As the PlayStation 3 came to market in 2006, prices of HDTVs were falling. More consumers were looking to upgrade the big screen in their living rooms. And so the entertainment industry was eager to move on from DVD and rerelease films in hopes that people would “double dip” and repurchase their favorites in high-definition quality (and at a higher price). But instead of a straightforward transition to a next-generation disc format, the home media business found itself in a format war that reminded many of the battle between VHS and Betamax in the 1980s.
Consumers were faced with dueling physical media formats that were both vying to replace DVD. Blu-ray and HD DVD, two new optical disc technologies, were battling for support from movie studios and for shelf space at retailers. Looking back (with the benefit of hindsight), Sony’s decision to put a Blu-ray drive in its hotly anticipated video game console would prove crucial to the format’s eventual victory over HD DVD. Sony had led development of Blu-ray, so integrating it into the PS3 made total sense, even if it meant the $500 console would be priced higher than Microsoft’s Xbox 360.
Sony gave us Blu-ray, and on the other side, Toshiba was championing HD DVD. Blu-ray was more advanced, offering greater on-disc storage (with dual-layer discs holding up to 50GB), but HD DVDs were cheaper to manufacture and could be churned out on existing production lines. The players typically cost less, too. Both formats delivered a noticeable improvement to video quality compared to DVDs, which were limited to standard definition.
Consumers were faced with a dilemma. Buying into either Blu-ray or HD DVD meant betting on which format would ultimately prevail. Retailers had separate sections for both, and the packaging case color indicated which format you were browsing: blue for Blu-ray, and red for HD DVD. The split was miserable for movie fans, with studios claiming their allegiance to one disc format or the other — but very rarely both. Fox and Sony went Blu-ray. Universal chose HD DVD. Paramount abruptly bailed on Blu-ray in the summer of 2007 just as Disney fully got behind it. Warner Bros. was the best when it came to supporting both formats until it threw in the towel on HD DVD just before CES 2008. In early 2008, Best Buy and Netflix both signaled they would begin favoring Blu-ray over HD DVD due to lopsided studio support. Walmart followed days later, and the war was essentially over. Blu-ray had won, and the PlayStation 3 played an enormous role in that outcome.
The PS3 made all the difference in putting Blu-ray ahead for good. Sony’s console was always factored into overall Blu-ray player sales (even if people weren’t buying it for that reason), which put HD DVD at a significant disadvantage when it came to market share. Microsoft released a $199 external HD DVD player for the Xbox 360 — I had one — but Sony’s strategy of direct integration won the day. Building Blu-ray into the machine itself also meant Sony could bundle some movie releases like Talladega Nights and I Am Legend with the PlayStation 3 so that consumers could immediately sample the superior visual presentation compared to DVD.
The PS3 was always among the best Blu-ray players, as well. It was fast to start playing discs. And through system firmware updates, Sony added new features and playback capabilities at a much faster cadence than companies with standalone players. The PS3 became the first Blu-ray player that could access bonus content on the internet. (HD DVD was actually first to these web-connected interactive features, but alas.) Sony even added support for 3D Blu-ray playback in 2010, so the PS3 was fully able to ride the 3D TV fad.
But the protracted Blu-ray / HD DVD format war and consumer confusion did significant damage to mainstream pickup of high-definition physical media. It took years before Blu-ray versions of new blockbusters began outselling DVD releases. And today, many consumers do most of their entertainment viewing with streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and more recently Disney+.
Sony seemed to lean on this shift with the PlayStation 4 Pro in 2016. The company was less concerned with pushing the latest and greatest optical format on consumers, deciding against including a 4K Blu-ray drive in the Pro. Sony noted that buyers would be able to stream 4K HDR movies from streaming services.
Microsoft pounced on what home theater enthusiasts saw as an unforced error, outfitting the Xbox One S and X models with UHD drives that play 4K HDR discs at a higher resolution than regular Blu-ray — which tops out at 1080p — and with consistent quality that doesn’t depend on an internet connection.
Sony has already confirmed that the supercharged PlayStation 5 will contain a 4K Blu-ray drive. So the next PlayStation console will again be a capable, full-featured entertainment machine — even if Sony’s focus is now squarely on games and not Blu-ray’s survival.