Blu-ray vs HD DVD: which video format is for you?

Is Blu-ray bang for your buck? Is HD DVD hot to trot? Which next-generation video format should you choose and why?

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updated Another year, another global battle for tech supremacy. For most consumers, the decision whether to go with a plasma or LCD television is difficult enough. But consumers are now faced with the tough choice of two competing, next-generation DVD standards -- Blu-ray and HD DVD.

With the release of the PlayStation 3 and other HD players some people have already made their choice, but it's still too early to predict an outright winner. Not the least of all because Paramount recently announced it was pulling up stumps on Blu-ray and pitching its fortunes with HD DVD.

One of the problems is that Blu-ray and HD DVD formats are incompatible -- that means your Blu-ray player won't play HD DVD movies, and your HD DVD machine won't be able to read Blu-ray movies. There is currently one player on the market that will play both, but as with many players which are first to market it's been plagued with reports of compatibility problems.

No matter which format you choose, the new players aren't exactly what you'd call 'cheap', and the last thing any consumer wants to do is buy a machine that becomes obsolete in favour of another incompatible format.

So which format is worth your hard earned cash? What are the technical differences between the two? What products are available right now? And what do the editors here at CNET.com.au recommend? Read on for everything you need to know about the Blu-ray vs HD DVD battle.

FAQ: Is Blu-ray/HD DVD for you?

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1. Blu-ray and HD DVD: what's all the fuss about?
Amidst all of the hype surrounding next-generation DVD formats, you may be asking yourself one simple question: what's all the fuss about? After all, your current DVD player produces a pretty good picture, right? Are Blu-ray and HD DVD really worth bothering about?

The short answer to that question is yes, Blu-ray and HD DVD do deserve your consideration -- but not necessarily your money (not yet, at any rate). The long answer is a lot more complicated, and involves other considerations such as your current home theatre set-up, the limited availability of movies and more (questions we'll get to later in this feature). For now, the fact that Blu-ray/HD DVD are to DVDs what DVDs once were to VHS means it is important for any prospective home theatre shopper to know exactly what the pros and cons are.

2. What's the difference between Blu-ray/HD DVD and normal DVDs?
The major difference between Blu-ray/HD DVD and DVDs is capacity -- that is, both Blu-ray and HD DVD can store more information than current DVDs on the same size 12cm optical disc we're all used to.

Without getting too technical, the reason for the increased storage has to do with the type of lasers used. DVDs (and CDs) use a red laser to read and write data to and from a disc. Blu-ray and HD DVD both use a blue laser, which has a shorter wavelength than red ones. The shorter wavelength, coupled with improved lenses, results in a smaller beam enabling a higher amount of data to be written to each disc.

DVDs can store around 4.7GB worth of data on a single side (8.5 for a dual layer DVD). In contrast, HD DVDs can store up to 15GB on a single layer while Blu-ray can hold 25GB on one layer. Even more can be packed into Blu-ray/HD DVD discs if they use more than one layer or one side of the disc.

3. OK, so Blu-ray/HD DVD discs hold more stuff. What does that mean for me?
More capacity means more information can be stored on each Blu-ray or HD DVD disc. In entertainment terms, that means full high definition movies or shows can be stored on a disc -- something previously impossible with DVDs (which only stores its content in standard definition). The greater capacity also improves the audio experience thanks to the ability to include more sound formats and, in some cases, uncompressed surround sound. The bottom line is Blu-ray and HD DVD movies and television shows look and sound much better than what is currently being produced by DVDs.

The added capacity, plus the added power of Flash, has also resulted in new functionality appearing on Blu-ray/HD DVD movies. For example, in standard DVDs users have to stop playback of a movie if they wanted to look at the DVD's menu. Blu-ray and HD DVD movies allows users to dynamically interact with the movie menu while watching it.

From the home office/home computer side of things, the higher capacity on Blu-ray and HD DVDs mean just that -- the ability to store much more data on a single disc. Entire hard drives worth of information can easily be backed up using just one next-generation disc.

You'll need a high-definition television to make the most out of Blu-ray/HD DVD.

