The answer to one of the most burning questions in digital entertainment—Blu-ray or HD-DVD?—will be determined at least in part on your computer screen. Backers of each technology are rushing to market with machines that play their respective brand of disk while handling a full range of computing tasks.
Recently we looked at the Blu-ray camp's notebook, the Sony (SNE) Vaio AR Premium, and judged the video quality from the Blu-ray disk excellent, but probably not good enough to entice most people to shell out $3,500 for that alone (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/19/06, "Sony's Pretty, Pricey Picture").
Having spent time with the notebook from the other camp—Toshiba's HD-DVD capable Qosmio G35-AV650—we're again impressed with the quality of the video and again wondering if the price is worth the added HD-DVD features at this stage of the game.
AT THE MOVIES. Like the Vaio, the Toshiba (TOSBF) Qosmio is a desktop-replacement class machine that boasts a huge 17-inch screen and weighs in at a hefty 10 pounds. It's one of the machines I consider portable, but not really mobile.
Since a big part of the reason for considering the Qosmio is watching videos, let me start there. For watching movies on a large-screen notebook PC, the Qosmio's screen is simply the best I've seen in this product class. There are no dead zones where the image is darker around the edges; the brightness—often low on rival machines—is suitably high; and images from even standard definition DVDs are crisp, fluid, and excellent.
The sound is great too. The machine boasts a pair of powerful Harmon Kardon speakers embedded in the body just below the screen and, when turned up to maximum volume, they will fill a small room adequately.
HD FALLS SHORT. As usual, Toshiba is kind enough to put a silver volume control to the right of the keyboard, making it easy to change the sound on the fly without needing to muck about with a mouse or search for a hard-to-find volume button. It's in areas like this—as well as the placement of media controls along the top of the keyboardbuttons—where Toshiba's expertise in the consumer electronics business shines through.
But when it comes to taking advantage of HD-DVD capabilities, the Qosmio comes up short. First, we tried out a demo disk supplied by Toshiba that had trailers and other content. It looked great, and once video playback began, it went without a hitch. But loading up the disk didn't go as smoothly. I wasn't able to get the HD-DVD to play automatically on insertion. And after opening the play program manually, it took half a minute before play began.
The demo disk also didn't have one of HD-DVD's cool new features: the ability to pull up and click through the title menu at any time during playback without stopping the video. So I popped in another HD-DVD I had lying around, Enter the Dragon. Although it worked most of the time, I had trouble getting the title menus to pop up during playback.
Worse, I wasn't able to click any of the menus at all with my cursor and was forced to use the keyboard. Perhaps of even greater concern is that some HD-DVDs failed to play properly.
KEYBOARD ISSUES. We understand these problems stem from the bundled "WinDVD HD" for Toshiba software, rather than the drive, and software upgrades aimed at improving performance are available from Toshiba. Still, we're left with the impression that the Qosmio's HD-DVD features weren't quite ready for prime time. And unlike the Vaio, the Qosmio's drive is read-only, so you won't be doing any recording (though at $2,999, it's priced about $500 less than the Vaio).
Nor was I impressed with the keyboard. The keys are flat-topped, so as I typed, my hands lost their bearings a bit, yielding lots of typos. This is strange because Toshiba has so often excelled at producing notebook keyboards.
As with other machines in its class, this one runs Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows XP Media Center Edition, so it serves as a repository for all of your digital music and video files. It will also connect to your TV set-top box to display and record your favorite shows.
WHAT'S INSIDE. It's got a sizable 200 GB worth of hard drive space to handle pretty much whatever you want to store. Of the machines in this class tested so far, this isn't the biggest storage capacity—Fujitsu still reigns supreme there with 320 GB—but it beats Dell's (DELL) XPS M1710.
Internally, this Qosmio is impressive as well. There's an Intel (INTC) Core Duo T2500 processor rated at 2 GHz an Nvidia (NVDA) GeForce Go 7600 for handling graphics. The Qosmio boasts some fine computing and display features. But it carries a high price tag for a machine that has yet to work out its HD-DVD kinks this early in the next-gen format wars.