Toshiba began selling the world's first HD-DVD player on Friday in Japan, moving the format battle between the world's largest consumer electronics makers from the floors of trade shows to retail stores.

HD-DVD is backed by Toshiba, the DVD Forum and companies including Microsoft and Intel, and is vying for supremacy with Blu-ray Disc, which is backed by Sony, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co (Panasonic), Samsung Electronics Co, and others, in the race to replace DVD for high-definition content.

Toshiba's first player, the HD-XA1, is one of two models first shown at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. It's scheduled to go on sale in the US in April along with another player, but the Japan launch on Friday marks the first time a dedicated player for either format has reached the market.

The player was originally due out late last year, but delays in completing a content protection specification meant Toshiba had to push the launch back a few months. The player goes on sale just over a month after a preliminary version of the specification, called the Advanced Access Content System (AACS), was completed.

The late finalisation of AACS affected content providers as well as hardware makers like Toshiba. The first video content for HD-DVD isn't due on sale in Japan until April 7.

Toshiba will make around 2,000 of the players per month at first, but expects total worldwide sales in the next year of 600,000 to 700,000 units, said Yoshihide Fujii, head of Toshiba's consumer electronics unit, at a news conference in Tokyo.

Early buyers of HD-DVD and Blu-ray products face the risk that their chosen format might eventually be pushed to the sidelines. There is at least one incentive to purchase now, however: the HD-XA1 has no region coding for the HD-DVD content, meaning it can play HD-DVD discs purchased anywhere in the world. A decision on region codes isn't expected to be made for several months.