|Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player|
|Home Theater Video Players HD DVD Players|
|Written by Bryan Dailey|
|Saturday, 01 July 2006|
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As Tom Petty said, “The waiting is the hardest part.” Not only does the player take a while to boot up, but any time you want to make a change to your video output resolution or call up an onscreen menu, such as the HD DVD player’s info or the receiver set-up menu, the HDMI connection gets really moody. The movie studios want to make sure people don’t break the all-digital connection and insert something into the loop, so when this connection is interfered with, the player gives the infamous HDMI error message that makes us early adopters cringe.
Even Toshiba fully discloses that “HDMI is an evolving technology, so it is possible that some devices may not operate properly with this player.” Well, I’m here to tell you first-hand that it currently sucks. My Integra receiver has an HDMI 1.1 switching card in it that worked flawlessly with my Satellite receiver and Integra DVD player with HDMI output. With the HD DVD player in the loop, 50 percent of the time, the display does not get the correct “handshake” from the player and the movie will start playing the sound but the picture will be missing. Once I have rebooted the player, it then works fine. To see if it was the receiver and not the player to blame, I tested the player going straight into the TV. The results were slightly better, as there was one less component requiring the HDCP “handshake,” but there were still a great number of times that I had to power off and on the machine. Frustrating, to say the least. AVRev.com home video reviewer Darren Gross has the same player going analog out into a CRT HDTV and experiences fewer delays because he doesn’t need to make a handshake, but as soon as the studios start putting down-resolution code on the discs, Gross will be relegated to either 480p (which is not anything close to HD) or stuck buying a new HDTV with an HDMI input. And he isn’t alone. Reportedly, there are over 7,000,000 HDTV sets with no HDCP-compliant input.
Having to reboot up the player and needing press the “V Output” four times before the HDMI signal would pass through to my display was a major drag. The response time when pushing buttons on the remote is reminiscent of the turtle running around the track I mentioned earlier. When changing the video resolutions, a menu pops up that says, “Resolution key was pressed. Playback will start from the beginning so that the resolution can be changed. Press OK button.” Then the disc goes back to the beginning and you have to go through the whole song and dance to get back to where you were. This is not an effective way to determine whether your TV and system is better at displaying the 1080i signal or the 720p. It takes a trained eye to recall the differences, as the amount of time elapsed when performing this task is quite substantial. If there was a way to allow one to change resolutions on the fly using the HDMI connection, it would be much easier for the non-video calibrators of the world to compare the different resolutions. The differences between 480i/p are absolutely night and day. However, on my set, which automatically down-resolves 1080i to 720p, I found the best picture came from telling the player to output 720p.
When changing the resolution and starting the player back up from the beginning menu of a disc, several times the player’s audio output decided to stop working. Unplugging the unit from my APS battery backup system for a hard reboot fixed the problem, but it’s just another indication of how the early adopter road can be a bumpy one. Stuff just happens to the HD-A1 that is inexplicable. Nine times out of 10, turning it off, unplugging it for a few minutes, then turning it back on seems to solve the problem, but does it ever get old, fast.
I wish I could rave about every HD DVD disc I have seen, but I can’t. The picture quality of the player is absolutely source-dependent. More modern film such as “The Last Samurai,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Million Dollar Baby” are spectacular, bright and vibrant. Older films like “Full Metal Jacket,” “Goodfellas” and “Apollo 13” are a little soft and light and have poor colors. The best-looking standard DVDs, such as the newer “Star Wars” films, looked almost as good as the worst HD DVDs. Whoever picked the titles to launch the format should be fired. The lack of titles is one issue, but not putting the absolute best-looking titles out to lure people is simply making the wrong statement about why consumers should purchase a clunky new player that seems to add as much frustration to your life as it does increase the video performance of your HDTV.
The hard reality is that there is still a major void in the world of HD content. Even with Dish Network, one of the largest sources of HD content, on any given day, the odds of finding something truly compelling on HD are tough. Sure, I can record stuff on my DVR, but then I’m watching playback of a very compressed video signal and I only have about 20 hours of storage space for HD content, so keeping any kind of real library of HD movies is not really feasible on a PVR. There is no question the video on this HD DVD player is better and less compressed than what you will see from your cable or satellite. In fact, it is much better.
Blu-ray players are rumored to have much faster boot-up times (15 seconds, compared to about 45 seconds on the Toshiba HD-A1), but they are also carrying a much heftier price tag out of the gate, with some players costing three times the amount of the $499 Toshiba HD-A1. Even at $499, Toshiba knows they will have to drop the price of their player to sub-$100 levels to land the market penetration that standard DVD currently enjoys. For now, it seems like they are happy to try to just work the bugs out.
It would be easy for me to tell you that this player is a $500 paperweight, but it does have its upsides. Once you get through the initial start-up, get used to waiting nearly a minute for your discs to start playing and can tolerate the HDMI errors should you run the player digitally, the pot of gold at the end of this crappy brown rainbow is a pretty damn spectacular picture when viewing well-mastered HD discs. I have to say I actually give the less expensive of the players an edge in a head to head battle, because of the faster disc door opening times, the non-motion sensitive remote and the fact that there are going to be much better HD DVD players someday and you wont feel quite so burned when you decide to upgrade. Sure, $500 is a nice chunk of change, but the extra $300 you didn’t spend on a first-generation player can be put towards your first Blu-ray player, should you decide to support both formats, or towards your second-generation HD DVD player that we hope puts out 1080p. Of course, this is after you have bought your TV that accepts a true, native 1080p signal.
The bottom line: this is a player full of bugs, but when it’s working right, it’s an adequate DVD player/CD transport and the HD discs that you can play on it look much better than standard DVDs. It doesn’t output 1080p, even though the discs are mastered in 1080p. Perhaps there will someday be a firmware upgrade that speeds up the boot time and allows the player to output 1080p, but my guess is those benefits will come in the form of a second- or third-generation player. The problem is that, by failing with the first player on so many levels, there may not be a chance for these to catch on. After seeing how good HD DVD can be, however, I know that down the road, one if not both of the hi-res disc formats have to survive. Too many HDTVs are selling each month for it not to happen. Just know you’ll need some patience if you want to be the first on your block to rock the Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD player in your system.