4. What other home entertainment gear will I need to make the most out of Blu-ray/HD DVD?
It all sounds peachy so far, but here comes the first (and probably biggest) caveat -- to make the most out of what Blu-ray and HD DVD have to offer, you'll need some fairly up-to-date home entertainment gear, particularly a high definition television.

A major part of what made DVD an overnight success was the fact you could plug a DVD player into any television and immediately see improved visual quality. Don't expect the same to occur with Blu-ray/HD DVD -- if you have an old analog set (or even a newer flat-screen plasma or LCD with fairly low resolution) the picture Blu-ray/HD DVD delivers won't look much better than what DVD will produce.

Here's the minimum we recommend you'll need to be happy with Blu-ray/HD DVD: a decent 5.1 surround sound system, a flat-screen plasma or LCD with the capability to display 720p pictures at minimum, and at least one HDMI connector.

5. Why are there two competing formats in the first place?
The two formats -- Blu-ray and HD DVD -- were developed separately over many years, with Sony spearheading the Blu-ray camp and HD DVD championed by Toshiba. Both formats were competing for official recognition by the DVD Forum as the successor to DVD -- a battle which Toshiba eventually one. However, Sony and its partners decided to persevere with their invention, and hence the format wars began. Though there were several attempts to unite the two factions, they were unsuccessful -- and hence the difficult choice was instead passed on to consumers.

6. Which format is better?
Ask anyone from either the Blu-ray or HD DVD and they'll happily spruik about how their format is the superior one. The bottom line is both technologies have their strengths and weaknesses -- read on to find out what those pros and cons are.

7. So what Blu-ray/HD DVD products are available?
Blu-ray and HD DVD have landed in Australia, and at present there's at least a dozen lurking in a store near you. Standout devices so far have included the Sony PlayStation 3 and the Pioneer BDP-LX70 for Blu-ray and the Toshiba HD-XE1 for HD-DVD.

Several laptops have also included HD disk playing as an option from Toshiba and Sony. For a full list of the available players so far, click here.

DVD vs Blu-ray vs HD DVD

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Want to see at a glance what each format has to offer? Check our table below for more information.

As you can see below, while both Blu-ray and HD DVD offer much more than plain old DVDs, the differences between the two technologies aren't that pronounced. In terms of technology, Blu-ray can currently store more on a single side of a disc than HD DVD -- although double-sided, dual-layer and even other disc combinations coming in the future could see that storage difference become academic. Blu-ray can also currently output to 1080p -- most HD DVD units now output at 1080i, but the latest Toshiba HD-XE1 is able to display 1080p.

Feature DVD Blu-ray HD DVD
Maximum native resolutions supported via HDMI 576p HDTV (720p, 1080i, 1080p) HDTV (720p, 1080i, 1080p)
Maximum image-constrained native resolutions supported via component video 1 576p 960x540 960x540
Disc capacity 4.7GB (single layer)
8.5GB (dual layer)
25GB (single layer)
50GB (dual layer)
100GB (prototype quad layer)
15GB (single layer)
30GB (dual layer)
45GB (prototype triple layer)
Video capacity (per dual-layer disc) 2 SD: approximately 3 hours
HD: n/a
SD: approximately 23 hours
HD: approximately 9 hours
SD: approximately 24 hours
HD: approximately 8 hours
Audio soundtracks 3 Dolby Digital EX, DTS-ES Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital, DTS-ES Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital, DTS-ES
Manufacturer support (home theatre) 4 All LG, Thomson/RCA, Hitachi, TEAC, Kenwood, Onkyo, Fujitsu, Samsung, Sanyo, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, LG, Sharp, Sony, Panasonic, Pioneer, Samsung, Philips, Thomson/RCA, Sharp, TDK Toshiba, LG, Thomson/RCA, Hitachi, TEAC, Kenwood, Onkyo, Fujitsu, Samsung, Sanyo
Manufacturer support (PC storage) 4 All Apple, Dell, Benq, HP, LG, Panasonic, Philips, Pioneer, Samsung, Sony, TDK Microsoft, Intel, HP, NEC, Toshiba, Canon, Ricoh, Maxell, Acer, Lenovo, Imation
Studio support 4 All Sony Pictures (including MGM/Columbia TriStar), Disney (including Touchstone, Miramax), Fox, Paramount (Steven Spielberg titles only), Warner, Lions Gate Paramount, Studio Canal, Universal, Warner, The Weinstein Company, Dreamworks, New Line
Compatible video game consoles PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox, Xbox 360, Nintendo Revolution PlayStation 3 Xbox 360 (via external HD DVD accessory, sold separately)
Player prices AU$150 and less From AU$999 From AU$899
Movie prices AU$10 and more (retail) AU$29.95 to AU$39.95 AU$25.00 to
Number of titles available in the US by the end of 2006 50,000-plus Dozens to hundreds Dozens to hundreds
Players are backward compatible with existing DVD videos Yes Yes Yes
Can record high-def at full resolution (eventually) 5 No Yes Yes
"Managed copy" option 6 No Yes Yes
Copy protection/digital rights management 7 Macrovision, CSS AACS, BD+, BD-ROM Mark AACS
Region-coded discs and players 8 Yes Yes No (currently; could change in future)

