With HD DVD player, size of TV matters

Quality of image is hard to distinguish on smaller sets

Tech

May 04, 2006|By DAVID COLKER | DAVID COLKER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

As it rolls out the first high-definition DVD player, Toshiba Corp. is boasting: "Image is everything."

After testing the so-called HD DVD machine on three TVs of various dimensions, I hit on a more appropriate slogan: "Size matters."

Last month, a milestone in viewing was reached with the debut of the Toshiba HD-A1, which costs just shy of $500. (A deluxe model, the HD-XA1, goes for $800).

Should you care? Probably not. Because unless you already have a state-of-the-art high-definition television at least 40 inches in size, you won't notice much of a difference.

Here's my advice: If you've got a spare $500, use it toward an upgrade to a bigger set instead. In the time it takes to save up another $500, the price of HD disc players will probably drop and a pending format war may well be decided.

When the first movies in HD DVD format were released, I watched NBC Universal's Serenity and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.'s The Last Samurai.

I started on a 32-inch Sony HDTV that was about two years old. It had no capability to accept the most current digital hookup technology -- HDMI -- so I used the analog audio and video cables included with the player.

Then I popped in Serenity and waited. Then, I waited some more.

It took the better part of a minute for the machine to recognize the disc and prepare it for playing. Not a huge amount of time in the scheme of things, but frustratingly long compared with standard DVDs.

Indeed, many functions on the Toshiba player seemed to take forever to complete. This was probably due, at least partly, to the huge volume of data on HD discs. But that didn't make it any less irritating.

Matters were not helped by the fact that the Toshiba remote didn't always work. And it was labeled so poorly that it was barely readable except under bright light (not true of the fancy model, whose buttons are backlighted).

When the movie finally appeared, it was squeezed, causing shapes to be distorted. The globe in the Universal logo was more egg-shaped than spherical. Actresses in the first scene appeared even more emaciated than the norm.

I later found in the manual that some HD DVD discs would not play properly without HDMI.

Next, I switched to an almost new 23-inch Samsung LCD set with HDMI hookup. The HD DVD image looked great. But a plain old DVD of the same movie looked almost identical.

Sure, during bright, outdoor scenes, the HD DVD image looked a tiny bit cleaner, as if barely a day's worth of dust had been wiped from the screen.

Finally, I tried the player with a 37-inch Sharp LCD set, also with HDMI. Again, the regular DVD and HD DVD images were quite good. But on a set of this size, I could see more differences.

The overall image appeared richer, more dense. At moments, especially during scenes in which the camera was in motion, it felt more like watching a film projected on a screen.

Using a DVD player hooked up to the same TV, I tested my perceptions by switching between the two formats. I asked a colleague to close his eyes while I chose a version, then had him open them and guess: DVD or HD DVD?

He got it right about 75 percent of the time.

So, yes, it's better. But don't expect the leap in quality that came with the transition from VHS to DVDs in the 1990s.

Another big factor to consider before investing in an HD DVD player and movies is that a rival format, Blu-ray, is expected to hit the market this summer. Blu-ray discs will not work in HD DVD players, and vice versa.

The battle between HD DVD and Blu-ray is reminiscent of the one that pitted Betamax against VHS in the 1980s. The VHS format won.

Now, lovers of antiques can find cheap Betamax machines on eBay, along with films released during the format's brief window of viability. Back to the Future, anyone?

David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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