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Here comes high definition

Camcorders that can shoot high definition (HD) video are coming down in price and will continue to over the next 12 to 18 months, putting them within the reach of consumers. Software tools for editing HD video are becoming more common. The big question, though, is how do you burn that video to DVD?

What’s happening?

Steve Jobs famously proclaimed 2005 as the “Year of HD.” Turns out he was off by a year or two. Although high definition television sets are becoming pretty common, HD camcorders are still slightly exotic, thanks to their comparatively high prices. But that’s beginning to change. With HDV camcorders such as Canon’s $1,299 HV10 and Sony’s $1,500 HDR-HC3 HDV now hitting the market, cost is becoming less of an issue. The other good news is that you can now edit HD video with all three of Apple’s digital-video-editing apps—iMovie, Final Cut Express, and Final Cut Pro.

But there’s still the problem of displaying your finished project. You can transfer your edited project back to tape and connect your camcorder directly to an HD TV. Or you can buy an expensive ($1,000) Blu-ray or HD DVD burner and the expensive media that goes with it, and hope your intended audience has one of the $500-plus set-top boxes that’ll play your DVD (see “Optical Drives: Blu-ray versus HD DVD” on this page). But there’s some consolation: Apple’s DVD-burning products (iDVD and DVD Studio Pro) will convert HD video to SD (standard definition) video for burning to standard DVDs, so your HD video won’t be entirely useless—it’ll just be much lower in resolution.

Buying advice

Is now the time to plop down money for an HD camcorder? That depends on how cutting-edge you are. If you’re an early adopter or an aspiring filmmaker, it’s a fine time to buy, given the lower prices out there. You probably already have the software for editing HD movies. Just remember that if you want to share your HD masterpiece on disc, you’re going to have to wait at least a couple of months for HD-ready DVD burners to arrive.

Illustration by Oliver Wolfson.

Blu-ray versus HD DVD

In 2006, we saw a standards war start between two new high-density DVD formats: Blu-ray and HD DVD. This year, one of them should be crowned the winner. But it’s still too early to tell which one is best for Mac users.

End of an era

The DVD standard has reached an impasse, in the form of high definition (HD) video. HD video demands more capacity than standard DVDs can deliver. That’s where the Blu-ray and HD DVD disc formats come in. Both promise to let you play HD-quality movies on your HD TV and back up huge amounts of data or burn your own HD videos.

The two formats have much in common. Both rely on drives with blue-violet lasers (which have shorter wavelengths than the red lasers found in regular DVD drives). Those lasers allow the new discs to hold more information in the same space. Blu-ray DVDs pack 25GB on a single-layer disc and 50GB on a dual-layer; HD DVDs can store 15GB and 30GB, respectively; standard DVDs holds 4.7GB and 8.5GB, respectively. So a 50GB Blu-ray disc can hold 9 hours of HD video (23 hours of SD video); a 30GB HD DVD disc can hold 8 hours of HD video. Both formats support resolutions up to 1,080p (1,920 by 1,080 pixels) compared with 720 by 480 pixels for standard DVDs. Netflix and other DVD rental services offer discs in both formats.

Fight! Fight! Fight!

Despite these similarities, the two standards are incompatible: Blu-ray drives can’t read HD DVD discs and vice versa. Which one will win the format war?

Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Samsung, and Panasonic all support Blu-ray; HD DVD supporters include NEC, Toshiba, and Sanyo. HD DVD was the first to market and is currently less expensive, and more films are available in that format—at least for now. But Sony’s release of the PlayStation 3 (PS3) with a Blu-ray optical drive could be what analyst Ross Rubin of NPD calls “an effective Trojan horse for Blu-ray.”

Which way will Apple go? It’s currently in the Blu-ray camp, but no computer ven-dor will decide the contest. Consumers will, once they decide which format they want for their content and pick burners that support it; computer companies will follow that lead.

Buying advice

Don’t expect a clear winner to emerge for the next year or two. For renting and playing movies, there are more available on HD DVD than on Blu-ray right now. For burning your own movies and data, Blu-ray offers higher capacity. Expect hybrid players—those that support both formats—within the next year, though they’ll likely be too expensive for mainstream buyers.

[ Jonathan Seff is Macworld ’s senior news editor. ]

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