Hi-Def DVD Race Is On

Toshiba goes to market with HD DVD players


(click thumbnail)The Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD player
The hot and heavy format wars between Toshiba's HD DVD and Sony's Blu-ray to capture the hearts and wallets of the next generation of home movie viewers have gotten a bit more interesting this spring as both sides have signaled delays in their respective ramp-ups of DVD players, movie titles, and one popular game console. The temporary setbacks are about the only thing both sides have in common.

Blu-ray chief proponent Sony recently announced a six-month delay in launching its PlayStation 3 (PS3) game console to November. At almost the same time, Warner said it would delay the release of its early HD DVD titles from the format's official launch on March 28 until April 18.

For Sony, apart from its game wares, the first Blu-ray players and laptops from various manufacturers, and early titles are still on track for a late-spring launch. But PS3 was supposed to provide a big, early boost for the Blu-ray camp because the next-gen console will be equipped with Blu-ray technology, much like Microsoft's Xbox 360 launch in late 2005 boasted an HD DVD drive.


As far as the war itself, few would argue that Toshiba has beaten Sony to the punch in some early battles, notably by bringing its first HD DVD players to market starting now. Toshiba is also concluding an ambitious nationwide demo tour to dozens of mostly suburban high-end electronics stores that began on the East Coast in early March and was to end on April 13 at the Tweeter outlet in Encinitas, Calif.

Judging from the specialist retailers tapped for Toshiba's tour and their locations (i.e., HH Gregg in Concord, N.C., Bjorn's in San Antonio, and Fry's Electronics in Phoenix), the campaign was designed to make initial contact with the early-adopter crowd. At a recent tour stop, in a viewing room near the back of a brand new Myer-Emco at a suburban Virginia strip mall outside Washington, D.C., Toshiba Senior Manager Maria Repole pointed to the massive 72-inch Toshiba DLP monitor with remote in hand.

At the halfway point of a two-hour lunchtime media-and-consumer event, three curious walk-in customers and two trade reporters were easily outnumbered by sales people and Toshiba tour reps. Suddenly from the dark silent screen, the HD DVD trailer for "King Kong" came roaring to life (literally) in vivid 1080i color and crispness, minus any signs of artifacting, with a near-3D depth of field in the jungle scene--a depth and detail most assuredly not apparent in the standard DVD disc of the box office blockbuster. (The Toshiba HD DVD tour content was mostly limited to a handful of these HD DVD-enhanced movie trailers.)

To the left of the DLP demo screen, with a 160-degree viewing angle, both of the Toshiba HD DVD players were on display. For tour purposes, discs are run on the pricier HD-XA1 (MSRP $799). The less pricey second model, the HD-X1 (MSRP $499), is slated to reach some mass-market retail outlets this spring, including Best Buy and Circuit City.

"We do guarantee the HD DVD players will be backwards-compatible," Repole said. "The DVD discs people now have at home will work on the new players."

Early content in either next-gen format will be sparse. Despite the films represented by several of the trailers used on the Toshiba tour, only a handful of recent mainstream releases (including the fourth Harry Potter film and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") are expected to be issued anytime soon on HD DVD or Blu-ray disc (and at press time, "King Kong" is not one of them).


Some early HD DVD titles may seem like deja vu to industry observers: "Twister," the 1996 blockbuster, was also among the first films offered in the original DVD format only a few years ago. Besides Warner, early HD DVD content providers also will include Paramount and Universal.

While many new technology innovations could not be shown on the Toshiba tour, the vastly improved storage capacity of HD DVDs over today's DVDs (albeit, still less than Blu-ray's) will allow more sophisticated applications of the special features elements on new discs, including navigation of the expanded menu without having to interrupt the motion picture. This will allow viewers some degree of interaction while viewing the main content.

Added features include superimposing a director's physical, moving image on the screen to allow him or her to literally point out details in various scenes. However, Repole cautions, any added content is ultimately up to the studios issuing the new discs--just as today's DVDs come with a variety of extra content, or a lack, thereof, depending on the studio. Toshiba plans U.S. shipments of 10,000 players monthly starting now, and will ramp up product output as the all-important holiday season approaches next fall.

"HD DVD is a natural transition, technically, from today's DVD standard," Repole said, "and consumers can easily recognize and embrace the new format."

Conversely, Blu-ray is an entirely new format, requiring manufacturing components and assembly line production quite different from today's DVD production schemes. Therefore, proponents contend, HD DVD products will be far less costly to manufacture. And Repole thinks price will play a big role in advancing Toshiba's format of choice.

"There will be big price differences between both formats that consumers will certainly notice if they compare them," said Repole. Sony's first standalone player, the BDP-S1, coming in July (and a Samsung player set to launch in late April), will be shipped at a suggested price of $1,000. Meanwhile, Toshiba's two early HD DVD players will be MSRP $500 and MSRP $800.

Actually, both format price tags may produce some sticker shock even for early adopters when they consider that mega-retailer Wal-Mart was recently selling a progressive scan, recordable DVD player for today's discs for $98.