Sources include: thedigitalbits.com, dvdfile.com, blu-ray.com, Toshiba HD DVD, Blu-ray Disc Association, CNET News.com, Business Week, HDbeat.com, About.com, and Wikipedia.

Notes

1. Each movie studio may choose to implement the image-constraint flag (HDCP)on a disc-by-disc basis, which constrains or down-converts the movie's resolution to 960x540 via the component outputs (HDMI output remains at full resolution). However, most major studios -- Sony (Columbia/Tri-Star/MGM), Fox, Disney, Paramount, and Universal -- have publicly stated that they will not make use of the image-constraint flag, at least initially. If true, movies from those studios will display at full resolution via the component outputs.

2. Video capacity will vary depending upon the type of encoding used. Discs encoded with MPEG-4 or VC-1 offer better compression and, therefore, more video per gigabyte (standard-definition or high-definition) than those encoded with the older, less efficient MPEG-2 codec.

3. All HD DVD and Blu-ray players should incorporate built-in audio decoding and analog audio outputs. Those features should enable the newer Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS-HD surround formats to be heard by using existing A/V receivers and audio equipment -- but the resulting soundtrack may be a down-mixed Dolby Digital or DTS-EX version that lacks the theoretically better audio fidelity that's encoded on the disc.

4. Manufacturer and studio support is subject to change. With the exception of Sony's devotion to Blu-ray and Toshiba's to HD DVD, other manufacturers and studios can (and already have) switch sides, or they can support both formats. Also, the depth of support for companies aside from Sony and Toshiba has yet to be determined; while some have already released single-format players, "support" for both formats has largely been limited to press releases or future product schedules and remain theoretical until they are available for purchase.

5. Early-generation set-top (non-PC) HD DVD and Blu-ray players are players only, with no recording capabilities. Future set-top recorders are expected to become available in both formats in 2008 or later, but look for copy-protection and digital rights issues to severely restrict the HD programming you'll be able to record from TV.

6. Managed copy refers to the ability to make an HD DVD or Blu-ray movie viewable via a home network or a portable video device. The details haven't been worked out yet, leaving managed copy as more of a theoretical option than a usable feature for the foreseeable future.

7. It is likely that HD DVD and Blu-ray will feature additional copy-protection methods (including Macrovision or other protections for analog outputs) than the ones listed here.

8. As of autumn 2006, HD DVD discs and players are not region-coded, but that could be changed at any point in the future -- for example, the appearance of region-coded discs and a firmware upgrade for the hardware needed in order to play them. Blu-ray discs are coded to three regions (roughly, the Americas and Japan; Europe and Africa; and China, Russia, and everywhere else not included in the previous two regions) that are far more streamlined than the nine-region DVD system. That said, HD DVD and Blu-ray players should honour the nine-region system when playing standard DVDs -- so don't expect to play out-of-region discs.

