HD-DVD players out, but hard to find

After several false starts, Toshiba has officially fired the first salvo in the race for the high-definition capable successor to DVD. Today marked the official launch of HD-DVD, the format backed by Toshiba. (The first Blu-ray Disc players, for the format backed by Sony and a slew of consumer electronics companies and studios, are due to ship in June.) Toshiba's HD-DVD players, the US$500 HD-A1 and $800 HD-AX1, officially went on sale today; so too did three movie titles from Warner Home Video.

However, it would seem that HD-DVD's proponents didn't quite meet their goal of a coordinated launch between software (read: Hollywood movie titles) and players. With only those three titles from Warner now available (two of which--The Phantom of the Opera and The Last Samurai--I already have in my hands), it's not like store shelves are screaming with eye-catching content begging for buyers. More titles will be streaming into stores over the next few weeks, from both Warner and Universal Studios (the only studio still standing solely in the HD-DVD camp).

As for players, well, based on reports on the Web, they apparently began trickling out for sale as early as last Friday. The emphasis here is on the word trickle: Even now, the day of launch, players are in scarce supply. In fact, if you're keen on finding an HD-DVD player now, good luck: You may be hunting for a while, depending upon where you live.

Read on for more on my hunt for an HD-DVD player. Or, skip to the bottom and answer this question: Do you want HD-DVD now? And if so, what are you prepared to do to to get a player?

At the beginning of March, Tina Tuccillo, vice president of marketing communications, told me the company expects to sell 30,000 units in the first three months. According to some estimates, 10,000 to 15,000 units have been shipped in the U.S. to satisfy this first wave of demand. Toshiba also says it plans to be in about 3,000 stores nationwide. If the estimated number of units in the U.S. is true, you don't have to crunch the numbers too hard to assume that supply will be tight for a while, and you might be battling it out with your neighbors for the one or two boxes on store shelves.

Best Buy began advertising the players in this past Sunday's circular. However, my first attempts to find a unit in the Bay Area were unsuccessful, and I learned quickly that the computer-reported inventories (both online, and the stores' own links to their warehouse) were not to be trusted. For example, early Monday, a day after the ad first appeared--and a day before the official launch--a unit appeared on Best Buy's site as being available in the Sausalito store. (The Best Buy Web site noted that the HD-DVD HD-A1 is backordered for online orders.) However, the computer later told me the unit was not actually in inventory, and a call to the high-end Magnolia Hi-Fi department of Best Buy confirmed that they hadn't yet received any HD-DVD players.

Since then, I've tried to track down a player, to no success here in the Bay Area (supposedly, a few units have been available here, and snuffed up as quickly as they're put out on shelves). In some cases, the person manning the audio/video department's phone didn't know what I was asking for. An actual conversation excerpt: "Do you have the Toshiba HD-DVD player, the HD-A1? The one that costs $499?" "Yes. No. We don't have any HD-DVD players that cost that much." "Do you even know what HD-DVD is?" Dead silence.

The upshot of this experience--which included calls to local Best Buy, Magnolia Audio Video, and Fry's Electronics stores--is one I've found pretty scary, from a consumer's perspective. Getting one of these early HD-DVD players, from the sound of it, will require either a bit of catch-as-catch-can-luck, or bribing a buddy who works the delivery shift. Stores either say they don't know when they might get a delivery; or, if they do pinpoint a date, I'm hearing things like the end of month, the beginning of May, or even May 10th for the first deliveries (all examples heard from some Fry's and Magnolia, for example, and all examples were smothered in caveats).

Curious if this was just a Bay Area phenomenon, I made an informal, after-hours query online of Best Buys in major cities up and down the West Coast (presumably, the inventories at this point would be updated to reflect sales during the day; then again, for all I know, these may all be false positives, as I experienced yesterday). On the West Coast, my admittedly informal survey revealed only one store each in Chico, California, Kennwick, Washington, and in Logan, Utah that showed availability of an HD-A1 player. By comparison, the results were slightly healthier East of the Rockies. Texas was swimming in stores showing stock for in-store pick-up: three stores near Waco, two near El Paso, plus one each in San Antonio, Houston, and Texarkana. The Midwest and East Coast seemed best stocked: a whopping five stores in the Baltimore area, three stores in Nashville, three in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina area, two in Wichita, Kansas, two in Pittsburgh, 2 near Hartsford. One store each came up in Cambridge Massachussetts, Springfield, Pennsylvania, St. Petersburg and Jacksonville, Florida and Indianapolis.

In my old hometown stomping ground of Long Island, New York, the situation was nearly as bleak. An Oceanside store for local chain PC Richard & Son said it didn't have any players in its warehouse, and they had no idea when they might get units in stock; and all but one Best Buy showed no stock.

Online, the situation was a little better, but not by much. Onecall.com showed the HD-A1 as being in stock, but the pricier HD-XA1 was shown as "on order". Amazon.com had neither model available: It showed the HD-A1 as not yet released, and the more pricey HD-XA1 as being "currently unavailable." WalMart showed the HD-A1 on pre-order, for delivery around April 21; and, they showed another player, RCA's HDV5000, for pre-order for shipping on May 18. Sears.com, which is also expected to carry the Toshiba player, didn't even have the HD-A1 for pre-order on its Web site.

My takeaway from this experience: If you're not looking for a lesson in geography, and you're not chomping at the bit for bragging rights for being the first to get HD-DVD, you should hold off for a while before searching for one of these players. Doing so will save you a lot of time and aggravation.

And now, to paraphrase and elaborate on the questions I posed earlier: Format war be damned, are you ready to buy HD-DVD now? And if so, what are you prepared to do to to get a player? Have you had any HD-DVD player (or movie) sightings? How has your search gone so far?