Launch mirros rival HD-DVD's in mid-April.

Last week's launch of the Blu-ray Disc format, much like that of rival HD-DVD in mid-April, was more a dress rehearsal than anything else.

On June 20, the first seven titles, all from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, went on sale at select consumer electronics stores. The first player, from Samsung, was scheduled to go on sale five days later, but reports indicate that few retailers kept the machines in the backroom and away from the trickle of consumers willing to shell out $999—twice the cost of the entry-level HD-DVD player, from Toshiba—to buy one now that the software was available.

The two high-definition disc formats are vying to replace DVD once high-def becomes standard in U.S. homes. By the end of the year, there will be 25 million HDTV households in the U.S., Warner Bros. research predicts, and standard DVD will no longer cut it. Both Sony's Blu-ray Disc and Toshiba's HD-DVD formats offer a clearer image—1,080 lines of resolution, as opposed to 480 for DVD—and hold three to five times as much data as standard DVDs.

But a store check found little sales activity and plenty of confusion, even though both next-generation formats are now officially on the market.

A Wal-Mart store in Oceanside, Calif., had neither format, even though HD-DVD is now supposed to be in at least 500 of the mass merchant's stores. "I think we're supposed to get it in, but I don't think it's come out yet," said a clerk in the electronics department.

Pointing to a small rack of videocassettes at the end of the long DVD aisle, he added, "I guess it's going to come in when we get that VHS crap out. Wal-Mart isn't carrying VHS anymore, but we're still waiting for the vendor to take it back. We just cleared out our VHS aisle a few weeks ago, and what we've got left is sort of a space holder."

Meanwhile, at a Best Buy in Costa Mesa, Calif., a small selection of high-def software was on sale on one end of the DVD section, in a regular DVD rack. A handful of HD-DVD titles were displayed in the "special buys" section, right next to bundled DVD two-packs. One rack over, under a sign that read "Next Generation DVD," were the seven Sony Pictures Blu-ray titles: "The Fifth Element," "50 First Dates," "Hitch," "House of Flying Daggers," "The Terminator," "Underworld: Evolution" and "XXX."

On June 22, players from both camps were being demonstrated in the Magnolia Home Theater department. A clerk said he already had sold three of the four Samsung BD-P1000 players the store had received. The fourth was being used as a demo unit, and no further shipments were expected. "But we can order one, and it will be shipped directly to your home," he said. "Free shipping."

Benjamin Feingold, president of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and one of the Blu-ray Disc format's chief cheerleaders, acknowledged some retailers may have put out their players early, so their customers could have something on which to play their new Blu-ray software, "but that's between Samsung and the retailers."

Overall, though, Feingold said he's "very excited. It's the beginning of a new era, of high-definition packaged media. The reviews have been generally positive, and it's just the beginning. I expect the machines will sell quite well, as will the software, from a low base this summer and then building into the fourth quarter, when more manufacturers will have hardware in the market."

As the year progresses, Feingold said, Sony will release top theatricals on Blu-ray on the same day as the DVD, and promote the format with "a nice marketing budget, to create consumer awareness. That's similar to what we did in 1997, when we went day-and-date with DVD and new release titles drove awareness and, ultimately, the format."

Early adopters had mixed reviews for the Blu-ray format. Michael Olshansky, a 28-year-old technical analyst in Marietta, Ga., already owns an HD-DVD player but picked up the Samsung Blu-ray machine "out of curiosity," along with "The Fifth Element" and "Underworld Evolution."

"The picture quality on 'The Fifth Element' wasn't much better than my standard DVD," he said. "'Underworld' was very good, but not as eye-popping as some HD-DVD titles."

He said he's quite pleased with his HD-DVD player, but still undecided about Blu-ray. "I am evaluating my Blu-ray player, but based on my initial experience, I am most likely going to return it," Olshansky said. "I don't see enough value to justify spending $999 when HD-DVD is currently superior to Blu-ray and less expensive."

Robert Huebner, a 36-year-old video game developer from Marin County, Calif., bought his Samsung player several days before its official release.

"I'm glad I read the Internet sites to find out about the early 'release' from various retailers," he said. "I saw my local Circuit City had them available for pickup so somewhat on the spur of the moment I picked one up."

Like Olshansky, Huebner's two test titles were "The Fifth Element" and "Underworld: Evolution."

His verdict: "I find the titles I've viewed so far to be more than adequate as launch titles; noticeably better than normal DVDs and quite seamless in their presentation. Blu-ray, despite the delays, feels like a finished, polished product. For me the quality bar was to see something that looked better than cable HD broadcasts from HBO, Showtime, etc., and Blu-ray definitely delivered that."