Technology: Are Hi-Def Discs For You?

In the next few weeks millions of people will buy TV sets with humongous high-definition screens. They will arrange with their cable and satellite providers to get HD television shows to fill all those pixels. And then they will ponder the logical next step: DVD-style discs that show movies in high definition. And that's where things get sticky.

As you may have heard (if not, brace yourself) there are two different formats of hi-def DVD: Blu-ray and HD-DVD. At the moment they are on worse terms with each other than Britney and K-Fed. Eventually this may be resolved--there are rumors of "universal" disc players out next year that will play both kinds of discs--but for the moment, if you want a machine that plays high-definition discs, you must choose between the two and then lay out between $500 and $1,000 for the player, because the technology is still at the superpricey "early adopter" stage. Those of us medium-to-late adopters should wait until the smoke clears.

However, if you have one of the two "next generation" game consoles, you have the ability to watch high-definition discs without making that huge investment. The brand-new Sony PlayStation 3 uses a Blu-ray disc player. And Microsoft, which makes the year-old Xbox 360, has just shipped a $200 add-on HD-DVD player.

Because the Blu-ray is built into the PS3, it's a snap to watch hi-def flicks (in fact, those managing to snare a PS3 this Christmas get a free Blu-ray copy of "Talladega Nights"). Just pop in the disc, select it on Sony's "Cross Media Bar" interface, and you're roll-ing. (The PS3 doesn't come with a high-quality digital HDMI cable, but you've probably bought one already to play the games.) Unfortunately, there's no movie-friendly remote-control unit available at the moment, but Sony promises to ship a $25 remote by mid- December. Though my eyes are not the sensitive peepers of a true videophile, I could appreciate the rich colors, Ginsu-sharp definition and lush detail. The NASCAR smash-ups in "Talladega" were stunning, but "Behind Enemy Lines" looked even better; the iconic close-ups of Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson's nose were even more impressive than the battle scenes.

Since the Xbox 360's HD-DVD drive is a competitive afterthought, it's a more awkward arrangement. It's a separate device, about the size of Joyce's "Ulysses," and has a separate power supply requiring its own electrical plug. Plan on spending some time on the setup process, involving an installation disc and a visit to the Xbox live online system. Included in the package is a remote control, but I couldn't persuade my Xbox to recognize it, so I used the game controller. Once everything was ready, the movies were great. The Mexican scenery of "Nacho Libre" was lovingly rendered, and the Japa-nese urban density of "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" more than overcame some plot vapidity.

Advice for HDTV owners? If you have a PS3, go wild buying or renting Blu-ray discs. If you have an Xbox 360, consider the HD-DVD drive. But if you don't want a game console, hold off until there are lower-cost universal players. Regular DVDs look great on big screens, so just avoid watching HD flicks at your friends' cribs and you won't know what you're missing.