By Stephen H. Wildstrom
TECH & YOU PODCAST
It's a little hard to call the new Toshiba Qosmio a laptop since the 10-pound-plus behemoth with a 17-inch widescreen is unlikely to spend much time on anyone's lap. This is the first computer to sport a high-definition DVD drive, and I found it to be a top-flight entertainment system in a luggable package. My only warning: Don't buy it for HD-DVD.
Toshiba is the leading promoter of HD-DVD -- one of two competing formats for high-definition discs -- so the company rushed to add HD movie capability to its flagship laptops. Sony (SNE), sponsor of the rival Blu-ray Disc, will similarly equip its top-of-the-line Vaio AR.) The sad fact is, these two HD standards are incompatible, and only a handful of movies are available for either one of them.
Setting aside the issue of high definition for a moment, the $3,000 Qosmio is an attractive choice if you are looking for a compact system that can handle a full range of Windows chores while also functioning as a TV set, movie player, and audio system. The Qosmio has the highest-quality audio that I have encountered on a laptop, with excellent simulated surround-sound using Dolby Laboratories technology. The video system produces gorgeous high-resolution images on the laptop screen, or on a high-definition TV set when hooked up using a special cable. (Ask for an HDMI cable -- don't worry what the letters stand for.) The Qosmio is capable of showing maximum resolution HDTV on either built-in or external displays.
FOR ALL ITS ATTRACTIVE FEATURES, however, the Qosmio also shows the big weakness of PCs in home entertainment: The technology is both too complex and too immature for the world of consumer electronics. The Qosmio comes with Windows XP Media Center Edition, which lets it function as a TV set with its own video recorder and 200 gigabytes of disk space to store recordings. You can connect the Qosmio to a cable set-top box, but you can't watch or record high-definition channels. Next year's Vista edition of Windows is supposed to fix this by letting a PC act as its own set-top box. But you probably won't be able to retrofit the feature to current hardware like the Qosmio.
My frustrations with the HD-DVD drive were even worse. The high point of my viewing experience was watching a demo disc of high-def trailers and movie snippets supplied by Toshiba. On both the laptop display and a big HDTV, image quality is vastly better than regular DVDs, even though the Qosmio does a great job of enhancing the quality of standard discs.
But when I popped the HD-DVD version of GoodFellas into the drive, it wouldn't play. Eventually, I was able to get a picture, but no menus and no sound. The disc formats are not really standardized yet, and, according to Toshiba, the player software is being updated monthly. The next version will work with the recently released GoodFellas, Toshiba claims. But fine print in Qosmio's specifications warns that the player may not work at all with future HD-DVD releases. Similar caveats apply to Sony's Blu-ray Vaio and Toshiba's $500 stand-alone HD-DVD player.
Toshiba clearly rushed out both an HD-DVD-equipped laptop and the standalone player in an effort to beat Sony to the punch. Whatever corporate imperative that served, releasing systems that don't work harms the consumer. True, you have the choice of buying the $2,400 Qosmio G35-AV600, which lacks the HD drive. But if you go this route, you will also have to accept a slower processor, less capable graphics, and smaller disc drives.
If you limit your expectations to what the more expensive Qosmio does well, including letting you enjoy standard or downloaded TV, regular DVDs, home photos, or music, it's a terrific PC with an outstanding display and audio system. Just don't get your hopes up about next-generation DVDs.
For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/
Stephen H. Wildstrom