The case for Blu-ray

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Blu-ray

Blu-ray upside

  • High capacity
  • Can output to 1080p
  • Widespread industry support
  • Comes in the PlayStation 3 as standard
  • Backwards compatible with DVDs and CDs

Blu-ray downside

  • More expensive than HD DVD players
  • Top of the line gear needed to make it shine

Upside

Capacity
Blu-ray, the brainchild of Japanese giant Sony and backed by more than 90 member companies of the Blu-ray Disc Association, has the edge over HD DVD when it comes to storage, at least when you're talking about a single layer on a disc. Blu-ray can store 25GB on a single layer -- HD DVD can only store 15GB. The whole capacity issue is blurred somewhat when you move beyond single layer discs, however. Dual layer, triple layer, double sided and even quad-layer discs are in the pipeline for both formats, which means capacity can and will vary greatly.

1080p output
1080p is the best image that's possible with consumer entertainment devices today -- and the image quality is, frankly, stunning and almost 3D-like. 1080p delivers a resolution of 1920x1080 at up to a 54MBit/sec bandwidth -- and to to put it into perspective, normal DVDs output at 576p, while the highest HD signal in Australia only comes out at 1080i (for more about screen resolutions, click here). While the software in most current HD DVD players can only display at 1080i resolution, we expect 1080p technology to become more widespread in future players.

Widespread industry support
The Blu-ray camp has long claimed that its industry support from both hardware and content providers is superior to that of its competitor, HD DVD. The situation isn't so clear cut today as it was last year, however, as many companies have stated that they were willing to support both formats and not just one. Blu-ray's list of supporters is still longer than HD DVDs, but not by much.

On the content side of things, all Hollywood studios bar Universal and Paramount have pledged to release movies in the Blu-ray format. On the hardware side, Blu-ray is backed by Apple, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Hitachi, LG Electronics, Mitsubishi Electric, Panasonic (Matsushita Electric), Pioneer, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, TDK and Thomson.

Sony Playstation 3
Sony's PlayStation 3 doubles as a Blu-ray player

Comes in the PlayStation 3 as standard
Gaming could be the dark horse here in deciding which standard will reign supreme. After all, Sony's inclusion of the then fledgling DVD format in the PlayStation 2 did wonders for that format. All PlayStation 3s come with a Blu-ray drive as standard, and as a result it is the highest-selling player of either standard.

PS3's aren't exactly be cheap, however. The retail price is still set at AU$999 for the next-generation games console, while its Wii and Xbox 360 competitors hover at the AU$400 mark. The price may be high, but it's still pretty cheap for a games console and next-generation DVD player in one.

Backwards compatible with DVDs and CDs
Blu-ray devices have been designed to be backwards compatible with both DVDs and CDs, so there should be no problem playing your old collection of movies and music.

Downside

More expensive than HD DVD players
With only a couple of HD DVD players available in Australia at the moment, it appears that unless you but a PS# you'll end up spending more on a Blu-ray player. However, as the competition heats up there's bound to be price-cuts in place before the end of 2007.

It's a different situation when it comes to the notebook-based players, however. The Blu-ray-equipped Sony VAIO VGN-AR18GP is the same price as the HD-DVD-bearing Toshiba Qosmio G30 -- AU$5499.

Top of the line gear needed to make it shine
Forget about plugging a Blu-ray player into a CRT or older flat-screen panel -- you're going to need a display that can display at least 720p images to be happy with what Blu-ray can produce. And if you want to take full advantage of its image capabilities, you'll need a 1080p capable screen -- those screens are still very expensive compared to 720p models.

The case for HD DVD

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HD DVD

HD DVD upside

  • High capacity
  • Widespread industry support
  • Cheaper prices for players
  • "Twin disc" support
  • Backwards compatible with DVDs and CDs

HD DVD downside

  • Many players limited to 1080i resolution
  • Console support only in the form of an Xbox 360 add-on

Upside

High capacity
HD DVD may not be able to pack in as much on a single layer compared to Blu-ray, but it's still a leap over what DVDs can manage. Single layer HD DVDs can store 15GB of information, with dual layer discs (at 30GB) already available. Other permutations of discs are also in the works (such as double-sided, triple-layer and more), with capacity stretching out to as much as 60GB on one HD DVD disc.

