Microsoft Xbox 360 HD DVD Drive 
Home Theater Video Players HD DVD Players
Written by Bryan Dailey   
Thursday, 01 February 2007

This past holiday season, as people lined up in droves to try to get their hands on a Blu-ray-equipped Sony Playstation 3 video gaming console, little attention was paid to the fact that Microsoft was rolling out their external HD DVD player drive for the already well-established Xbox 360 system. With a base price of $399 for the 20-gig Xbox 360 and $199 for the add-on external HD DVD drive, Microsoft was able to essentially match Sony stride-for-stride in the high-definition format war for just about the same price, as a 20-gig PS3 costs $499 and the 60-gig PS3 is priced at $599. Both systems’ HD disc players can be operated with the game pads, but Microsoft has chosen to include a full-featured infrared remote with their $199 HD DVD player. The Sony PS3 Blu-ray drive controller will set you back another $25. You get a little more hard drive space and a few more technological advancements with the PS3, but many gamers already have Xbox 360s in their systems, so they will only feel a $199 financial sting to make their Xbox 360 able to play high-def movies.

HD DVD has been out longer than Blu-ray, and the first Toshiba players, although buggy and slow to load or reboot, were introduced at a lower price point than the stand-alone Samsung, Panasonic and Sony Blu-ray players. Many first impressions by reviewers and consumers have the Sony Playstation 3 coming through as the best Blu-ray player so far. It loads the fastest, is the most stable, outputs 1080p via HDMI 1.3 and has the best picture of the available Blu-ray players. Other than the fact that it feels kind of silly to start and stop movies using a wireless video game controller, you get a hell of a lot of bang for your buck with the PS3, it is a killer video game system, and it’s literally half the price of some of the other Blu-ray players.

HD DVD was the early sales winner as they got their players and movies to market first, but this holiday season, hundreds of thousands of PS3s were sold, with the added value of blockbuster Blu-ray movie Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby (Columbia/TriStar). This was a smart move on Sony’s part, as it told the world, “Oh hey, by the way, not only does this thing play games, but it plays high-def movies in Blu-ray”. Not to be outdone, Microsoft teamed up with Peter Jackson and have bundled the 2006 special effects spectacular King Kong (Universal Studios Home Video) with their new HD DVD drive that attaches to the Xbox 360 for a limited time. This was probably a better choice than a comedy like Talladega Nights, because although you might argue that the remake of King Kong was a cheesy movie, it has some spectacular digital effects and cinematography that really make for a spectacular demo on HD DVD.

If you already own an Xbox 360 and an HDTV, this drive has the potential to be the single best and cheapest home theater add-on of the past decade. But will it be able to hang with the stand-alone HD DVD players and give the PS3’s Blu-ray player a run for its money?

First Impression
Microsoft saves it hippest packaging for its video game products. The solid green Windows XP box was pretty unsexy and, although they have stepped up their game with the Vista line, that will be out by the time this article publishes. Microsoft Xbox 360 products and packaging are a lot cooler. The drive comes in a shiny compact white cardboard box that wastes no space. The instruction manual, firmware update disc and the bonus King Kong HD DVD disc are housed in a nifty little pocket on the flap of the box, very much like the way an iPod's accessories and instruction manual are bundled.

Pulling the HD DVD drive out of its cool, static-free plastic bag, it had a nice amount of weight for an aftermarket drive. I have owned many videogame systems in the past that promised big things for aftermarket drives (anyone remember the CD-Rom drive for NEC Turbografix?) but this is the first accessory since perhaps the Intellivision speech module that I was genuinely looking forward to.

The drive is a perfect cosmetic match to the Xbox 360. It doesn’t have the space age, futuristic lines of the sleek black PS3, but the muted, off-white/gray Xbox 360’s looks have grown on me over the past several years and the HD DVD drive has the same concave sides and rounded edges that make it look perfect when laid on top of the side of the 360 unit. When standing vertically, there is a tray that holds discs in place, just like the PS2 and PS3 units. The disc drive door has a shiny chrome finish plastic and, although the disc tray is a little flimsy, it is on par with any decent aftermarket DVD-ROM drive that you would buy for a desktop computer.

I speculated back when the Xbox 360 was announced that it would have an HD DVD drive. Myself and home theater gaming enthusiasts around the world were disappointed it didn’t do HD DVD, but Microsoft was smart enough to plan ahead. A USB 2.0 port on the back of the Xbox 360 easily connects the drive. The back of the Xbox 360 has a single USB input, so putting the HD DVD drive into the loop gives users a second USB input. If you prefer to use wireless Internet, the USB adapter would normally plug into the back of the game system, making it impossible to install the Web cam, should you wish to use this as well. With the additional USB input, users now have more options for aftermarket gadgets. This is a nice little benefit that I wasn’t expecting.

