Why the world doesn't need high-def DVDs

Toshiba's HD DVD player is first volley in absurd format war among titans of movie, electronics, computer industries.

When did you first become cynical about the electronics industry?

Was it when VHS went out of style, and you had to buy all your movies again on DVD? Was it the time(s) you never got the rebate you mailed away for? Or was it when your computer's 90-day warranty expired, and the thing croaked two days later?

Doesn't matter. As it turns out, you didn't even know the meaning of the word cynical. Last month, Toshiba's HD-A1 high-definition DVD player hit store shelves. It's the first marketplace volley in an absurd and pointless format war among the titans of the movie, electronics and computer industries.

Just contemplating the rise of a new DVD format is enough to make you feel played. What's wrong with the original DVD format, anyway? It offers brilliant picture, thundering surround sound and bonus material. The catalog of DVD movies is immense and reasonably priced. And DVD players are so cheap, they practically fall out of magazines; 82 percent of American homes have at least one DVD player.

To electronics executives, all of this can mean only one thing: It's time to junk that format and start over.

Of course, the executives don't explain this decision by saying, "Because we've saturated the market for regular DVD players."

Instead, they talk about video and picture quality. A DVD picture offers much better color and clarity than regular TV, but not as good as high-definition TV. The new discs hold far more information, enough to display Hollywood's masterpieces in true high definition (if you have a high-definition TV, of course).

Unfortunately, this idea occurred simultaneously to both Sony and Toshiba. Each dreamed up its own format for a high-def DVD. Each then assembled an army of partners. Toshiba's format, called HD DVD, has attracted Microsoft, Sanyo, NEC and movie studios like New Line and Universal. Sony's format, called Blu-ray, has in its camp Apple, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Pioneer, Dell and movie studios like Sony, 20th Century Fox and Disney. (Some companies, like HP, LG, Warner Brothers and Paramount, intend to create products for both formats.)

The new DVD players will play standard DVDs, but that's as far as the compatibility good news goes. Movies in Toshiba's format won't play in DVD players from Sony's side, and vice versa.

At first, pundits guessed that Sony's Blu-ray format might win because it had signed up so many more movie studios, its discs have greater capacity, and the PlayStation 3, expected to top best-seller lists this fall, will double as a Blu-ray player.

But Toshiba has two aces up its sleeve. First, its first HD DVD player is available now, giving it a head start; Blu-ray players aren't expected until the end of June. Second, this new player, the HD-A1, costs $500--half the price of the cheapest Blu-ray deck.

The HD-A1 is a pretty big box: 17.7 inches by 13.3 inches by 4.3 inches, more like an early VCR than a sleek modern DVD player.

The $500 isn't the only price you pay for being an insanely early adopter; this baby is slow--really slow. It takes over a minute just to turn on; menus are sometimes slow to respond; and a newly inserted DVD takes 45 seconds just to get to the FBI warning. (And no, even the brave new DVD format doesn't let you skip over that tiresome warning.)

The remote is a disaster; its buttons are identically shaped and illogically placed. Not only are they not illuminated, but their labels are painted on faintly and in what must be 4-point type. (A sibling model, the HD-XA1, adds minor goodies like a backlit remote--for $300 more.)

Finally, though, the movie begins--and your shield of cynicism begins to waver. As you watch the brilliant colors, super-black blacks and ridiculously sharp detail--up to six times the resolution of a standard DVD ? you realize that you've never seen anything quite this cinematic-looking in your home before.

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