Definitive Answers On High-Def

Can't wait until you can get the eye-popping detail of a movie at the multiplex right in your living room? Even if you're ready for high-definition DVDs, the market isn't ready for you. That won't happen until next year, when the players and disks will go on sale.

Before then, there's still a lot of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing to be done over which formats and features will be offered. But the good news is that the transition to high-definition DVD players promises to be a lot less wrenching for you than technology shifts in the past. The new super DVDs aren't likely to immediately make your DVD movies obsolete in the same way CDs supplanted vinyl LPs and DVDs replaced videocassettes.

But high-definition TV, which gets its compelling leap in picture quality from screens that show three to six times the detail of standard TV, clearly is here to stay. Stations are broadcasting more HD programming, and families are replacing aging TV sets with HD models. Some 10% of U.S. households now have one -- and perhaps a third will within three years. So Hollywood figures it needs a way to distribute HD versions of its movies.

Eventually you're going to have to make some decisions about upgrading your DVD collection or adding to it with high-definition disks. Here's what you need to keep in mind:

-- YOU PROBABLY WON'T be forced to choose between competing formats Blu-ray, developed by Sony Corp. (SNE ), and Toshiba Corp.'s HD DVD. Chances are slim that more than one type of player will make it to market, and Blu-ray is the front-runner. If, come next year, the industry stubbornly offers you a couple of incompatible DVD players and disks, it's best to continue to fence-sit until one side in the battle surrenders.

-- YOU'RE NOT GOING TO have to replace your DVD library. Both of the proposed schemes will let you play your current movies in the new players, and the new disks probably will work in the DVD player you already own. You won't get the benefit of the richly detailed high-definition picture, but at least your current collection of DVDs won't end up deep in the basement alongside your videocassettes.

-- YOU'RE GOING TO have to pay more for high definition -- for the players, a lot more. The first ones probably will go for $750 to $1,000. The cheapest way to get into the game may be to buy Sony's PlayStation 3 game console, also expected next year, for $500 or less. It will have the new DVD player on board. The longer you can hold off, the better the deal you'll get.

-- YOU'LL SPEND MORE, but you'll also get more with the new disks. They're pricer -- $20 and up instead of $20 and down -- which means retailers will continue to sell standard DVDs next to the HD versions of most movies. In addition to better picture quality, you can expect more extras, including the ability to connect to the Internet to buy games and knickknacks related to the movie.

Oh, and one more thing: You'll need a high-definition TV to get full benefit from high-definition DVDs. If you're in the market for a new set and you're an avid enough video fan to be worried about your DVD collection, you should start shopping for an HDTV. Unlike the new DVD players, you'll find plenty of HDTV deals around this holiday shopping season. But deals on high-def DVDs and players? Those are still a long way down the road.

By Larry Armstrong in Los Angeles

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