Toshiba has two HD-DVD models reaching stores this month: The HD-XA1 ($799.99) and the HD-A1 ($499.99). I don't think there is $300 of difference between the two models. They both play most conventional DVDs, which is good because it will be a long wait before there is a significant amount of programming available on HD-DVD.
They do not have analog HD outputs, nor do they have unencrypted digital outputs, so they will not work with some older HDTV sets. Toshiba says
Because HD DVD is a new format that makes use of new technologies, certain disc, digital connection and other compatibility issues are possible. If you experience compatibility problems, please contact Toshiba Customer Service.
Firmware update may be required for some interactive features depending on content, which may also require an always-on broadband internet connection. Some features may require additional bandwidth.
Some Twin Format Discs may not be compatible with all players.
Some standard discs may not be compatible. If you experience compatibility problems, please contact Toshiba Customer Service.
Dolby® Digital Plus support for up to 5.1 channels, Dolby True HD support for up to 2 channels, and DTS-HD support for up to 5.1 channels of DTS® core only.
Discs may require an HDMI™ or HDCP capable DVI input on your HDTV or HD monitor for high definition playback.
Toshiba also makes the SD-3990 ($49.99). It doesn't play the HD-DVD discs, but you don't have any of those. It plays everything else, and it will look really good on your HDTV set or your old analog set. And you can buy 10 of them for the same price as the HD-A1.
Yesterday, CinemaNow and MovieLink introduced Download-To-Own. For just the cost of a real DVD, you can download a movie and burn it to DVD yourself. But you don't actually own it. They are not selling you a copy because a copy comes with certain First Sale and Fair Use rights. You are buying a license, and so your rights are significantly curtailed.
You can play your did-it-yourself DVD on your PC, but not on your DVD player. Depending on the rights obtained, you won't be allowed to let your friend watch it on his PC. And if your next computer is a Macintosh or a Linux system, you won't be able to enjoy it there either.
So forget about that downloading stuff for now. Just go on down to the Wal-Mart and pick up that copy of Brokeback Mountain. You can enjoy it on your PC or on your DVD player with the majestic EDTV imagery on your Big Screen TV. You can then loan it to your friend. And most importantly, when you die, you can leave it to your children. And they can pass it on to their children.
You can't do that with the Download-To-Own DVD because it is not Family Friendly.
A persistent and fundamental error that I see in the architecture of digital home systems is due to an IT mind set. The connection diagrams that show the routing of signals between the monitor and the set top box and the computer and everything else looks really complicated, and not dissimilar to the connection diagrams behind a large office. That complexity is not well hidden, showing up in setup and in daily operation. You can't depend on professional system administrators to keep the home entertainment center working properly.
At a recent conference I heard a call for "tearing down the living room silos." This statement is at least pointed in the right direction, but the point of origin is so utterly wrong-headed that I can't imagine that it works out any better for the folks at home.