in-picture capabilities so movies could display a small window with bonus content while watching the movie if desired, making a behind-the-scenes featurette very relevant to see during the scene itself as opposed in a standard supplement. Blu-ray would not gain this ability widespread for up to two years later. And also unlike Blu-ray and DVD before it, HD DVD players and discs were not region locked.

Many new releases served a dual purpose, with a DVD copy of the movie on one side and the HD DVD version on the other, which is the definition of being backwards compatible. In the summer of 2007, Paramount – who had been supporting both formats equally – announced they would release its movies and those of sister company Dreamworks exclusively on HD DVD. It seemed like a game changer for the war. And personally, I felt that “HD DVD” seemed like the natural progression from “DVD,” and would be more easily recognized and accepted by consumers, as opposed to something all new like “Blu-ray.”

But what do I know?

Blu-ray: The Future Is Blu

Sony is the inventor of the Blu-ray format. Longtime Format War historians will remember that it was Sony who also backed Betamax, which flamed out against VHS in the 80s. Blu-ray’s benefits included exclusive support from Fox and Disney – mainly due to the format’s DRM protections that HD DVD lacked. The discs were protected with a heavy coating of protection, making them virtually scratch proof, whereas HD DVD had nothing of the sort. Blu-ray used a Java-based system, meaning menus would take longer to boot up compared to HD DVD.


The war was pretty even for the first year. Blu-ray was bolstered by being included in the PlayStation 3 video game console, but HD DVD standalone players outside their Blu-ray counterparts by almost three to one. But what seemed like merely something that would even the playing field, the PS3 effect ended up being a key deciding factor.

While the sales of PlayStation 3 as a video game console slumped – the inclusion of Blu-ray jacked the price up to over $500 – it sold well enough as a high definition movie player to tilt momentum in Blu-ray’s favor. Having a built-in amount of consumers via buying a console to play games on was a huge factor, and Blu-ray movie sales and rentals eclipsed those of HD DVD despite the stand alone player in the latter’s favor. When the PS3 was factored in, Blu-ray was in more homes. And since the PS3 didn’t have many games during its launch, most owners used it to buy and watch Blu-ray movies on it.

At the beginning, shelf space for both formats was pretty even. But PS3 heavily touted its Blu-ray capabilities and it translated to a 70% to 30% advantage of rentals in stores like Blockbuster Video. In the summer of 2007, despite Paramount’s reprieve of exclusively backing HD DVD, Blockbuster and Target stores decided to carry Blu-ray only, and Best Buy featured interactive displays with Blu-ray with preferential shelf space.

2008 brought a swift end as Warner Bros. announced in January to drop support for HD DVD by June. Wal-Mart and Netflix also revealed plans to stop stocking HD DVD players and movies. In February, Toshiba folded and said it would stop producing and marketing HD DVD players – on the same day that Universal (HD DVD’s first major exclusive supporter) announced it would begin releasing films on Blu-ray. A day later, Paramount followed suit.

R.I.P. to HD DVD

It was a quick end to a format war that began as early as 2002, four years before the competing formats were on the market. Personally, I think HD DVD was the superior format out of the box, with its Internet connectivity, picture-in-picture, and region free capabilities. But Blu-ray’s benefit of being included in the PlayStation 3 gave way to better market awareness and more aggressive marketing – plus the DRM was attractive to major studios as well. HD DVD was the consumer-friendly format while Blu-ray was the business friendly one.

HD DVD lived in the market for less than two years and its month of January-February in 2008 ranks as one of the most head-spinningly fast downfalls the entertainment industry has ever seen. I still look back on my days of supporting HD DVD fondly, and as an early adopter, I don’t regret being on the losing side at all.

The Future is Not so Blu

Blu-ray may have won the battle, but did it really win the war? Once HD DVD was sidelined, Blu-ray faced a new enemy in the format of digital media and streaming. Options such as HD On Demand services, mobile apps, Netflix, and other services began exploding in popularity, with lots of TVs coming with built-in apps for easy streaming of content and movies. You can buy a Blu-ray player now for as cheap as DVD players, and movies can be had for $5 or less. Despite all of this, the adaption to Blu-ray from DVD is much slower than that we experienced in the transition from VHS to DVD.

Physical media is on the downturn, whether it be compact discs, books, magazines, video games, and, yes, even Blu-ray movies. The rise of the digital distribution movement has been like no other before it, and it has taken a bite out of everything around it. Sales space for physical movies and music are at roughly half of what they used to be, or less. As someone who supported HD DVD, I own over 200 Blu-ray movies so I take no pleasure in seeing the format struggle. I am more sad that physical media is dying as I will always prefer to have a real life item as opposed to something housed on a memory card or hard drive.

The war between Blu-ray and HD DVD was one for the ages, despite how quickly it wrapped up. But it’s also a fascinating one because the winner of that war may not end up being the winner overall in the grand scheme of things. Unlike VHS which had a domination on the market for over a decade after its war with Betamax, Blu-ray never really got to bask in it’s win as the insane popularity of digital distribution sprang up before Blu could really even get it’s footing. Blu-ray is still the choice for die hard movie fans as it is the only format that regular offers something streaming normally doesn’t – audio commentaries, behind-the-scenes documentaries, etc.

We may never have another format war like we had in 2006-2008. People in the generation before mine talk of VHS vs. Betamax with great fondness. Being a historian nerd about these things, I am glad I got to see at least one in my lifetime.

    One Comment

  1. MarkJune 5th, 2017 at 8:11 pm

    Whether it was DVD, then Blu ray and now 4K UHD Blu ray I’ll always buy physical media. I get digital copies with my discs any way and IMO the physical media still has the best picture and sound. Plus its always nice to know when Comcast’s cable and internet take a crap i always have my physical media to turn to. Prices to purchase digital content are rarely cheaper than physical media even though you generally get digital copies with your blu ray too so I don’t see the point purchasing digitalcontent on its own.

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