DVD goes high-def

A new generation of DVD players are eye-poppingly good.

Until recently, movies always looked and sounded way better in a cinema than at home, however good your home theatre system. That’s about to change. A new generation of DVD players, capable of delivering near-cinema-quality video, is now hitting stores, led by the $699 HD-A1 from Toshiba. The HD-A1 is the first HD (for high definition) DVD product. And the picture quality is eye-poppingly good.

HD DVD delivers the same image resolution as the best high-definition television (HDTV) signal–1080i, or 1,080 interlaced vertical lines by 1,920 horizontal lines. But it does that without the degradations introduced in transmission. The device delivers four to five times the visual information of a standard DVD. The image, as a result, appears much sharper and clearer, with more detail and a greater sense of depth. Colours are richer and more natural.

HD DVD also offers improved playback controls. You can press a button on the remote to pause the movie and call up a menu that gives access to special features and configuration settings. You can also zero in more precisely on specific scenes, and set bookmarks to make it easier to return to a particular point in a movie.

So should you rush out and buy an HD-A1? Maybe, if money is no object in your pursuit of home theatre excellence. Otherwise, go slowly. As good as it is–and it’s very, very good–the HD-A1 is the first of a breed. And it’s probably never a good idea to buy the first of anything electronic. For one thing, you won’t immediately have access to a huge library of HD DVD movies–there will probably be no more than 200 by the end of the year. Virtually all announced so far are Hollywood blockbusters, with a preponderance of action-adventure titles.

Also, make sure your HD television is fully compatible with the HD DVD player. HD DVD content providers have the option of restricting full-resolution display to sets connected over all-digital HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface), which provides copy protection. While current HDTV sets all have HDMI ports, some earlier models do not. There is, of course, no point in even considering HD DVD unless you already own an HD screen.

Finally, HD DVD is one of two next-generation DVD formats coming to market. Products using the other, Blu-ray Disc (BD), will be in stores later this summer. Consumers old enough to remember the VHS-Beta videotape wars will be having déjà vu. What happens if you buy an HD DVD player and Blu-ray ends up winning this war? Ask people who bought Beta.

HD DVD and BD players use the same five-inch plastic discs, identical at a glance to standard DVDs. Both are backwards compatible–they play standard DVDs as well as the new high-definition discs. Both deliver 1080i resolution, though Blu-ray uses progressive scan technology, which provides slightly improved picture quality. They even use the same basic laser technology. But HD DVD and Blu-ray are not compatible.

If I were a betting man, which I’m not, I’d wager on HD DVD, especially now that heavy-hitters Microsoft and Intel, along with Toshiba and NEC, have put their weight behind it. But the folks backing Blu-ray are no slouches either. They’re a who’s who of everybody else in the electronics and computer industries, including Sony, Samsung, Dell, Apple and Hewlett-Packard (although HP is now supporting HD DVD, as well).

Bottom line: The HD-A1 is very impressive, but I’d wait–until prices drop, until more movies come out, and until it becomes clearer which format will prevail, Blu-ray or HD DVD.