Widespread industry support
Toshiba, the developers of the original DVD specification and the driving force behind HD DVD, may not have as extensive a list of backers behind their new format as Sony does with Blu-ray, but the list is impressive nonetheless. Importantly, the gap in numbers of hardware and software supporters is diminishing every month. On the hardware side, HD DVD has the backing of industry giants like Microsoft and Intel. The list also includes LG, Thomson/RCA, Hitachi, TEAC, Kenwood, Onkyo, Fujitsu, Samsung, Sanyo, HP, NEC, Toshiba, Canon, Ricoh, Maxell, Acer, Lenovo and Imation. On the software side, HD DVD is supported by Paramount, Studio Canal, Universal, Warner, the Weinstein Company, Dreamworks and New Line.

Cheaper prices for media and players
Toshiba claims the fact that HD DVD can use the same manufacturing plants as DVDs (Blu-ray needs manufacturing plants built from scratch) is the major reason why HD DVD players will be cheaper for consumers. However, recent reports from the US have suggested that the difference in manufacturing costs are now minimal. On the hardware side, Toshiba currently sells the cheapest player on the market -- the Toshiba HD-E1 .

"Twin disc" support
Unique to the HD DVD format is a "twin disc" capability, which allows both HD DVD content and DVD content to be imprinted on the same disc. Twin discs are HD DVD on one side and normal DVD on the other, which allows them to be played on both HD DVD players and DVD players. At the moment, however, none of these disks are available in Australia.

Backwards compatible with DVDs and CDs
Just like Blu-ray, HD DVD players will be able to read and play DVDs and CDs, which means your existing collection of movies and music won't become obsolete overnight.

Downside

Most players max out at 1080i resolution
1080i is the same standard as the Channel Nine and Ten HD TV feeds in Australia. While it's not as big a difference between 1080i and 576p (normal DVD resolution), the lower specification means HD DVD will be compatible with more flat-screen televisions. A minimum display capability of 720p is probably ideal, however. The second generation of HD DVD players -- which are starting to appear -- are capable of outputting at 1080p.

Xbox 360
Xbox 360: sorta-kinda HD DVD compatible

Game support only in the form of an Xbox 360 add-on
As we saw with the inclusion of DVD in the PlayStation 2, the appearance of an emerging technology format on a games console can do wonders for the uptake of said format. While Blu-ray has the advantage (in gaming terms at any rate) of being standard on the PlayStation 3, HD DVD doesn't have the same level of gaming support. While Microsoft's Xbox 360 features an add-on HD DVD attachment, no games are currently available in the format.

Look before you leap

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Getting caught out on the wrong side of Blu-ray vs HD DVD battle isn't the only thing you should be worried about when considering a next-generation DVD player. Here are a few more points CNET.com.au thinks you should consider before plonking your money down for either a Blu-ray or HD DVD device.

Where's the wow?
Sure, Blu-ray and HD DVD produce superior pictures tto DVD, but is it really that much of a leap? The opinion of most CNET.com.au editors here is that while the pictures produced by Blu-ray and HD DVD are impressive, it's not as big a leap as we experienced when seeing DVD compared to VHS for the first time. Our advice is for prospective buyers to see normal DVD pictures side-by-side to Blu-ray/HD DVD images before making a purchase -- after all, the last thing you want is to be unimpressed by the picture quality of your new player. If you're concerned about making the wrong choice then investing in a upscaling DVD player may be a better option in the short term -- just until this 'war' sorts itself out.

Copy protection from hell
If you thought the rights management on digital music was restrictive, just wait until you step into the next-generation DVD world. The companies behind Blu-ray and HD DVD have worked very closely with Hollywood studios to ensure copy protection was an integral part of both the hardware and software behind the new formats. Built into both formats is the option to lower the resolution of a movie if it isn't running over an HDMI cable (which conforms to strict copy protection measures). Blu-ray and HD DVD players can constrain an image down to 960x540 if the signal is going over a component cable -- still better than DVD but nowhere near the full capabilities of Blu-ray/HD DVD. That means consumers with older sets (those without HDMI) could find their viewing hamstrung if the movie studios decide to use this feature on upcoming next-gen releases. Thankfully, most of the studios -- Sony (Columbia/Tri-Star/MGM), Fox, Disney, Paramount, and Universal -- have publicly stated that they will not make use of the image-constraint flag, at least initially.