In several locations in the box, warning messages are printed that remind you to run the included software disc before attaching the HD DVD drive. I would also highly recommend making sure your system has the latest firmware updates, available at Xbox Live if your system is connected to the Net.

Using the component outputs, the maximum resolution that you can output from the Xbox 360 is 1080i or 720p, despite the fact that there is a setting in the system for 1080p. 1080p video is available, but not in a digital format. According to the specs, the VGA output on the Xbox 360 can output 1080p video with an aftermarket cable. Assuming your TV can accept 1080p via VGA (mine cannot), you should be able to get a higher resolution out of this player. However, there are mixed reports about how well HDTVs with VGA inputs do with 1080p source material, as some TVs will not accept 1080p content without an HDMI connection due to HDCP. The VGA inputs on HDTVs are generally reserved for computers, so you can use your big screen TV as a monitor. Even if the Xbox 360 HD DVD drive does work on your big screen, because there is no HDMI or multi-channel analog outs on the Xbox 360, trying to get DTS HD or Dolby Digital Plus out of this box is not possible, but there is rumor that firmware updates and a reliable aftermarket audio connector are on the way. The optical digital output on the Xbox 360 carries standard DVD-level Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound, so you can at least enjoy these soundtracks in the meantime.

The Microsoft Interface
For those of you who are not familiar with the Xbox 360 system interface, called “the Dashboard,” it uses a system that looks like hanging file folders on pages the user scrolls through. Microsoft calls these “media blades.” There is a blade for system set-up, one for games, one for videos, one for Xbox Live (Microsoft’s online gaming community), the media center, etc. Without the HD DVD drive attached, putting in a videogame automatically causes the videogame to launch. Tapping the green circular Xbox button in the middle calls up the option to go to the Xbox Dashboard. Holding the button down gives the user the option to power the console off.

With the HD DVD installed, the Xbox 360 acts a little different. The disc drive on the Xbox 360 gets precedent over the HD DVD drive if there are discs in both drives and you boot it up cold. If a videogame or DVD is playing in the Xbox 360 and you open the HD DVD drive and put an HD DVD disc in (yes it will play DVDs, too), the disc or game that is playing on the Xbox console drive will not be interrupted. You simply go to the dashboard and pick the media blade for “games” and then move the cursor down to the area that shows the disc drive. You then move the directional arrow sideways and you see the text change from “play disc” to “play HD DVD disc.” Then, when you press the A button, it launches the disc that is in the HD DVD drive. If you don’t have a disc in either system, opening the HD DVD drive and placing a disc inside will cause it to automatically launch.

The Movies
Since there are currently no games that use the HD DVD feature, this is essentially, for the time being, a dedicated HD DVD/DVD movie player. There is much speculation over whether or not games can someday be played off of the drive. Talk among developers is they have plenty of space on the current Xbox 360 discs, but don’t be surprised if you do see HD DVD games in the future.

Although it ships with King Kong and it does look spectacular, the fact that I had never seen this HD DVD on other HD DVD players and also that I thought the movie itself was pretty terrible, I decided to demo with something that I was much more familiar with, the HD DVD release of Seabiscuit (Universal Studios Home Video). I had just watched Seabiscuit on the new Toshiba HD-XA2 in stunning 1080p, so this was going to be a tough act to follow. In order to get a better apples to apples comparison between the players, I switched the output of the Toshiba to 1080i with it connected to my set via HDMI and used two copies of the film on HD DVD, one that I own and one that I rented from Netflix, specifically for this review.

A wide panoramic shot of the beautiful hills behind Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, California is one of my favorite shots to use for looking at video detail. Playing the movies side by side on separate inputs on my set (both ISF calibrated), I was able to switch inputs on the TV and compare the exact same scenes in real time. As the horses load in the gates, it was apparent that the Toshiba was benefiting from the HDMI cable, as it was roughly 10 percent sharper than the Xbox component HD connection. The detail in the mountains in the opening shot before the Santa Anita Handicap race can be a mess in lower resolutions. Watching the standard DVD version on a bad up-scaling DVD player will result in jagged edges between the mountains and the blue skyline and dot-crawl will be evident in the waving flags at the track and the snow-capped hills.

I noticed immediately when doing my A/B comparison that, during this scene, the Toshiba was a tad more refined and the colors on the Microsoft drive seemed a little darker and oversaturated. After tweaking the brightness control on my JVC, D-ILA HDTV got the picture of the Microsoft so close to that of the $999 Toshiba that I often found myself forgetting which drive was being shown on the screen at any given time.

As the horses race around the track, the groomed lines in the dirt are a good test to see whether the player is responsible for any motion artifacts. There was a little more definition out of the Toshiba, but the Xbox held its own surprisingly well. I noticed a softer edge on the white railing around the track while viewing the film on the Microsoft Xbox HD DVD drive and, in some instances, this helped cut down on the stair-step effect that can often be seen in curved high-contrast objects.

