updated 6/27/2006 1:14:57 PM ET 2006-06-27T17:14:57

You've got the popcorn, and you're getting the next-generation DVD player. But being the first kid on the block with these new whiz-bang gizmos, which promise crystal-clear pictures and dynamic sound, may come with problems that turn what you thought would be your summer blockbuster into a bomb. So as you settle into your comfy couch and fire up the Blu-ray disc or HD-DVD, we figured we'd provide some helpful hints to make it all worthwhile.

STEP ONE: Is Your TV The Right Stuff?
The new generation of DVD players are finally here. Samsung's $999 snazzy new BD-P1000 Blu-ray player, which hit store shelves June 25, joins Toshiba's HD-A1 $499 and RCA's $499 HDV5000 HD-DVD machine in competing for your heart — and credit card.

Pioneer's $1,500 Elite BDP-HD1 and Panasonic's $1,300 DMP-BD10 Blu-ray players are expected later this summer, while there are reports that Sony's BD-SP1 Blu-ray player again may be delayed, this time until late October. Both HD-DVD and Blu-ray players use blue lasers instead of red to read discs, and each disc offers more capacity than current generation players. That lets studios put high-definition content on the discs and, eventually, interactive features.

Both Blu-ray and HD-DVD promise pictures with as much as six times more resolution than regular DVD players. But there's a catch: First, you must have a TV with a resolution that meets high-definition guidelines. Sets that advertise resolutions of 720 progressive scan, 1,080 interlaced, or 1,080 progressive fit that bill.

You'll find plenty of 720p TV from the likes of Sony, LG, and Samsung at your local Best Buy, but 1,080p sets are more scarce. Those folks who snapped up so-called enhanced definition (or 480 progressive) TVs over the past few years and now want to spring for the new players should know that they will be essentially buying a very expensive, largely useless toy, since the display can deliver none of the benefits of a better picture.

You'll also get the most from your new Blu-ray player only if you have a 1,080p set, which is the highest of the HDTV resolutions available. With these sets, every pixel in a frame is refreshed at the blink of an eye, offering more resolution than interlaced sets, which completely refresh a picture only every other frame. Only a few such 1,080p sets are available today, including Sharp's astonishing 65-inch LCD TV, at $18,000, and Samsung's 56-inch rear-projection DLP, at $3,300. Sony, Samsung, Pioneer and others plan to begin selling more 1,080p LCD and plasma sets later this year.

What about HD-DVD, you ask? Those players currently only output 1,080i as their highest resolution instead of 1080p, which as mentioned before, offers the greatest detail possible. There's even debate among HDTV experts about whether 1080i is indeed better than 720p. In other words, Blu-ray could have the slight edge in terms of picture quality -- if you have the right TV to take advantage of it.

Finally, for best viewing, you'll want a set that measures at least 50 inches diagonally. That's because the image enhancements in movies like "Ultraviolet" and "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" are subtle — particularly if you already own a DVD player or TV that "upconverts" regular movies to the set's native resolution, as is increasingly common.

The most noticeable differences between next-gen players and "upconversion" are in the textures of objects. You can see every little imperfection in the metal of a ship, colors are more clearly defined, and lines are drawn with greater detail. But unless you're sitting two feet from your TV or have the best eyes in town, you will miss those differences.

STEP TWO: Where's the Content?
If you remember the early days of DVD players in the late 1990s, you'll know that content can be hard to find for new-generation players. Plan ahead, especially if you're hosting a movie night. Newer releases with high definition currently are scarce, and retailers like  say it may take up to 10 days for you to get a title after you order it.

HD-DVD: This format enjoyed a head start, beginning in mid-April on the competing Blu-ray format, and now has about 25 titles available for rent online through Netflix and Blockbuster. Roughly the same number are supposed to be available for purchase (at about $35 each) from Amazon as well as many brick-and-mortar retailers — though informal checks indicate there's no mad rush to stock their shelves with such titles.

Most of the movies are older titles, including Mel Brooks's "Blazing Saddles" and "The Fugitive," though "Syriana," "Serenity," and "Jarhead" are more recent theatrical releases.

For those who want to play movies at home and still be able to take them on the road to calm the kids or while killing time on a plane, studios also have begun delivering discs that put standard resolution content on one side and HD content on the other. More current releases should become more plentiful during the holiday shopping season.

Blu-ray: Sony unveiled seven titles, timed to the release of Samsung's player. About $30 each, they include "50 First Dates," "The Fifth Element," "Hitch," "The House of Flying Daggers," "The Terminator," and "Underworld: Evolution." Seven more, including the Academy Award-winning "Crash" and sci-fi thriller "Ultraviolet," are expected to hit shelves by the end of June.

Sony, intent on winning this round in the new format war, has won support of six of the seven major studios (Universal is committed only to deliver titles on HD-DVD). While it may initially lag HD-DVD, over the long run the Blu-ray format likely will offer more titles than HD-DVD.

As has reported several times recently, the supporters of these two different formats are not doing consumers any favors by bringing two standards to market at the same time. It's confusing, inefficient, and a headache for everyone.

Remember, you can't play a Blu-ray title in an HD-DVD player, and vice versa (see, 6/19/06, "Sony's Pretty, Pricey Picture"). While the cases are the same size, Blu-ray discs come in a blue box, HD-DVD in a maroon case (see, 6/22/06, "Fujitsu's LifeBook, Heavy With Promise"). You can also play regular DVDs and CDs in both types of machine.

STEP THREE: Sweating the Tech Stuff
In the Digital Age, amid concerns about piracy, content providers are saying "Never say never" to implementing what some call draconian protection schemes. Both Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs are embedded with software that can actively look for pirating and potentially disable the machine if watermarking technology indicates you're using a pirated disc or trying to illegally copy content.

What's more, the movie industry could block consumers from seeing the high-quality resolution that they've paid for. Hollywood is concerned that customers who do not use a certain connector can hijack the images and pirate the content. While none do so now, they could implement this anti-piracy technology in the future.

To avoid this potential problem, you'll want to use a high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) cable to connect your player and set. When the two "talk" to each other using this method, the information exchange assures that content protection software, called high-bandwidth digital content protection, or HDCP, exists to prevent illegal duplication.

The good news is consumer-electronics makers are including this cable with their next-gen DVD players, but the bad news is most older sets do not have HDCP software embedded, and many do not have HDMI connectors. Some newer sets have just one. That poses a problem as you continue to build out a home theater, since satellite boxes and Sony's PlayStation 3 also will have such connectors. If you have just one connector, you'll have to buy a $300 HDMI switcher box from outfits like Gefen, a privately held connectivity device maker in Woodland Hills, Calif.

If you're springing for a new HDTV beginning in July, the latest models should include most of these tech bells and whistles to negate the problem, but be sure to do your homework before shelling out the dough.

We know, we know: Your head may be spinning just a little trying to take this all in. Alas, those are the joys of being an early adopter. We hope our little cheat sheet offers enough help to make the era of crystal-clear movie-watching even more enjoyable.

Copyright © 2012 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved.


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