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HD DVD's "Unofficial" Official Death--Blu-ray Lives

It's official, or as official as this is going to get: HD DVD is dead; long live Blu-ray! All along, industry pundits have compared the next-generation DVD format war to the Beta vs. VHS conflict when VCRs first burst on the scene. I didn't realize just how true that comparison truly was.

Because just like that original format war, when an inferior technology beat out the other, it's happening again. I've spent some quality time with both Blu-ray and HD DVD, looking at picture quality and additional capabilities. I believed the Samsung combo Blu-ray/HD DVD player could again be the product of the year since it eliminated the need for a tough consumer choice. Watching discs on that slick device from both formats, the quality difference is clear: HD DVD is clearer, the sound seems better, the extras are sweeter.

But alas, pay no mind: HD DVD will go the way of Beta; fading off into oblivion; eclipsed by Blu-ray.

Now, Toshiba won't officially say that it's ending the format's development, but a string of brutal announcements this week makes the decision a foregone conclusion: Sure, Warner Bros. was the last major studio to jump on the Blu-ray format, and that news was widely seen as a kind of format death knell for Toshiba. The following week, NPD Group reported that a stunning 93 percent of related hardware sales went to Blu-ray. Ouch. Then, this week, news first from Netflix that it would go Blu-ray exclusively, and a day later, word from Best Buy that it too was rallying around Blu-ray. NPD also says Blu-ray disc sales are surging: 81 percent of all high def discs were Blu-ray last week. Yikes.

And wait, it gets better for Blu-ray. I have been hard on Sony these last few months as the company has tried and tried to shift the marketplace to the PlayStation 3, which includes a Blu-ray disc player inside. Consumers have been slow to adopt the Sony line that such a pricey device is something they can't live without. So slow that PlayStation 2 sales continue to out-perform the next generation PS3, even as Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft's xBox 360 continue to surge.

That trend appears to be shifting; good for Sony, and for Blu-ray even though early research suggested a vast majority of PS3 buyers weren't even aware a Blu-ray player was included. Nonetheless, NPD reports that PS3 outsold Xbox in January, selling 269,000 units, or 17 percent more units than Xbox 360's 230,000 units. That's important and could finally indicate the beginnings of a turning of the tide; and it comes at a critical time now that Blu-ray, backed by Sony, is eliminating HD DVD. I'll have more in-depth coverage of the game console sector in an upcoming post.

Meantime, as I lament the demise of HD DVD, I take heart in knowing that as digital media becomes more virtual and less physical, a format war will soon become a distant memory. There's no reason why any digital media should have a physical component: discs, both audio and video, will soon be relics as we download all our material direct from the web and right onto a hard drive, not caring about formats as the web becomes the great equalizer. Apple is pioneering the idea by not even including a DVD drive in its new MacBook Air. Sure, it saves space, but the bigger message is: Who needs it? Downloads are the future, but watching the passion on both sides of the next generation format war was interesting.

It's been fun, HD DVD. Don't let the door hit you on your way out.

UPDATE: More bad news for HD DVD: Wal-Mart says it's dumping the HD DVD format for Blu-ray. Another nail in the HD coffin.

Questions? Comments? TechCheck@cnbc.com

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