Shifting industry support
The lines between those in the Blu-ray and those in HD DVD camp are shifting on a seemingly daily basis, as companies on either side of the fence can and will switch sides if the going starts to get rough. In the past year, we've already seen several Blu-ray/HD DVD stalwarts switch sides or declare their allegiance to both formats -- expect more in the coming months after the Paramount announcement.

Some people may not think the 'wow' factor a Blu-ray/HD DVD player provides is enough to justify the cost.

Early adopter price gouge
We early adopters have a tough cross to bear. Sure we get the latest and greatest, but we usually have to pay through the nose for it. If either of these two formats take off, expect to see massive price reductions in players within a year. Buyer's remorse, anyone?

Where are the recorders?
Current Blu-ray/HD DVD home entertainment units are players only -- so you'll have to buy a notebook or PC to get a next-generation DVD that you can record to. If you want to record HD television, you need to wait until Blu-ray/HD DVD set-top recorders come out in 2007

Miniscule movie list
In order to kickstart sales of their players, manufacturers have been bundling disks and redemption vouchers with their Blu-ray/HD DVD devices -- with up to five in a box!. Australia is slowly catching up with the US in terms of available titles, but buying online from the US is probably the only way you'll be able to find next-generation DVDs. Fingers crossed a flood of movies arrives on our doorstep sometime before Christmas.

Going universal
The theory goes like this: These are both just optical discs after all; why can't someone create a universal player that plays both? Buy that player and build your movie collection with impunity. Samsung is still reticent on details for on its BD-UP5000 universal player, but LG recently brought its BH100 to the market. However, one problem that the BH100 has is that it lacks support for HD DVD's HDi format -- meaning no interactive menus or advanced features while watching HD DVDs. But we're hopeful that this trickle of machines will one day become a flood -- if more companies can provide combo players, the format war could quickly turn into a peaceful coexistence.

Who needs discs anyway?
We're going to get all future-focused here, but who says disc formats are the way to go anyway? Online delivery of HD content may not exactly be a reality in Australia yet, but who knows what the scene will be like in two or three years time? If everything's being delivered via the Internet and stored in our big home backup drives, who needs optical discs?

Blu-ray and HD DVD products in Australia

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The first products off the rank weren't dedicated home theatre units, but laptops -- both Toshiba and Sony packaged their high-end notebooks with next-generation DVD devices. Over the course of the last year, dedicated players have started to appear on the market. Below you'll find a selection of the Blu-ray and HD DVD devices which have been through our labs.

Meanwhile, we here at CNET.com.au would love to hear about your experiences with next-generation DVD. Are you happy with your purchase? Which players/units did you buy? What made you choose either Blu-ray or HD DVD? And if you're sitting on the fence, we'd like to hear from you too.

Why are you holding back? What needs to happen before you buy a next-generation DVD player. Add your comments below or visit us in the forums.

Product Description
Toshiba HD-E1

Toshiba HD-E1

If you have a big-screen TV in your living and you're hungry for HD content, the Toshiba HD-E1 delivers great picture quality. It's a cheaper alternative to the Blu-ray players we've seen, but we had some minor performance issues.
Read review
Panasonic DMP-BD10

Panasonic DMP-BD10

Forward-looking cinephiles with deep pockets and the patience to wait for more Blu-ray content will no doubt revel in the high quality sound and images served up by Panasonic's DMP-BD10 Blu-ray player.
Read preview
Samsung BD-P1000

Samsung BD-P1000

The first home theatre-centred Blu-ray player to arrive in Australia. Predictably, it's far from cheap.
Read review
Altech Maestro Pro 2 (Blu-ray Edition)

Altech Maestro Pro 2 (Blu-ray Edition)

Early adopters will love the Pro 2's excellent media centre features, but the current dearth of Blu-ray content will deter many.
Read preview
Sony VAIO VGN-AR18GP

Sony VAIO VGN-AR18GP

If you're happy to wait a few months for more Blu-ray content to land, the AR18GP is a powerful, multimedia-rich laptop whose only glaring omission is a TV tuner.
Read review
Toshiba Qosmio G30 (HD DVD Edition)

Toshiba Qosmio G30 (HD DVD Edition)

Although the benefit of HD DVD is questionable, the Toshiba Qosmio G30 is still the most feature-rich home entertainment notebook we've seen to date.
Read review
 

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