You can now watch high-definition television on sets as cheap as $500, with plenty of programming from a variety of channels. But HDTV is missing from one crucial corner of the home-entertainment business -- the DVD. Companies are still developing and promoting two different, incompatible high-definition versions of the DVD, neither of which will have any consumer relevance (read: tolerable prices) until next year at the soonest.
But there is an option to these upcoming "HD-DVD" and "Blu-Ray" formats. For $250, you can buy a DVD player that will put a sharp, clear, high-def image on an HDTV set today. There are only two catches: It's almost impossible to find discs that exploit this feature, and to make your own you'll need to use a fast computer with a DVD-recorder drive and, in most cases, a digital-TV tuner card. But this device does show that things don't have to be as difficult as the electronics industry sometimes wants to make them.
The DVD player is the AVeL LinkPlayer2, from the Japanese vendor I-O Data (www.iodata.com/usa). Beyond regular audio CDs and DVD movies (and digital photo and digital music files transferred via its network connection or USB 2.0 plug), it can play two new high-definition formats from a DVD.
The results, as seen in a variety of HD files in these two formats -- DivX and Microsoft's WMV HD -- exhibited far sharper details and richer colors than any regular DVD. We saw no drop-off in quality compared to recordings of high-def programming made with an HD-capable TiVo recorder.
We had to call I-O Data's help line to get playback settings straight, the LinkPlayer2's interface is a little clunky and the system can be slow to respond, but this model accomplished its main goal brilliantly: playing high-definition movies from a standard DVD.
But we had to do some serious scrounging to find any HD video.
Commercial DVD releases are limited almost entirely to standard-definition formats that don't look as good on an HDTV (although still better than on an analog set). Only about a dozen discs are sold with content in WMV HD -- but almost all come in a copy-restricted variant that the LinkPlayer2 can't read, limiting playback to computers running Microsoft's Windows Media Player software.
Another option is to record an HD program on a computer, then use software to convert the recording to a DivX or WMV HD file, then burn the results onto a DVD. This requires buying a digital-TV tuner card, such as ATI's $149 HDTV Wonder, and dozens of gigabytes of free hard-disk space. (Note that the Federal Communications Commission's "broadcast flag" regulation, which mandates copy-control technology in digital tuner hardware, will bar the manufacture of that and other current models after July 1.)
Both DivX and WMV HD allow a massive HD video file to be compressed enough to fit on a DVD with minimal loss of quality. A 90-minute movie can fit on a 4.7-gigabyte recordable DVD; by using new 8.5 GB dual-layer recordable DVD, a longer movie will fit, or a shorter movie can be saved in still higher quality. Avoiding any drop in quality may require "spanning" a movie across several DVDs, somewhat like a director's cut of "The Lord of the Rings" on standard DVDs.
Both Microsoft and DivX's San Diego-based developers, DivxNetworks Inc., provide software to make this conversion for free. But DivX's tools are geared for hobbyists, not just professionals.
The last source of HD video is online. High-def content can be legally downloaded from sites such as those run by the developers of DivX and WMV HD, www.divx.com and www.wmvhd.com. And just as illegally shared standard-definition versions of movies and TV shows float around the Internet, so do HD versions.
We can recommend the LinkPlayer2 to patient, curious video enthusiasts eager to watch HD recordings on a big screen in the living room, not a PC's small display. The other people who ought to give it a look are the electronics industry executives who keep wasting time squabbling over next year's incompatible HD formats when DivX and WMV HD can deliver high-definition discs today.