SAN FRANCISCO – Consumers looking to upgrade their home theaters can now choose between two types of high-definition DVD players — the confusing result of a long-running format war involving Hollywood studios and technology companies.
Both HD DVD and Blu-ray promise clear pictures on high-definition TVs and extra bonus features. But discs in one format won't work in players designed for the other, and consumers who buy gear now run the risk of ending up with a high-def version of a Betamax VCR.
The limited number of high-definition DVD titles available now — lots of warmed-over action flicks — also could temper the immediate acceptance of the technology.
• Click here to read about how few consumers are buying the new DVD players.
The movies aren't cheap, either. The HD DVD version of "Backdraft," a 15-year-old movie starring Kurt Russell, lists for $30.
I took Toshiba Corp.'s HD-A1 player ($499) for a spin.
I also attempted to get a Blu-ray unit to review, but Samsung — maker of the BD-P1000 Blu-ray disc player — declined to provide one for a head-to-head test.
The Toshiba, the first high-def DVD player to hit the market, is a beast. It was twice as tall and heavy as my trusty Panasonic 5-disc DVD player.
Right off the bat, it had some mechanical problems. Each time I put a disc in the machine, the speakers emitted a high-pitched whine for about five seconds before the intro and menu screens kicked in. It was so loud it sent me scrambling for the remote control to turn down the volume.
Speaking of the remote, it's a brushed-silver brute. It's too long for comfort, and the thin metallic buttons took me back at least a decade in the technology time machine. Someone at Toshiba didn't get the memo that rubberized buttons are comfortable and cool.
The unit's startup time is woefully slow. It takes a full minute from a cold start to when the tray opens to accept a disc. And once the disc is inserted and the tray closes, it's nearly another minute before the machine is able to display the introduction.
But it gets better. The picture clarity is great. With HD DVD, you'll see nose hairs, folds in clothing and other details that weren't visible with standard DVDs.
On the HD DVD version of "Training Day," Denzel Washington's police cruiser gleams. On "Million Dollar Baby," the sweat on Hilary Swank's forehead glistens.
Here's how it's done: Single-layer high definition DVDs can hold 15 gigabytes of data, compared with the 4.7 gigabytes on a standard single-layer DVD. That's enough to support the resolution of today's high-definition televisions.
I borrowed a Panasonic 42-inch plasma television for this test, and it handled the Toshiba high-def output wonderfully for most HD DVD titles.
Oddly, I did not notice any improvement in the image quality for the HD DVD disc "The Perfect Storm." It varied little from the standard DVD version, so the re-mastering process for HD DVD appears to improve some titles more than others.
HD DVD also offers improved chapter searching (right down to the second), more room for those making-of-the-film extras and cast interviews, and the ability to network the player to an Internet connection and access online movie trailers from a participating site. None of the discs I tried had that last feature, so it went untested.
With HD DVD, you can access the menu options (scene selection, for instance) at the bottom portion of the screen while the movie is still playing. It functioned nicely, but I never quite figured what edge that gave me over the old-fashioned menu access option.
Still, Toshiba's HD DVD player needs some fine-tuning. It's too slow, too noisy and too big to be worthy of space on my entertainment rack, and the number of available titles needs to increase. But based on the image quality alone, the format shows promise.