The first hardware volley in the next-generation DVD format war, a.k.a. HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray, was fired today by HD-DVD developer Toshiba. The company announced a pair of HD-DVD players to ship in March: the HD-A1 ($499) and the HD-XA1 ($799). While hardly "affordable" compared to standard DVD players, these prices are significantly lower than expected and less than those of any of the Blu-ray players announced at the show so far. Combined with earlier availability (Blu-ray supposedly ships in June), they could make HD-DVD a more compelling option for big spenders who immediately want the latest in next-generation home video playback. Speaking of home video, HD-DVD has fewer major studio backers than Blu-ray and so will launch with fewer titles available for purchase. More details on HD-DVD launch titles are expected to be revealed at an event this evening, but regardless of how much software HD-DVD promises, we expect most early adopters to choose Blu-ray thanks to its wider support.
The nitty gritty of the two Toshiba players should be familiar to anybody who's followed the next-gen format fracas. The units support a variety of video codecs, including MPEG-2 as well as MPEG-4 AVC and VC-1. The more expensive HD-XA1 has a couple of cosmetic enhancements (a motorized drawer!), a backlit remote, and a selection of three different user interfaces, as well as some improvements to construction. It also has a pair of USB ports "for convenient connection of gaming controllers," according to the press release (no further details were provided). Interestingly, both players--and all forthcoming HD-DVD players--will only output high-definition resolutions via copy-protected HDMI outputs, so people whose HDTVs don't have HDMI or DVI/HDCP inputs won't be able to enjoy the improved image quality of HD-DVD. According to Pioneer and Philips, the competing Blu-ray players may still enable high-def output via analog outputs, but we're skeptical about that. If Blu-ray did allow HD resolutions via analog, it would have one more major advantage over the less expensive HD-DVD players.