After spending a lot of time with high-definition video and some PC video cards, I can't help shake the feeling that we're almost there, but not quite.
There is naturally going to be a transitional period between DVD and HD DVD/Blu-ray, and this is it. We're just starting to see the new drives come out on the market, and you can't even buy an HD DVD player for less than $200. Compare this with DVD read/write drives which you can buy for about $30 nowadays.
For this high price, you can play an HD DVD disk on your PC through an analog connection. If you have a newer HDCP monitor AND an HDCP video card, you'll be able to use a digital connection. Of course, even after all that, your CPU utilization will be quite high unless you have Windows Vista and a brand new Geforce 8600/8700. And no matter what you do, your PC won't yet be able to match the image quality offered by HD video processors that are much more successful with the HQV HD video benchmark...
The good news is that technology moves fast on the PC. For example, I tried to start this review months ago, and frankly I couldn't get basic playback to work in some cases over an analog connection. Fast forward to today and we have working software and hardware and HD video playback on the PC with relatively little fuss. Sure, it doesn't have the frills yet, but it'll do the job, and you just KNOW that Nvidia and ATI are going to get their acts together in short order. We've seen it happen with the HQV DVD benchmark, and we'll see it happen in the high-definition video realm.
My conclusion? That's a tough one, but here are some recommendations: If you have a low-end Windows Vista PC and want to get into HD DVD/Blu-ray playback, the Geforce 8500 and 8600 look ideal for you. If you have a high-end system, you probably also have a high end video card and CPU, and HD video playback will also work pretty well.
However, If you have an older system with Windows XP, you'd be advised to hold off investing in a video card like the 8500/8600 until the drivers are ready for XP.
Also, if you're an audiophile who plans on hooking your PC into a high-end digital home theater via HDMI, remember the HD 2900 XT's built-in audio processor that allows for full-resolution HD audio through the HDMI digital output.
Finally, keep in mind that ATI's next-generation midrange cards are on the way, which are also supposed to take almost all the load off of the CPU during HD video playback like the Geforce 8500/8600 cards do.
I'm really looking forward to the next year as these issues get ironed out and the technology matures. If I had to put money on it, I'd bet it's going to ramp up quickly. And it'll be nice when the HD DVD/Blu-ray hybrid drives arrive, too.