Review: HD DVD laptop a decent early volley vs. Blu-ray

October 4, 2006: 4:59 PM ET

Hpdv9096xx_1

Pavilion dv9096 HD DVD laptop

Hewlett-Packard

$1,529 (after $50 mail-in, $150 instant rebate)

17-inch BrightView display (1440 x 900 WXGA or 1680 x 1050 WSXGA)

NVIDIA GeForce Go 7600 discrete graphics, 256MB dedicated DDR2 VRAM

802.11 a/b/g and Bluetooth options

100 GB base; dual hard disk for up to 240 GB

Weight: 7.8 lbs and up

Thickness: 1.57 inches

Optional HP webcam w/ intergrated dual stereo mics

Available 10/06

Utility Factor: Low/Medium

Cool Factor: Medium

The main reason I wanted to test-drive this laptop was the HD DVD factor. A lot of my friends are pissed about the next-generation DVD format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray, and have decided to stay away completely – but being a gadget guy, I take it as my duty to dive in.

Hpdvdmovie_2

HD DVD. Big difference?

I tested the dv9096 (dv 9000 series) using The Bourne Supremacy. HP sent the HD DVD version with the system, and I happen to own the regular DVD version because my fiancee has a thing for Matt Damon.

Anyway.

Because the dv9096 has a high-contrast glossy screen, I needed to compare its performace using a similar system. So I sat it alongside the 15-inch MacBook Pro from Apple Computer, ran the DVDs simultaneously, and watched. Broadly, I was looking for three things: Overall system performance, color and sound, and detail.

Overall system performance: Once the movie was playing on the dv9096, everything was great. The problem was getting it to play. I'm not a huge fan of Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, and I have to say, it gets in the way. Any normal user opening up the laptop for the first time would try to run the HD DVD through Media Center, and that doesn't work.

Instead, I used HP's QuickPlay feature, which works through built-in buttons above the keyboard. I popped in the HD DVD, hit play, and everything was great until I got to the HD DVD's main menu and pushed play. Instead of the movie, I got a black screen and the notice, "Unable to play this file."

That's weird, I thought. It played everything fine until I asked it to start the movie from the beginning. So I went back to the menu and chose to select a scene. I selected the first one, and it played fine.

So for some reason – I'm not sure whether it's a problem with the movie or with the drive – the movie wouldn't play from the beginning. Either way, big red flag. Mom and dad are not going to sit around and fiddle with this thing. They'll either return the movie, or return the computer/HD DVD player. (It would be one thing if I had found this movie on and own and popped it in; but remember, HP sent me this movie with the system.)

Overall, I'd have to give the dv9096 a low/medium grade on overall system performance. It couldn't play the supplied DVD in the most straightforward way, and that's not good.

Color and sound: I wasn't sure what to expect of the basic movie experience, because I had never seen this movie in HD before. Would colors be entirely different? Would the sound be crisper? No. Next to the MacBook Pro, which has a similar screen, the color and sound were almost exactly the same, and the contrast wasn't as good. (One colleague walking by took a look and said he'd rather have the higher contrast than the HD picture.) I'm not putting the dv9096 down when I say that. The MacBook Pro's starting price is nearly $500 more. But these were not areas where the HP's HD DVD made a big splash.

Detail: This is where I noticed the difference. It wasn't huge – I think most people expect to have their socks knocked off, and end up disappointed. But I would liken it to the difference between a 4 x 6 print from a 1-megapixel camera vs. one from a 2-megapixel camera. Movie caption text that's usually blurry around the edges instead appeared sharp, like it would typed into a word processing program. Facial hair, lettering on buildings – all those things were sharper.

Overall, the HD DVD experience with the dv9096 was solid, but not revolutionary – nothing like moving from VHS to DVD. I'm not going to go re-purchasing my DVD collection in HD, I'm afraid. Also, annoyingly, today's HD DVDs won't play in regular DVD players, even at a lower level of detail. (HD DVD players will play older DVDs, though.)

If I'd already dropped a few thousand on an HD home theater system, I would definitely consider going for this upgrade to HD DVD. As it stands now, though – and until I can be sure the HD DVDs out there are going to play correctly – I'm not so sure.

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