Reviewer: Nathan Taylor
When it comes to next-generation disc formats, we’ve had years of angst, hype, misinformation and general bad blood between the two competing formats. Blu-ray and HD DVD backers each spouted the alleged benefits of their respective formats, in spite of the fact that the formats, from a user perspective, were very similar. They looked the same, played similar types of media (at the same resolutions, up to 1080p) and generally had all the same features. The only problem was that they were incompatible.
In the US, players and media for both formats have been available for some time, and the general consensus is that, in terms of video quality, it’s a wash. In, Australia, however, we’ve seen little of either format. Now, we have the first of the HD DVD products intended for the living room to hit the market here, the Toshiba HD-E1 HD DVD player.
Were it not for the fact it can play HD DVD discs (along with regular DVDs and CDs), the Toshiba HD-E1 HD DVD player would not be a notable device. It comes with standard component, composite and digital audio outputs and no other major frills, aside from the Ethernet and HDMI connections. The latter allows you to connect to screens that support HDMI (including most recent model HD-capable projectors, LCD and plasma screens), which provides the best possible picture quality – though unfortunately the Toshiba unit does not come with an HDMI cable.
The Toshiba can also upscale standard definition discs (ie. DVDs) via HDMI to play on 1080i HD sets, although there’s no increase in picture quality, just improved screen compatibility. Note the output here: 1080i. Video on HD DVD is at the higher 1080p standard, so the HD-E1 will not deliver the absolute best from discs. (Its big brother, the $1,599 HD-EX1, will output video at 1080p, and should be available by the time this issue hits the newsstands). The HE-EX1’s 1080i credentials, however, perfectly match the resolution of today’s most affordable high definition panels and projectors, including those already installed in Aussie homes.
The Ethernet connection, which you plug into your broadband router, allows the drive to connect to the Internet to retrieve firmware updates and to get live disc extras. HD-DVD discs can have an interactive component that goes into the Internet to download the latest video clips, updates and previews, which can be downloaded to and played on the player. It’s by no means essential, and neither of the HD DVD discs we watched on the HD-E1 (The Last Samurai and Apollo 13) included such features.
So what can you expect from the new video format?
Without attempting to sound trite, the HD DVD experience is pretty much the same as DVD, but in high definition – typically 1080p (although 1080i and 720p are also possible). The controls are the pretty much the same, the discs looks the same, and from what we’ve seen have a similar array of extras and components as their DVD counterparts. There are a few neat little touches, like the ability to see the disc menu without having to stop the film, optional overlay and insert content (so you have several different versions of the movie on the same disc) or the aforementioned capacity to connect to the internet to download extras and interactive material.
So now we know what HD DVD can do – but does the Toshiba execute well? We’re pleased to say that it does. During the playback of our test discs, the picture quality and definition was excellent, with nary a stutter to be seen and very little aliasing on either HD DVD or DVD discs. It’s clear that the Toshiba has the processing oomph to play whatever the disc might throw at it, and an image processor that’s capable of outputting smooth, well-defined images without artefacts. It was also dead-easy to set up (just plug the cables into the right ports and you’re away), easy to use and comes with a comfortable remote.
If you’re wondering whether HD is actually of interest to you, we recommend visiting your local TV retailer for a taste, who will often have a HD-capable set connected to a HD digital TV set-top box for demonstration purposes. We’re certainly fans of HD.
Hooked up to a large, high definition screen like our test screen, a 94 cm (37 inch) Toshiba Regza LCD TV, the picture scales very well, maintaining incredible detail even on the most massive of screens. More importantly, HD helps you engage with the whole of a scene. With DVD, you tend to focus on just the foreground characters, because the rest of the scene tends to be too undefined. HD helps you see the full beauty of a scene, from the details on the characters faces to the complete grain and texture of the background.
That said, on some prints HD may be a curse: in Apollo 13, for example, the resolution of the HD DVD tended to highlight the graininess of the original film. It still looked better than DVD, but was far from flawless. Newer movies will have fewer such issues.
Ultimately, one’s interest in a HD DVD player will be directly proportional to the virtue one sees in high definition.
All other things being equal, one would of course choose HD over DVD – and eventually, we’ll all no doubt have a HD player of some stripe. For the moment, however, all other things are not equal. The Toshiba player retails for a hefty $1099, although this is still cheaper than the Blu-ray options, and the movie discs are considerably more expensive than DVDs (new releases are selling for $45 and more, which is on par with Blu-ray).
For the moment, you might just want to leave HD DVD for a while. It’s not a poor player, by any means – it’s actually very good – but recent announcements in the US, such as the new LG BH100, which can play both HD DVD and Blu-ray discs natively, would indicate that the time to buy either format may not be nigh. Hybrids are coming, and it might just be worth waiting for the high def market to mature.