You'll be happy to know that you won't have to use new types of connectors with an HD DVD or Blu-ray player: they'll be compatible with your current equipment. Both players will feature digital HDMI connections for newer HDTVs and analog component-video connections for older ones. They'll also have standard composite- and S-video jacks, although the best video resolution you'll get from these is a standard 480i (interlaced) signal. On the audio side, there'll be HDMI and coaxial or optical digital connections along with analog 6-channel and downmixed stereo outputs.
But other connection options - including USB, Ethernet, and RS-232C - reveal the players' networking capabilities. The USB and Ethernet jacks will let you connect a Blu-ray or HD DVD player to your home network to go online or retrieve music, pictures, and video files from a desktop PC. But you won't have to make a networking connection to use the players, since they'll continue to perform basic disc-playing duties even in an "unwired" state.
What Works, and What Doesn't
Since both HD DVD and Blu-ray players are backward-compatible with current TVs and audio gear, you shouldn't have any trouble making one work with your system. But there are a few caveats. First, AACS copy protection gives movie studios the option to "down-rez" high-def video passing through a player's analog component-video output. This feature, called Image Constraint Token, is triggered by a digital flag embedded on the disc and reduces picture resolution to 960 x 540 pixels - a 75% decrease in detail. How aggressively studios decide to use the Image Constraint option remains to be seen, but, if implemented, it would disenfranchise early HDTV adopters whose sets don't have HDMI or HDCP-compliant DVI inputs - the very same group who will be first in line to buy Blu-ray and HD DVD players! Of the studios planning high-def discs, Blu-ray backers Sony, Disney, Fox, MGM, and Paramount have all stated that they don't plan to use Image Constraint on their discs unless piracy becomes a problem.
A second issue is that most current HDTVs - including the new breed of 1080p projection and flat-panel sets - can't accept 1080p-resolution video via an HDMI connection. That means most people will have to rely on the deinterlacers in their TVs to restore the super-high-rez pictures on many of the discs to their original progressive format. This isn't an immediate problem with HD DVD, since first-gen players can deliver only1080i- and 720p-format signals. But it is somewhat of a limitation for Blu-ray, since most of its titles will be mastered in 1080p, and virtually all of the players are capable of native 1080p output. Fortunately, Blu-ray players also provide a 1080i output for compatibility with almost all current HDTVs.
A third issue involves the version of HDMI on most first-gen HD DVD and Blu-ray players and current A/V receivers. To fully experience Dolby True HD and DTS HD Master Audio, you need HDMI version 1.3 - but that specification hadn't been completed as of early 2006. So, even though these formats were designed specifically for Blu-ray and HD DVD, the HDMI jacks on early players can't pass their signals on without some form of downsampling or transcoding. With some discs, however, including Sony's first round of Blu-ray releases, you'll be able to use a multichannel analog connection to hear an uncompressed PCM version of a movie's soundtrack.
We could all do without another format war. But given the huge number of corporate interests involved - which include videogame and computer hardware and software companies along with consumer-electronics manufacturers and movie studios - war was all but inevitable. Both sides are bound to do a lot of hyping and swiping, but when you enter your local electronics emporium to check things out, just remember: Both formats are spec'd to deliver a remarkable home theater experience, surpassing that of both DVDs and much of the HDTV programming on cable and satellite TV. With those credentials, they've both got to be good.
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