Xbox 360 HD DVD Player

I didn’t think I’d pick a side so early in the ongoing high-definition video disc format wars, but with Microsoft’s introduction of the add-on HD DVD player for the Xbox 360, I couldn’t resist. The Xbox 360 HD DVD Player is a USB device that plugs into your existing Xbox 360 game console, further expanding the 360’s home theater capabilities. But the hook for me was the price point: $199.99. So…for significantly less than any other high definition disc player, you’re ready for next-generation DVD video.

What You Get. The Xbox 360 HD DVD player comes with the drive, a separate power brick, the necessary power and USB cables, and (for a limited time) a copy of Peter Jackson’s King Kong on HD-DVD and the Xbox 360 Universal Media Remote. Together, the disc and remote carry a retail value of about $70, so you’re really only paying about $130 for the HD DVD player itself. One more time, for effect: you are getting an HD DVD player for just $130!

What You Need. Clearly, I’m not suggesting that you can add HD-DVD playback to any high definition home theater system for under $200. This player is designed to connect to your existing Xbox 360 game console; and for HD quality video, you’ll need to invest in an Xbox 360 HD cable system (for somewhere between $20 and $60 – but that’s a 360 upgrade you should absolutely have already). That said, many industrious consumers have already discovered that with the right drivers and software, you can use the Xbox 360 HD DVD player as an external HD DVD (read-only) drive on your Mac or PC.

The Bad News. So far, I only have a few gripes with the drive. First, I don’t like the form factor. The drive shares the book-like form of the game console itself, though it’s somewhat smaller and apparently only designed to lay flat, as opposed to the console’s ability to stand upright on it’s end. This makes it difficult to stack or configure the devices near each other in any way that seems natural. I’d have preferred a piggy-back design that clamped onto the side of the console itself.

Second, the 360 differentiates your add-on HD DVD tray from its own built-in disc tray by splitting the graphical on-screen eject button into two halves. Rather than representing the drives separately, this seems somewhat convoluted and is further complicated by the fact that the Eject function on the 360 remote seems to only function with the internal drive.

Finally, I wish the drive and the console were smart enough to turn on and start playing when an HD DVD disc is inserted into the drive. With the system powered down, the Eject button on the add-on unit’s face still functions. While this allows you to insert a disc while your XBox console is off, the system isn’t smart enough to turn on when the drive detects the inserted disc. Hopefully, this is something that can be addressed in future software and firmware updates.

Why HD DVD. Did I mention the price? Seriously, with the widespread adoption of the Xbox 360 game console, many homes have a ridiculously-low adoption cost of under $200. No other player can come close. Of course, the PS3 will play Blu-Ray discs, but good luck finding a console in the near future. Or good games. There are many other reasons to like HD DVD, including superior use of available compression technology (currently, HD DVD discs use Microsoft’s VC-1 codec), transparent menu overlays on movies in play, available hybrid DVD/HD DVD discs that are backward compatible with existing hardware and software, and overall better hardware availability. HD DVD also employs a consumer-friendly copy protection scheme that is designed to allow consumers to extract the content of their discs to a home media server. Plus, as of the Christmas 2006 shopping season, HD DVD appears to be winning the battle – at least by the numbers.

Why Not Blu-ray? First off, it’s yet another proprietary format introduced by Sony in direct competition with the industry heir apparent. Beta, anyone? MiniDisc? SACD? I am genuinely sick and tired of Sony bucking the industry with its own unique solutions that muddy the waters, confuse consumers, and ultimately damage technology adoption for an entire market. And did I mention, it’s Sony? Sony…the purveyor of desktop root kits in the name of protecting the intellectual property of musicians. Then there’s the hardware. All of the Blu-ray hardware costs more than the comparable available HD DVD hardware. Why? And while ultimately capable of storing far more data…who cares? You don’t need all that extra storage with the new compression codecs supported by these discs.

For me, the choice is obvious. I want HD DVD to win this format war, but we’ll just have to see how it really plays out. In the meantime, I’ll be requesting HD DVDs from Netflix and buying only DVD/HD DVD hybrid discs…just to be safe.

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