Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player

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As I mentioned in the magazine a few weeks back, HD DVD is here. I'm not just taking the word of the people at Toshiba, NBC Universal and Warner Home Video, either. I have experienced it first-hand, by connecting the HD-A1 player to a 42-inch plasma TV and a 5.1 surround-sound speaker system. When I compared the HD DVD of last year's sci-fi cult film Serenity with its DVD, the difference was powerful. I called my wife in as a witness, and she immediately noticed the richer detail and deeper color. That's just on a 42-inch HD set. The differences grow the bigger your TV.

I'd like to be able to tell you that that's the end of it — that you should rejoice and go get an HD DVD player, and be done with it. A handful of movies from Universal and Warner are already for sale, including Swordfish, The Last Samurai, Million Dollar Baby, Phantom of the Opera, Apollo 13, GoodFellas, Doom and the aforementioned Serenity. More are on the way — by the end of June, once Paramount joins in, there should be about 40 titles in stores. Most titles slated for release are either full of action or artistically shot (or both), capitalizing on the high-definition format. Universal's upcoming Bourne Identity will be the first title to show off HD DVD's powerful interactive capability: you'll be able to watch video commentary by the director and actors, overlaid in a corner of the screen while the movie is playing.

As you probably know, however, there's a competing format called Blu-ray on the way, backed by Sony, Philips, Panasonic, Samsung and Pioneer. The movie studio lineup also tips slightly in Blu-ray's favor, since Fox, Disney and Sony plan to release films only on the Blu-ray format, while Warner and Paramount plan to launch titles in both. But it isn't as easy as simply waiting for Blu-ray either: the initial players, expected in July or August, will list for $1,000 or more, as opposed to the $500 list price for Toshiba's first HD DVD player.

To further complicate matters, the Sony's premium PlayStation 3 game console will also be a full-fledged Blu-ray player. This week, Sony announced that it ships on November 17, and will cost $600. (Microsoft will introduce an HD DVD player accessory for the Xbox 360.)

After carefully weighing the options, I have boiled them down to two: The conservative play is to wait until the PS3 comes out. By then, there will be a critical mass of videos available in each format, and pricing and availability will be more clear. The more daring play is getting an HD-A1 now. If you can find one, that is — they've been selling out everywhere.

If you do jump in straightaway, you'll be getting some "early" technology. It's a little slow starting up and shutting down, and you must have a high-definition TV with an HDMI input, or a DVI input that is HDCP compatible. Don't worry about what it all means, just pull out your TV's manual and wade through the acronyms until you find these. My plasma TV, a two-year-old Hitachi, just made the cut. With a little patience, I was able to get a beautiful picture, but when I switched video sources, the HD DVD player got confused and froze up, requiring me to restart the thing. I can't say that newer HDMI sets will have this problem, but I imagine anyone with an older yet compatible set like mine should be ready for hiccups. Besides the HD-A1 and Toshiba's $800 premium HD-XA1, only one other HD DVD player is slated for introduction this year, RCA's $500 HDV5000. Incidentally, it, too, is built by Toshiba. (In the longer term, Microsoft has suggested that it may evangelize the technology in China, where manufacturers with weaker brands could make very affordable units.)

I'm sure most of you will say, "I've waited this long without going mad, so I might as well wait a bit longer." I don't blame you. But consider this: even if HD DVD turns out to be a flash in the pan, $500 is how much I spend on five months of premium HD cable TV. With a subscription to Netflix, you can watch all of the HD DVD titles that come out as they launch. While it might not rival what Blu-ray has promised for sometime in the future, the HD DVD catalog — with The Matrix, Shawshank Redemption, Full Metal Jacket, Jarhead and Chronicles of Riddick all guaranteed in the next month or two — is more attractive than what's shown collectively on Showtime, HBO, InHD and HDNet. Even if you chuck it aside the minute your shiny new PS3 comes through the door, you will have gotten your money's worth for a half year of high-definition entertainment, entertainment that no one else is delivering at this moment.