Next up was Superman Returns (Warner Home Video) on HD DVD. Having this disc on all three formats (HD DVD, Blu-ray and DVD), I was able to do a direct apples to apples to apples comparison as well. The demo scene of all demo scenes on this movie is the space shuttle launch sequence. Lois Lane has won an award with her “Why the world doesn’t need Superman” piece that she wrote during the Man of Steel’s five-year hiatus from Earth, but she quickly learns why the world does need him. The press, Lois included, has been invited to be on the plane that was carrying the space shuttle into orbit but things go terribly wrong and of course Superman comes to the rescue.

As the plane loses control and is spiraling towards the ground, the DVD version got quickly dusted as the subtle details like the warping of the plane’s sheet metal and popping rivets are all but lost. On the Panasonic DMP-BD10 Blu-ray player, the picture was soft but still a huge improvement over the standard-definition version, as one might expect. The HD DVD release was the best of the bunch and, although it looked best on the Toshiba HD-XA2, the Microsoft HD DVD drive was a close second.

Just as the plane is about to land smack dab in the middle of a professional baseball stadium in the middle of a game (I know what you are thinking, “What are the odds,” right?), Superman, holding the front of the plane, slows it from terminal velocity to zero in a matter of seconds, causing a ripple effect throughout the hull of the plane, imploding the nose cone. As he gently sets the plane down in the middle of the field, the special effects artists had a field day with this scene, as the widescreen picture and incredible resolution of each fan in the stands and the dust being kicked up as the plane hits the infield is just jaw-dropping. My jaw dropped more with the Toshiba player, but I was pleasantly surprised how good it looked in analog HD on my Xbox 360.

Standard-Definition DVD
Just as I was disappointed in the standard DVD performance of the Sony PS3’s Blu-ray drive, the DVD performance of the Microsoft leaves something to be desired. I just watched the entire first season of the hit series 24 (20th Century Fox Home Video) and, besides the obvious buzz kill of seeing commercials for the sixth season in stunning 720p, then having to go back and watch the first season in 480p, the fact is that the picture on any DVD looks washed out and very one-dimensional on the Microsoft drive. To rule out my TV’s 1080p internal scaler or my Integra’s component to HDMI video transcoder as the culprit of this flat and uninspiring 480p picture, I plugged the Xbox into my 19-inch Dell HDTV in my kitchen and got similar results. The picture on 24 was disappointing, with Kiefer Southerland’s character, Jack Bauer, looking more like a pasty white guy in a pub in rainy Ireland than a counter-terrorist super-crime fighting agent.

In the final battle in marshal artist extraordinaire Jet Li’s Fearless (Universal), between Tanaka from Japan and China’s Huo Yuanjia with swords and three-piece nunchuks, the contrast and picture were markedly improved. However, there was just no comparison to even a $100 stand-alone DVD player or the player in my Apple iMac G5. Kung fu spectaculars like this used to be amazing demos on DVD until House of Flying Daggers came along on Blu-ray and made everything else look lifeless.

The Downside
Not having HDMI output capabilities is the most obvious omission. Other than the Samsung Blu-ray player, which had some firmware issues when it was first released, almost every player on the market benefits from a sharper, more artifact-free picture when hooked up via HDMI. By having no HDMI connectivity or analog outputs, the newest high-resolution audio formats cannot be enjoyed on the Microsoft drive. Things haven’t been fully sussed out with HDMI's audio capabilities, either, as many people have HDMI 1.1 and don’t have AV preamps or receivers that actually can decode the new HD audio formats. Just know going into buying this drive that you can’t fully realize the highest audio formats yet, but the DVD quality of sound on the discs is still pretty good.

The drive is a little plain-looking and doesn’t have the highest-quality drive tray, but it’s on par with just about any aftermarket DVD drive you will find on the market. The PS3 pulls in discs with very graceful, smooth action and outputs 1080p via HDMI, so it beats the Xbox HD DVD drive in many ways.

The Blu-ray player on the PS3 with HDMI 1.3 is almost good enough to call a reference quality player. The Microsoft HD DVD player isn’t. However, at its price point, it is a pretty good value when you consider the fact that it loads faster than any stand-alone HD DVD player on the market, comes with a nice remote and a $25 HD DVD disc. Add to that the fact that there is a real possibility that Microsoft might find a way to get digital 1080p HD output via HDMI, and I can make a strong argument why you might want to plunk down $199 for this drive. I currently wouldn’t consider the Microsoft Xbox 360 as a primary source component for your reference home theater, but if you have an Xbox 360 but don’t have an HD DVD player yet and want to see what the buzz about HD DVD is, this is an inexpensive and worthwhile way to get your feet wet.
Manufacturer Microsoft
Model Xbox 360 HD DVD Drive
Reviewer Bryan Dailey

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