We’ve been hearing about it for years now, and the waiting is officially behind us. HD DVD, one of the next generation of optical media disc, is finally available in stores. (As you no doubt know by now, a competing format, Blu-ray Disc, is expected to be launched by the time you read this, but as of this writing, HD DVD is the only game in town.) The new format promises true high-definition video and high-resolution, multichannel audio in a pre-packaged disc format that the consumer-electronics industry and movie studios hope will become as successful as DVD has been over the last nine years. (For more on the HD DVD format itself, see pages 66–71.)
The initial charge was led by the first players to be sold at retail: Toshiba’s HD-A1 ($499) and HDXA1 ($799). Accompanying them were four HD DVD titles: The Phantom of the Opera, The Last Samurai, and Million Dollar Baby from Warner and Serenity from Universal. More titles are sure to follow, but for now, these will have to do. Toshiba sent me an HD-XA1 for review shortly after it appeared in stores (and disappeared just as quickly as eager buyers snatched them up). They also sent a demo disc with lots of movie trailers, a DVD Forum demo, and a split-screen demo with HD on one side and simulated SD on the other.
Both models share mostly the same features. They’re actually special-purpose computers (as are most CE products these days); I read a confirmed report from Insight Media, a videoproduct research group, about a blogger who actually opened one up to find inside a 2.5GHz Pentium 4 CPU and 1GB of RAM. Both have the same complement of outputs—one HDMI, one component video, S-video and composite video, coax and optical digital audio, 5.1-channel and 2-channel analog audio, and an Ethernet port for connection to a broadband network. The XA1 also has an RS232 port for advanced control systems such as Crestron or AMX.
The lower half of the front panel is covered by a motorized drop-down door, which hides the disc drawer, transport controls, and two USB ports for things such as game controllers to use with interactive features that are likely to show up on some titles. Above the door is a central display that provides the usual information.
The XA1’s universal remote control is a slim, elegant design with easy-toread illumination on most buttons. The illumination activates when you push a button or move the remote, but motion activation is rather inconsistent— sometimes you have to shake it quite hard, while at other times, it seems to activate when you look at it askance. Also, it sometimes blinks on and off. Overall, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. The A1’s remote is not illuminated, but except for the lack of backlight and motorized-door buttons, it’s much the same in design and layout.
The only other features exclusive to the XA1 are a dual-chassis design and stabilizing feet. Are these (and the other items identified above) worth an extra $300? The motorized frontpanel door is cool, but not $300 cool. Perhaps the dual-chassis design and stabilizing feet make a performance difference; I don’t know. And if you use a Crestron or AMX control system, the RS232 port would certainly be welcome. Only you can determine if these niceties are worth it; I’d probably opt for the less-expensive HD-A1.
In addition to HD DVD discs, the A1 and XA1 can play DVDs and CDs, including most forms of recordable discs (not DVD+R or DVD+RW). The players also upconvert DVDs to 1080i or 720p at the HDMI output.
These first-generation players do not send 1080p from their HDMI output; instead, they send 1080i, 720p, or 480p. According to Toshiba, the decision not to provide 1080p was made because of the currently limited availability of TVs capable of accepting 1080p signals.
As far as audio is concerned, both Toshiba players use an Analog Devices SHARC DSP (digital signal processor) to convert all audio streams, no matter what format they’re in, to linear PCM. The PCM streams are mixed in the digital domain and sent as multichannel PCM to the HDMI output. This signal is also converted to analog for the multichannel analog output, and it is transcoded to standard DTS for the optical and coaxial digital-audio outputs. The 2-channel PCM downmix is converted to analog for the 2-channel analog output.
Neither Toshiba player supports multichannel Dolby TrueHD, though they do support the 2-channel version. I verified this on the XA1; when I tried to select the Dolby TrueHD audio track on The Phantom of the Opera, the player informed me it doesn’t support that multichannel codec, but it let me select it anyway, and I heard the front left and right channels.