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Reeling in the years | This year’s model | Next year’s model? | Our year in DVDs

Remember Betamax, VHS and Laserdiscs? Those home video formats are now relegated to the technological trash heap or the musty shelves of public libraries, vintage shops and outmoded home collections. History demonstrates that as technology advances, existing technologies will be supplanted. So, for those with modest to mammoth DVD collections, the question is not if but when the march of time tramples this en vogue format.

No one should panic and start hauling their DVDs to the local Goodwill for a year-end tax deduction. But, as you buy new movies and audio/video equipment, there are several considerations that may influence your purchasing decisions both today and in the not-so-distant future.High-definition DVD

Also known as high density DVD, high-definition DVD is the latest format squeezing its way into the marketplace. The most significant harbinger of the proliferation of high-definition discs is the skyrocketing sales of digital televisions, particularly HDTVs. The Consumer Electronics Association predicts that 2007 will be the first year that retailers sell more high-definition sets than standard-definition sets. As consumers adorn their homes with the latest 42-inch flat-panel TV, they will begin looking to maximize their investment beyond the steady but slow roll-out of cable and satellite high-definition packages.

A standard DVD and its corresponding player are capable of producing a maximum video resolution of 720 x 480 pixels (480p), or approximately 346,000 total pixels. That is plenty on a standard-def set, but barely a drop in the bucket on a high-def screen. Indeed, the second generation of HDTV sets can handle an eye-popping 1,920 x 1,080 pixels (1080p), or more than 2 million total pixels. The only DVD format capable of maximizing this heightened resolution is high-definition discs, which support output of the 1080p signal, about six times the resolution of standard DVDs.

Most experts feel that the high-definition DVD market will truly take off only when one of the two competing high-def DVD brandsToshiba’s HD-DVD and Sony’s Blu-Ray discsemerges from the current industry schism, or at the very least when affordable DVD players are manufactured that are capable of playing both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs, as well as standard DVDs. Common sense suggests that the overall transition toward high-definition DVDs, while inevitable, will proceed quicker if consumers can be persuaded that their current collections will not be rendered obsolete.

Another move already taken by the HD-DVD brand is offering certain titles in a dual format that contains a standard 480p and high-def 1080p version of the same film, thus enabling users to play the same disc on a high-def DVD player or the standard player they already own. Here is where the average consumer buying new DVDs today may want to consider whether it would be wiser to spring for such a dual format disc, thereby eliminating the need or urge to repurchase the same film once you finally convert your home entertainment system to high-def. Among the early titles available in this dual format are The Breakfast Club and The Deer Hunter, both available the day after Christmas for $29.99 and $24.99 (at Best Buy), respectively.Video downloading

When Wal-Mart recently announced they would test a video-download service, it signaled the latest entry into a field that already includes Amazon, Apple, a host of smaller Internet companies, and next year may add Netflix and Blockbuster. BitTorrent, a leading online peer-to-peer file distribution protocol, recently signed agreements with a variety of entertainment companies to distribute films and TV shows over the Internet.

However, while many trumpet the advent of digital movie downloading as the death knell for DVDs, reports of the imminent demise of hard-copy discs are greatly exaggerated. Perhaps later rather than sooner, increased technology will end up favoring digital downloading. But, there are several key advancements that need to evolve in order for this to occur.

First is shrinking the time it takes to download a movie while increasing the quality of the playback. It presently takes nearly an hour to download a feature-length film even with a high-speed DSL connection, and the audio-video quality of those downloads is vastly inferior to a typical DVD. It would take several hours more to download a high-definition version.

Next is the ubiquity of online data storage and/or compact physical storage units with larger holding capacities. Part of the appeal of DVDs versus downloads is, ironically, their convenience. DVDs can be mailed, exchanged, taken on vacation, etc., while downloads are tethered to your personal computer due to copyright protection software. The average consumer may protect his proprietary and portability interests with a small physical storage unit capable of holding vast digital movie downloads or, better yet, being able to access your personal digital movie collection through the sort of dedicated online storage space already being offered by companies such as Xdrive and Streamload and under development by industry behemoths Google and Microsoft.

Finally, and most importantly, is the proliferation of A/V devices able to directly and easily access online or offline sources of video content. Consumers demand convenience, and removing the PC middleman is a key ingredient in this process. As Netflix, Blockbuster and other companies enter the online video rental market, they will undoubtedly offer set-top boxes that can be used to download their movie libraries. However, notwithstanding the plethora of legal and technical dilemmas, the next and most important evolution is being able to download video directly from the Internet to your television or home entertainment system. One glimpse of the future may come from last year’s agreement between cable giant Comcast and TiVo, under which a version of TiVo’s software will be installed on Comcast’s Motorola set-tops; the companies say they eventually will allow users to download video from the Internet.

Incidentally, it is these same legal resolutions and technological advancements that might one day also spell the end of traditional movie theaters, where instead of driving cross-town, viewers will be able to plunk down $10 to download a new movie release in the comfort of their home. But, we will save that eulogy for another day.