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Tuesday, 22 January 2008 11:40

Prices slashed as HD DVD nears 'High-Def Dead Video Disc' status

Toshiba Australia’s huge 50% price drop on three HD DVD players with a stack of free movies either signals the clear out stock at relatively cheap prices, or a price-led effort to revive HD DVD’s fortunes – which is it?

Uh-oh... when massive price drops start happening, it’s either because the cost of production has gone down and competition has gone up, forcing prices down, or because you’re trying to clear out old stock to get some of your money back.

As everyone knows, when Warner decided to back Blu-ray all the way, Blu-ray could now count 70% of major movie studios releasing movies in their format.

Since then, whispers over how soon Paramount and Universal would do the same and guarantee no major studio support for HD DVD have raced across the Internet, with most people coming to the conclusion that it’s only a ‘matter of time’.

So, faced with promoting a format that has seemingly lost, the best time to get rid of all the remaining stock at half price is right now – when there are still plenty of HD DVD titles available to give away as freebies, and plenty of HD DVD discs still in stores alongside their Blu-ray brethren.

Toshiba’s entry level player, the HD-E1, was selling for AUD $599, but now retails for only $299 – and comes with four free HD DVD movies. The mid-range HD-EP10 was $799, but is now $399 and comes with six free movies.

The top-of-the-line HD-XE1 with 1080p output and Dolby 5.1 surround sound has been slashed from $1299 down to only $599 with 11 free movies.

Naturally if you look at the retail cost of the ‘free’ movies and remove that from the cost of the HD DVD player, the hardware itself becomes even cheaper, making the HD DVD player the best value high-def player around, albeit with a much smaller selection of movies than is available on Blu-ray or plain ol’ DVD.

Still, Toshiba’s HD DVD players can play regular DVDs, and apparently all of the models will upscale those DVDs to look sharper on 40-inch and larger HDTVs – but only if you are connecting using an HDMI cable, so if you’re tempted by Toshiba’s deal, make sure that your HDTV has HDMI or you can’t use the upscaling feature with your regular DVD collection.

Depending on the model you buy, a regular DVD player that can upscale DVDs would likely be much cheaper than even the newly price-reduced HD DVD players, so only movie aficionados wanting to watch existing HD DVD titles would truly be tempted by Toshiba’s cut-price deal. 

So, is the alternative any better? Please read onto page 2...

The only real high-def alternative, for 1080p video, is a Blu-ray player. Naturally, Sony’s PS3 is one option, and is one of the cheapest and yet most advanced Blu-ray players that you can buy.

Sony are also engaging in a bit of their own marketing by offering a free Playstation 3 with any purchase of a Bravia XBR, X or W model HDTV.

As Dan Warne of APC Magazine notes, buying a PS3 to use as a Blu-ray player is probably the best choice, simply because each PS3 comes with a large hard drive, has Ethernet and can have its Blu-ray specification easily upgraded by downloading the latest update from the Internet.

But Blu-ray has had problems that initially made HD DVD players more attractive for some. Most early Blu-ray players are stuck at the original Blu-ray 1.0 specification, and can’t be upgraded thanks to the lack of a mandatory Ethernet port and other missing features that have been added into the follow-up Blu-ray 1.1 spec, and the upcoming Blu-ray 2.0 spec.

This doesn’t mean early Blu-ray adopters are left completely in the lurch – they are supposed to always be able to play the main movie part of any future Blu-ray disc – but won’t be able to access certain bonus features if the disc is in a higher Blu-ray spec.

Blu-ray 1.1 players now on sale have additional features, including additional hardware decoders for audio and video and 256MB of internal flash-based storage, while the upcoming Blu-ray 2.0 profile has even more hardware decoders and must have at least 1GB of internal flash-based storage.

HD DVD players, on the other hand, were mandated to have Ethernet and internal storage from the start, making them easily upgradable to future HD DVD specifications, although it doesn’t seem like that is a worry any more.

So although HD DVD looks like it’ll go the way of the dodo, buying a Blu-ray player is still causing some tech savvy consumers to wonder whether it’s worth waiting for Blu-ray 2.0 spec players to hit the market – or to just ‘bite the Blu-ray bullet’ and go with a PS3.

Is Blu-ray and HD DVD's major competitor - downloads - stand a chance in the near term? Please read onto page for the conclusion...

The other major competition is of course movie downloads in HD.

But sadly, downloads in high-definition are a reality (in 720p only) for US consumers, through Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Live download service, through Amazon’s Unbox service and for movie rentals using iTunes. But the key here is that they’re still only available for US customers – too bad if you’re ready with money to buy but aren’t a US citizen.

We can blame the movie studios for that – they still live in a pre-Internet world where distribution and region coding and DRM are still important. Silly studios – they are learning the hard way that consumers simply detest the limitations placed on digital media.

Downloads are already universal if you traipse the underbelly of the Internet and choose the illegal, dark side of the force.

Those wanting to ‘go legal’ and pay money for movie downloads wherever they are in the world just have to wait until HD movie download services, whoever they are from (Apple, Microsoft, BigPond, etc) become available in their area, alongside multi-megabit download speeds and download caps of hundreds of gigabytes becomes common, especially if you want to download in HD.

So – your choices are simple. Buy a cheap HD DVD player from Toshiba and get a stack of bonus movies, as well as a player that can upscale DVDs, but with little hope of future HD DVD titles.

You could buy a PS3 or other (upgradeable) Blu-ray player, or you could wait for HD movie downloads, or you can download them now illegally.

Or... you can just sit back and relax with your existing DVD player and TV, and just wait for prices for HD equipment to come down even further.

SD, HD, Blu-ray, HD DVD, downloads... it’s nice to have choice, but with so many things to look out for, going HD is sadly nowhere near as easy as it should be.

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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