I'm the idiot who bought an HD-DVD player.

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Feb. 28 2008 5:18 PM

I'm the Idiot Who Bought an HD-DVD Player

A casualty of the format war tells all.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Toshiba finally mercy-killed its HD-DVD format last week, ending a drawn-out fight with Sony's Blu-ray for high-definition disc supremacy. The format's demise has brought HD-DVD owners untold humiliation: reams of newspaper stories comparing them to the losers of yore who bought into Betamax and LaserDisc, the sad sight of desperate early adopters peddling brand-new players on Craigslist, and, worst of all, a Web site celebrating the similarities between HD-DVD and Hillary Clinton. I'm sick of the mockery and abuse. You see, I'm one of the morons who bought an HD-DVD player.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

While I freely admit my moronitude, I still believe the HD-DVD owner is an unfairly maligned creature. It wasn't dumb to jump on the HD-DVD bandwagon: Toshiba's technology was cheaper and more consumer-friendly than Sony's. It was dumb, though, to assume that the forces of good would triumph. In the end, the fight between Sony and Toshiba played out like some kind of bizarro sports movie: The bad guy won at the end by clocking the lovable underdog in the crotch with a baseball bat.

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In retrospect, it might've been smarter not to buy either player. But alas, I have a strange affliction that left me susceptible to HD-DVD's limited charms: I'm a gadget-loving cheapskate. The typical early adopter opens his wallet first and asks questions later; he doesn't care how many gigs of RAM are inside the MacBook Air, just that it slides into a Manila envelope. The HD-DVD player, however, appealed to a different group, electronics fetishists too imprudent to wait out a format war yet stingy enough to base their purchasing decisions entirely on price. Of course, this is an irrational position, like signing up for the inaugural commercial flight to the moon but only paying for a coach-class ticket. But that's how my brain works—I have a Creative Zen Micro, not an iPod.

My HD-DVD delusion began, as so many gizmo-induced fevers do, in the run-up to Black Friday. Like most Americans, I spent my Thanksgiving Day scouring online message boards for rebate coupons. Following a brief flirtation with an off-brand digital picture frame, I fell in love with another shiny object: an HD-DVD player (with seven free discs!) for only $149.50. Never has a piece of electronics equipment looked more alluring: I love high-definition TV, and this was a new, exciting, cheap way to pour HD goodness into my living room. Seriously, seven free discs!

But what about that format war? After three minutes of research on Engadget and Gizmodo, I decided this was clearly going to be a war of attrition. While Sony had the lead in disc sales, Paramount and DreamWorks had both announced they would release titles only on HD-DVD. Since a) neither side looked ready to budge, and b) I have no impulse control, it was time to make a decision. Blu-ray discs can hold more data than HD-DVDs, and more studios were behind Sony's format. Still, Sony never had a chance to get my business. Wasn't it my duty as a shopper to back the cheapest option? For the $377 that Circuit City was charging for a Blu-ray machine, I could've bought two of Toshiba's players (14 free discs!) and had enough money left over to buy a Walkman and a rotary phone. I was casting my lot with HD-DVD. What could possibly go wrong?

In the first carefree days, all was bliss. I put on my first free disc, The Bourne Identity, and went into a reverie. A standard-def DVD creates a flat image on a screen. An HD disc gives the image weight, texture, depth, verisimilitude—in a tight shot of a knife slicing through Jason Bourne's wetsuit, you see a real blade cutting through real fabric. A few days later, the BBC nature documentary Planet Earth came via Netflix. If Bourne is a gateway drug, Planet Earth is hi-def heroin—the most transfixing collection of moving images I've ever seen. I watched great whites breaching, snow leopards hunting, and birds of paradise preening for about an hour, then went to Amazon and bought the whole series for $70. For weeks, I forced all visitors to sit down and watch, building up the experience like it was looking into the face of God. Nobody was disappointed.