- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2007

NEW YORK — The two movie disc formats that are competing to replace the DVD have had a rocky start, with clunky first-generation players and an audience that has been reluctant to buy them for fear of betting on the losing side.

But a second generation of players is out now, and in a test of three of them it’s clear that they left behind the problems of their predecessors. Sorry, consumers, but it’s time to choose sides: Blu-ray or HD DVD.

From the HD DVD camp comes Toshiba Corp.’s $499 HD-A2 player. In the other corner of the ring swaggers Sony Corp.’s BDP-S1 Blu-ray disc player, which lists for $999 but is available for less. Sony plans to bring out a cheaper player early this summer. The BDP-S300 will cost $599 but will have the same capabilities as the $999 BDP-S1, a Sony official said yesterday.

The $599 PlayStation 3 from Sony also has a Blu-ray function.

The first Toshiba HD DVD player, the HD-A1, was a massive affair that took a minute to start up and another to load the movie disc. The first Blu-ray player, from Samsung, was met by similar complaints, and appeared to degrade image quality slightly.

The HD-A2, by contrast, is a svelte device that looks much like a regular DVD player. It takes 30 seconds to load a disc — a little slow, but not enough to bore you. The fan is louder than you would expect from a DVD player, but not bothersome in most entertainment centers.

HD DVDs looked, for the most part, fantastic on a 46-inch Sony LCD set, which is big enough to reveal the flaws in DVDs — they all look like they’re shot through a thin layer of jelly. “Deer Hunter” in HD DVD looked jaw-droppingly sharp and beautiful. An older movie like “Casablanca,” which has many medium shots, gained a dimension when the glints in the characters’ eyes could be seen clearly.

The HD-A2 will pep up DVDs a little bit by “upconverting” them to faux high-definition, but for most discs, that only works if the player is connected to the TV by a digital High-Definition Multimedia Interface, or HDMI cable. The cheaper and more common three-lead component video cables won’t do. (Annoying fact: None of three devices tested included a component or HDMI cable, just a standard-definition cable. If you want high-definition output from them, that’s about $30 extra.)

The HD-A2 doesn’t produce the highest-definition signal, called 1080p. The player is limited to a resolution of 1080i, which is 1080 lines of vertical resolution, with alternating lines refreshed every 60th of a second. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry. It is hard to see a shred of difference between 1080p and 1080i. If you really want 1080p output, Toshiba has another model, HD-XA2, which lists for $999.

The Sony Blu-ray BDP-S1 is comparable to the HD-XA2. It’s a big, handsome box that makes you feel like you’re getting a lot for your $999. It was the quietest player in the test. The remote is easier to use and more substantial than the Toshiba’s. It loads a disc in 30 seconds, just like the HD-A2, and it can output 1080p.

Just one catch: It is sometimes slow to respond to commands from the remote.

It also has a possible limitation in that, unlike the HD-A2 and the PlayStation 3, it does not connect to the Internet. The HD-A2 has an Ethernet jack for connecting the unit to an Internet router. The usefulness of that feature is not clear at the moment, though. Future HD DVD discs could connect to the Internet for special features like online games, and Toshiba may send software upgrades to the player that way. Even so, the BDP-S1 is a fine machine.

As a Blu-ray player, the PlayStation 3 is loud. Being more versatile than the other units, it contains more heat-generating chips, which means more ventilation is needed. The noise isn’t so loud that it will intrude on your movies, but it’s audible when nothing is playing.

The PlayStation 3’s wireless controller is difficult to use, so if you’re going to watch Blu-ray discs more than occasionally, consider getting Sony’s $25 video-style remote. If you have a good DVD player, keep it: The PlayStation 3 does not upconvert DVDs.

So both the stand-alone players are good. Should you get one? If you’ve spent $2,000 or more on an HDTV, yes. Get your money’s worth from your TV set.

It’s tougher to say which player to get. HD DVD discs have a more consistent image quality, probably because they use a more sophisticated mathematical formula, or codec, to pack the movie into the disc.

Some Blu-ray movies show slight smearing of colors in darker scenes, but the image quality of recent Blu-ray discs has clearly improved, and the format has more support from Hollywood studios. Also, the PlayStation 3 is the most common HD player out there, so Blu-ray discs are selling faster than HD DVDs, according to Nielsen VideoScan.

Blu-ray appears to have the edge, but it’s still up in the air. What if the format you buy into turns out to be the Betamax of the matchup?

For one thing, you can reduce your risk by renting, not buying, discs. Netflix has every HD DVD and Blu-ray disc that’s out.

Secondly, consider this: In two years’ time, when you realize you’ve bet on the wrong horse, a player for the dominant format is going to cost maybe $200. Buy one, and keep your first player to play the “wrong” format discs you’ve bought.

Finally, for people who just can’t make up their minds and have money to burn, LG Electronics has a $1,199 answer. The LG SuperMulti Blue Player BH100, arriving at stores this month, handles both Blu-ray discs and HD DVDs.

See? There’s no reason to fear the format fight.

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