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Old 01-06-2009   #7
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Default Re: Toshiba XD-E500 Blu-ray buster super-upconverter

With decades of experience in home entertainment technology, Toshiba continues to claim a spot in the AV limelight. Even after withdrawing from the hi-def player battle last year, it recently added a whole new level of energy to the perennial debate about picture quality with the introduction of XDE (eXtended Detail Enhancement) picture processing to standard definition DVD.

Its debut XD-E500 player shocked many by actually living up to the hype which preceded it. The evidence was onscreen for all to see. Toshiba’s engineers had indeed found a way to squeeze a pinch more clarity out of regular DVDs. The critics raved and sales have been good.

Some have purchased the player to enjoy a performance boost while sitting out the early days of Blu-ray and/or the credit crunch, yet more probably bought into the concept simply because it made their existing DVD collections look better.

The brand’s first XDE player (pictured above, click here to read our full-review) offers three user selectable XDE picture processing modes: ‘Sharp’ creates a greater sense clarity and detail, especially at the edges of objects; the ‘Colour’ mode enhances green and blue hues, to create a richer visual experience. You’ll particularly notice the added visual ‘pop’ this offers on movies with plenty of outdoor scenes. A final ‘Contrast’ mode is applied when you want to draw more detail out of dark scenes. The idea is you choose the mode best suited to the kind of software you’re about to play.

Despite some early scepticism, XDE processing has proved be elegant and beneficial, with few, if any, down sides. But what happens next?

To learn more of Toshiba’s plans for XDE – and its vision of home entertainment technology in general – Home Cinema Choice was invited to meet with its leading XDE architects in Toshiba’s Tokyo HQ...

From HD DVD to XDE
Chief specialist for Toshiba’s digital AV division, will be a familiar face to regular readers of HCC. He played a key role in perfecting HD DVD hardware, before moving onto the XDE project. I asked him to clarify what makes XDE different from rival picture processing technologies.

In a nutshell, he says, XDE is the most advanced form of edge enhancement available for standard definition video sources: ‘As a basic concept edge enhancement is perhaps not so new – there are many players which offer this already – but these versions are constant gain technologies. XDE is different.’

Uriu-san explains that while previous techniques from a variety of manufacturers have applied equal amounts of edge enhancement to an entire image, creating unwanted artefacts such as ringing and noise in the process, XDE is a variable process able to selectively enhance specific areas and elements in an image. ‘It works dynamically on the picture. It can apply low levels of enhancement when appropriate and this avoids the creation of unwanted noise. XDE is the first variable edge enhancement technology.’

Sinichi Mizuuchi, Toshiba’s group manager responsible for Digital AV product sales in Europe and Asia, says that his team have no shortage of ideas on how to exploit the technology. He told me that future products may well include DVD recorders and network-capable DVD players.

‘We have ideas as to where we want to take XDE. Our core product will remain a DVD player, but what we are thinking is adding a level of network functionality. We believe our technology can be used to improve the image quality of network sources such as YouTube.’
The challenge, he says, is how to distinguish and isolate noise in low-bitrate images, and thereby avoid enhancing it.

However, don’t expect a network-capable XDE DVD player to appear in your high-street AV store just yet. The next product will actually be a cheaper revision of the first-generation XDE-500.

‘I can tell you that the next model we introduce will be priced lower than the current XDE-500,’ says Mizuuchi-san. ‘This has to be done because the cost of Blu-ray players is coming down. We have the reduce the price of our product – so we think the next model will look more like a regular DVD player in terms of chassis design and finish.’

So will the price be the only significant difference?

‘Yes, the E500’s successor will be at a lower price which will enable us increase volume. But at the same time, we are planning future innovations. In addition to our network plans, we are also considering a DVD recorder using XDE technology. XDE also has a role to play for those making home movies using normal camcorders. We have a lot of ideas about how these algorithms can be applied. XDE can be applied to any file format: MPEG2, h.264 – it doesn’t matter.’

Build quality issues
I put it to Toshiba that one of the few criticisms voiced about the XDE-500 actually relates to its build-quality. While the performance is premium, the player construction looks, well, a little cheap…

Mizuuchi takes my comment in good spirit: ‘Actually, that’s a good point. Obviously we have to think about the cost of the product. But we have confidence in this technology. It can take standard definition and make it closer to BD - but the cost of the player has to be much lower than Blu-ray.’

The Toshiba executive confides that some of the brand’s European operations – Germany, UK and France – have expressed views on the exterior design of the XD-E500 and this has led Toshiba’s design team to think about the image of the next machine.

‘You may think the E500 looks like a budget machine,’ says Mizuuchi-san. ‘But from our factory’s point of view, even this model is more expensive than a normal player. The acrylic panel on the front and the height of the player all add to the cost. Our sales are doing very well both on the high-street as well as online. The benefits of XDE are understood by early adopters, but it remains a challenge to convert mainstream buyers. The big decision we have had to make is do we try and produce a high-end player that maybe will not sell so well or do we go for volume. The price of Blu-ray players in the UK and Europe have now fallen to about the level of the XD-E500. So we have to drop the price of the next model.’

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