|Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD Player|
|Home Theater Video Players HD DVD Players|
|Written by Bryan Dailey|
|Tuesday, 01 May 2007|
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The HD DVD format has been out for just over a year now, and Toshiba is now on to the second generation of their high-def disc players. HD DVD was first to the market, beating Blu-ray by a few months. Despite a big shot in the arm from Sony’s Playstation 3 and Microsoft’s $179 Xbox 360 add-on HD DVD player, high-def discs have yet to explode the way that DVD did when that format was first launched. The initial reaction of most consumers was that the players were slow and clunky; many of the discs looked good, but some of the transfers were grainy and many felt that the picture quality of HD DVD was a tad sharper than Blu-ray. Hardware and firmware improvements in the first-generation Blu-ray players, such as the Samsung BDP-1000, have closed the gap that existed between the picture quality lead that HD DVD held over Blu-ray. Now, very well-trained video experts would be hard-pressed to see the difference between these two formats on two well-set-up, similar video systems. The reality is that both formats are fantastic and, if you are going to pick one, you need to look at the available hardware and software that are available and see which one is right for your system.
I have been able to audition the first two HD DVD players from Toshiba, the HD-A1 and HD-XA1. They both had their fair share of flaws from slow loading times to connectivity issues and picture dropouts when using them through HDMI switchers, so I was chomping at the bit to see what Toshiba had done with their second generation of HD DVD players. The current leader of the pack in the world of HD DVD is the $799 Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD player. This is the first 1080p-capable HD DVD player on the market, whereas from day one every commercially available Blu-ray player, from the first generation Blu-ray Samsung to the current Sony and Panasonic models, have always featured 1080p output. However, as of this review, the Sony Playstation is the only Blu-ray player that features HDMI 1.3. Toshiba waited for the HDMI 1.3 spec before releasing their 1080p-capable player. Consumers won’t be able to utilize many of the benefits of the HDMI 1.3 standard until they marry the player with an HDMI 1.3 display. However, I will talk about some of the future benefits below.
The Toshiba HD-XA2 has a pretty impressive list of features. The most notable features are the Silicon Optix Reon HQV video processor, a 12-bit 297 MHz video dac with 4x oversampling and HDMI 1.3 output featuring Deep Color™. The player can output HD video at 720p, 1080i and 1080p. It is also able to upconvert standard-def DVDs to 480p, 720p, 1080i and 1080p.
Cosmetically, there are several things I like better about the HD-XA2 than its predecessors. The HD-XA2 is solid black and, at first glance, looks like a run-of-the-mill DVD player with a fairly nondescript front panel. Upon further inspection, you will note some classy design features like a brushed aluminum top that has the HD DVD logo etched in it. The previous top-of-the-line HD-XA1 was very boxy, noticeably larger and had a front door that would automatically fold down before the disc tray would open up. This was a nice concept, but after several month of use, the front door on the HD-XA1 would not fully retract into place and sags about a quarter-inch from where it should sit. This won’t be an issue with the much simpler disc drive mechanism of the HD-XA2.
The biggest knock on high-def players so far is the speed, or lack thereof, of the players to boot up and start playing a disc. Other than the Sony Playstation 3’s 1080p Blu-ray player and the Xbox 360’s 1080i/720p HD DVD player, there aren’t any high-def players that anyone would call “speedy.” They keep getting faster and, as more firmware updates are released, the players seem to improve, but we were starting at nearly two minutes from powering up to the time a disc would play on the screen with the original HD-A1 from Toshiba. Out of the box, the HD-XA2 had a disc up and playing in about 50 seconds from a cold boot (remember, HD DVD players are basically computers dressed up like AV components). After the first firmware update, the time was improved by about five seconds. It’s better than generation one players for sure and this is mostly due to the fact that the loading of the discs on the HD-XA2 is handled mainly by internal hardware rather than a software-based system. However, there is still a long enough delay that when showing friends or family how great my system looks, they sit and stare at the blank screen and say, “Why is it taking so long?” I then explain how these discs have a lot more data than a regular DVD and the technology is still new but is improving. I have seen this evolution from the start and it feels much quicker to me, but compared to regular DVD players that most people are used to, I would have to say that this is still a pretty slow player.
The remote that comes with the player is almost identical to the first-generation Toshiba machine, except that it is black instead of silver. It is a long slender remote that is laid out fairly well, but the fact that all of the buttons are the same silver color and the text printed on the plastic faceplate below each button is pretty small can make it a little tough to find exactly what you are seeking. A panel at the bottom slides down to reveal an array of less-often-used buttons. It’s a nice-looking remote and has a backlight on it, so as far as an overall rating, compared to the remotes of the Panasonic and Samsung Blu-ray players, this is the best of the bunch. However, that isn’t saying much. Thankfully, gone is the “motion-sensitive” backlit remote of the HD-XA1 which would turn itself on any time you moved the remote, even if it’s just your dog or cat jumping up on the couch. There is a backlight on this remote, but it’s a little tricky figuring out how to turn it on. You must hold down the button for several seconds to activate it.
One of the biggest gripes about the first-generation HD DVD players from Toshiba was the fact that an HDCP-encrypted HDMI connection could not be interrupted by switching mid-movie to another input, then back to the player. Doing so would require you to start the movie back over from the beginning. Unfortunately, the same annoying malady still exists on this new player. The same goes for switching resolutions mid-movie. If you are watching an HD DVD disc using the HDMI output and decide you want to compare the 720p version to the 1080p version, pressing the resolution button to cycle through and change resolutions will result in the movie stopping and starting over from the beginning. Also, if you switch over to a satellite or cable channel to check in on the news or a sports score while watching an HD DVD disc via the HDMI output, the player will automatically start back at the beginning of the disc when you switch back to the HD DVD movie. I have auditioned several Blu-ray players and their HDMI outputs do not require this constant connection between the player and the display. This leads me to believe that the HDCP copy protection is enabled by default on the Toshiba HD DVD players and it is not on the Blu-ray players from Panasonic, Samsung and Sony that I have used. I understand why the Toshiba does what it does, as the Hollywood studios do not want someone to be able to insert an outboard device inline with the signal once the original HDCP handshake has been established. To make sure the digital signal path is not compromised, every few seconds the display and the HD DVD player “talk” to each other and make sure nothing is different. If you don’t want to deal with this issue when switching the player in an RS-232-controlled system, then you’ll find yourself most likely using the component video outputs until Toshiba can come up with a firmware update that allows the player to maintain its HDMI lock while you temporarily view another source.
What is “Deep Color”?
The “Deep Color” feature that Toshiba touts on their list of features is a new benefit of the HDMI 1.3 standard that should start showing up in HDTVs some time in mid-2007. According to the HDMI website, Deep Color™ expands the number of available colors from millions to billions, eliminating contouring. Contouring is the term for the noticeable lines that you see on a display when a color transitions from dark to light. If you are viewing the image of a sunset on an HDTV, for example, the orange glow of the sun transitions from bright orange at the center of the screen to dark orange at the corners of the screen. Most displays will not have enough colors to fully render these color transitions seamlessly. The result will be noticeable steps between the ranges of colors from bright orange to dark orange. The theory behind the benefits of Deep Color™ and the new IEC 61966-2-4 color standard, commonly called xvYCC, is that Deep Color™ increases the number of available colors within the boundaries defined by the RGB or YCbCr color space. xvYCC differs in that it expands the available range (limits) to allow the display of colors that meet and exceed what human eyes can recognize.