That changes this week, when the first HD DVD player out of the block, Toshiba's $500 HD-A1, goes on sale at Amazon.com and major U.S. retail stores. The boxy black and silver device looks like a standard DVD player--and will play standard DVDs--but also contains the hardware necessary to play HD DVDs when it's connected to an HDTV set. (And only when it's connected to an HDTV; you can't watch the new discs on your old sets.)
What discs, you might ask? Only four will be available this week--Serenity, Million Dollar Baby, The Phantom of the Opera and The Last Samurai. But three big Hollywood studios are planning to rush out more HD DVD titles in the next month or two10 from Paramount, 10 from Universal and 20 from Warner Bros. List prices range from $29 to $40; Amazon.com is charging as little as $20 for some titles. Netflix has said it will distribute every HD DVD title--and, when they become available, all Blu-ray titles--for rent immediately upon release.
Toshiba has a head start in this race to the living room, but that won't last long. Samsung plans to sell Blu-ray players by early summer, followed closely by Sony, Pioneer and Panasonic. The first Blu-ray machines will be aimed at video enthusiasts and priced accordingly ($1,000 and up, roughly comparable to Toshiba's $800 high-end HD-XA1) and will be supported with movies from Fox, Disney and Sony. (Paramount and Warner Bros. are making discs in both formats.)
But the real battle will begin this fall when Sony ships its long-awaited PlayStation 3. In addition to playing state-of-the-art video games, it will be equipped with Blu-ray technology and is expected to sell for less than $500. Not to be outdone, Microsoft (Sony's main competitor in the video-game market) has let it be known that it will offer HD DVD as an add-on to its Xbox 360 game console.
It's a format war reminiscent of Betamax vs. VHS, in which the biggest losers were the manufacturers of the defeated format (in that case, Sony) and the consumers who bought the wrong machines. If you have an HDTV and you're dying to watch movies in their full HD splendor, the Toshiba box isn't a bad idea. If you're a game player, you will probably want to hold out for the PlayStation 3 or the Xbox HD DVD drive. If you're the cautious type, you may want to wait for the dust to settle--and the prices to come down.