HD DVD, Blu-ray backers trumpet formats' victory

But which numbers really matter?

CES 2007 It's probably unwise for the companies behind the HD DVD next-generation optical disc format to talk to loudly about numbers. Last night, the HD DVD Promotion Group proudly claimed some 175,000 HD DVD players were sold in the US by 5 January this year. An impressive number for a totally new format, but one eclipsed by the 475,000 Blu-ray ready PlayStation 3s Sony sold in the period between the console's 17 November launch and Christmas Day.

Earlier yesterday evening, Sony said it had now shipped more than a million PS3s - the smaller figure comes from US retail market watcher NPD - and it was quick to point out that that means consumers have purchased more than 1m Blu-ray Disc players. Interestingly, no other BD backer has said how many players they have shipped, suggesting Sony has the lion's share.

Interestingly, its rival console maker, Microsoft, may account for the bulk of HD DVD player purchases with its Xbox 360-oriented external drive. In the US market, there are effectively three manufacturers of HD DVD machines: Toshiba, RCA and Microsoft. RCA's sales are unknown, but unlikely to be ahead of Microsoft or Toshiba. Ditto the number of notebooks and desktop PCs with built-in HD DVD drives. Yesterday, Toshiba said it had sold 60,000 HD DVD players in the US. Microsoft is likely to account for the bulk of the remaining 115,000.

What the HD DVD crowd can say, of course, is that every sale of an HD DVD device is a vote for the format. Even the Microsoft box is being sold as unit for playing pre-recording video content, whereas plenty of PS3 owners probably don't care what format the console's optical drive is as long as it can keep them well fed with games.

The HD DVD Promotion Group reckons every HD DVD player purchaser has also acquired, on average, 28 HD DVD movies, though some of those will have come via the bundle deals Toshiba, for one, has been pushing.

The Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) didn't provide an attachment rate this week. But when members talk of 10m BD players sold by 2008 and 70m discs shipped, that's just seven discs per player, a quarter of what the HD DVD Promotion Group claims for its format.

The HD DVD Promotion Group believes its members will together have shipped 2.5m players by the end of 2007, though that figure includes the 175,000 units that have been sold already. Again, Sony's response is to point to the PS3, which it yesterday said would be in 3m homes by the end of the year. On top of that are all the other players Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, Philips and co may sell. Both Sony and Samsung this week announced second-generation players. So did Toshiba.

LG's new dual-format player will, of course, count for both HD DVD and BD hardware sales.

So how might the PS3 affect the outcome of the format war? The BDA cites a survey in conducted by talking to 10,000 US PS3 owners. It claims more than 80 per cent plan to buy movies on BD. A slightly smaller percentage, just over 75 per cent, said they plan to use their console as their prime device for watching movies.

This is the key constituency, and if it comes to pass, that's 750,000 PS3 owners who're going to back the BD movie format, compared to the 175,000 consumers who've committed themselves to HD DVD thus far. Even if each of those 175,000 go on to buy 28 discs, four times as many on average as the BD crowd, that still means, overall, 5.25m BDs will be sold to 4.9m HD DVDs.

Whether that ratio is maintained as both formats win further consumers through 2007 depends not only on Sony shipping plenty more PS3s, but also the BD player makers getting the price down to the point where their hardware is attractive to buy as either Toshiba's much cheaper HD DVD players or a PS3. Not every potential BD buyer wants a PS3, even for use solely as a movie playback device.

Price is HD DVD's key advantage, particularly when, in the UK, buyers will be able to pick up a Toshiba player for around £350 for three months while Sony gears up to ship the PS3 here. The reviews suggest the Toshiba machine makes a rather good DVD player for folk migrating to HD TVs, so you could see the ability to play next-gen discs simply as a bonus.

Still, with five of the eight major Hollywood studios supporting Blu-ray exclusively and only one taking the same single-format approach with HD DVD, it's hard to see how the latter format can compete as the market moves beyond the folk who'll stick with a preferred format no matter what to people who buy movies first, hardware second. ®

Read our complete CES 2007 coverage at Reg Hardware

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