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Microsoft Xbox 360 HD DVD Drive Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 February 2007
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Microsoft Xbox 360 HD DVD Drive
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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.

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