SHIFT: How the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are sneaking the HD format war into your living room

Each week Adam Frucci takes a closer look at the latest gadget buzz in his column, Shift.

Image by Falon

Who in their right mind would go out and buy a high-definition disc player right now? Seriously. To go out and drop $500 on an HD DVD player or $1,000 on a Blu-ray player seems like such an ill-informed purchase, only the most frivolous of early adopters would make it. I mean, it's not that being able to watch HD movies on your HDTV wouldn't be nice — this is just the wrong time. HDTVs haven't saturated the market yet (about 30% of American households have one), and to buy into either format would be playing an expensive game of roulette; who knows if one of the formats will go the way of the Betamax, and when? And if they both stick around, why not wait for a dual-format player?

Electronics manufacturers are no fools, and they know that an overpriced, risky player isn't at the top of most folks' Christmas lists this year. But they've got an ace up their sleeve — game consoles. The PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360's HD DVD drive could just be the Trojan horses that get these formats into people's living rooms without them even realizing it.

PlayStation's Surprise Guest
The thing with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 is that, despite the fact that they're designed for use on an HDTV, they don't require one. Hardcore gamers that can't afford a $2,000 plasma TV will end up having HD games downconverted to a standard-def set. But they won't mind as much, as they'll still be able to play the games, albeit with lesser graphics.

However, that kid who got a PS3 to play on his 19-inch standard-def TV is eventually going to upgrade to an HDTV, and when he does, he'll already have a nice bonus waiting for him inside his game console's chassis: a Blu-ray player. This little surprise is the entire reason Sony's console was delayed and delayed, and why it costs so much ($600 for the top-tier model). Having a Blu-ray player in the PS3 forces gamers to take a side in the format war, as there's no option not to buy the drive with the console.

Sony's taken a lot of flak for sticking a Blu-ray drive in the PS3, since it arguably does nothing to help the thing actually play games. However, if Sony pulls off what it's going for, it will look like a brilliant move. Yes, Sony is bleeding money with this console, and the Blu-ray laser is the reason there are so few units available at launch, but keeping Blu-ray alive as a format is worth all of these headaches to the electronics giant. If the format were to fail, Sony would be stuck with the bill for millions of dollars in the research, development, and marketing of Blu-ray, something that would do more damage that a bumpy launch of the new gaming console.

The Player on the Other Side
Microsoft is playing catch up with Sony, releasing its HD DVD drive for the Xbox 360 at about the same time the PS3 hits shelves. While it isn't a requirement for any games, they're getting a leg up by having their drive so competitively priced at $200. If you already have an Xbox 360 the add-on drive is without a doubt the cheapest way to get HD DVD playback at home. By also selling HD content through the Xbox Live service, Microsoft is trying to position the Xbox 360 as the HD centerpiece of people's living room, making the HD DVD drive a natural addition to the console.

For non-gamers, the smart money is on holding off until a dual-format player hits the market. With both sides so firmly entrenched, one or the other isn't going down anytime soon. However, gamers out there are gonna have to put up with the huge price tag that Blu-ray added to the PS3. If nothing else, having such advanced HD features on the next-gen consoles might motivate people to upgrade their TVs to HD sooner rather than later. Overall, the decision to force people to buy Blu-ray was a pretty consumer-unfriendly decision by Sony, but once HDTVs have saturated the market people are going to want HD content in both their movies and games. History may ultimately judge these painful prices as simply growing pains.