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Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 July 2006
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Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player
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Cracking open the box of my first HD DVD player, I can’t help but think back to the days of the VHS vs. Betamax and DVD-Audio vs. SACD format wars. With the pending release of Blu-ray, the competing high-definition disc format, many consumers are taking a “wait and see” attitude about which one will be the champion of the high-resolution disc. Blu-ray players are going to be in the $1,000 to $1,500 range. However Toshiba is the first to market with their HD-A1 and HD-XA1 players, $499 and $799, respectively.

Those thirsty for more HD content have braved the format war controversy and picked up these Toshiba units, which were virtually impossible to find in their first few weeks of release. However, this was partially due to a small inventory rollout from Toshiba. The company tentatively dipped their feet in the water with this player and the initial reports from consumers, staffers and custom installers have been mixed.

From a design standpoint, the HD-A1 is very unassuming. It features a muted gray and black finish with perfectly square lines and weighs in at 7.5 kg. On the front left side is the large brushed silver “on/standby” button. When the player is on, a small green light above the button glows. When the player is off, an almost too bright red light shines like a stop light. This lets you find it in the dark, but if you are one of those people who like to have a very dark bedroom, you might consider putting some black tape over this Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer beacon in the night.
Just to the right of the power button is a small fold-down door. Popping this door open unveils two USB extension ports. The instruction manual says that these ports are for USB game controllers and for additional features in the future. As of this review, there are no devices available for this unit, and you can bet that the movie studios aren’t interested in making a device that allows one to rip copies of these discs to a hard drive, so most likely these would be used for connecting a computer or for playing HD DVD-based videogames, although not with the same level of sophistication as dedicated gaming machines like the Xbox 360 or the soon to be released Blu-ray-based Playstation 3.

Up next, as we move from left to right across the front of the player, is the fold-down door for loading and unloading HD DVD, DVD and CD discs. Nothing fancy here, as this plastic door has a HD DVD logo in white on the front; the tray that slides out is also made of a consumer-grade plastic. As I have been using the slick Integra DPS-10.5, a fairly high-end up-scaling $2,500 DVD player, I found the action on the disc drawer of the HD-A1 a little sloppy, but even at $500, I keep having to reminding myself that this is the entry-level player. The disc drawer opens with the same noise you hear from a computer disc drive. There is a little play in the tray. I don’t feel there is any reason to believe the tray won’t hold up well over time, but it’s not built to the standards of good DVD players.

The most obvious difference between the HD-A1 and its more expensive counterpart is cosmetic. The more expensive HD-XA1 has a metal plate that runs the width of the player. The plate folds down and out of the way when you are loading discs. It seems like a cool feature but, as you will soon learn, anything that makes these players take longer to get from turning the player on to getting a picture on the screen is not a welcome thing.

Another feature the HD-A1 lacks that is possessed by its bigger brother, the HD-XA1, is the motion-sensitive remote. After using both units for quite some time, I found that the motion-sensitive remote in the HD-XA1 was too sensitive and would turn on even at the slightest movement. Although this makes it easy to find the correct button to push in the dark, I would often find that it can kill the mood when watching a film as you jostle around on the couch a little or your dog or cat jumps up next to you.

With the HD-A1, however, the SE-R0237 remote does not have any kind of backlight. So the problem with my dog jumping up on the couch and turning on the remove is averted. Even so, I have to get up and turn the lights on if I want to see the buttons in a dark room. I don’t use a DVD player remote the same way I use a TiVo remote, so this is not a huge issue to me. Both remotes have some serious flaws, but if I had to choose the lesser of two evils, I would say that I prefer the non-backlit remote to the one that lights up and annoyingly flashes too often.

Above the disc tray is a glass/lexan-covered display window that contains all of the LED lights that give information about the player. In the window, the player gives status indicators like the resolution that the player is outputting, from 480i/480p on up to 720p and 1080i. The player does not output 1080p, but there are few displays that can accept a true 1080p source. Timers that show the amount of time elapsed and the time remaining on a disc count down as the discs play and an indicator shows the video output format. The available options are HDMI, component video, composite and S-Video output. For this review, because I have an HDMI with HDCP-capable HDTV display, along with a receiver with HDMI switching, I ran the HDMI cable to from the player into my Integra receiver with the HDMI switching card, then into the TV. An HDMI cable is included with the unit, but if your monitor or switching system is equipped with DVI inputs, you will need an HDMI to DVI conversion cable or adapter. For my review, I used a Pure Link by Dtrovision 10-foot copper HDMI cable into one of the two inputs of my Integra DTR-10.5 receiver’s two-in x one-out HDMI switching card so I could have use of the HD DVD player and the HD-A1 and even toggle between them to compare the difference between HD movies via satellite on Dish Network vs. on HD DVD discs.

The rest of the features on the front of the player are basic disc controls, including skip backwards, skip forwards, pause, stop and play. Holding down the skip forward/backward buttons allows the disc to fast forward and pressing and then quickly releasing them make the disc skip forward or backwards to the next or previous chapter. The last button on the front right of the player is the large silver open/close control.

Set-up and Reboot
The first time the HD-A1 boots up, you might want to have a good book handy to read. The player winds up and then, after what seems like a solid 30 to 40 seconds, the hard drive starts writing. This was the first time the concept of “convergence” really hit me and it was more of a slap in the face. I know the receivers and players are becoming more computerized. TiVos are really purpose-built Linux-based computers. Media center PCs are like TiVos combined with a PC. These new Toshiba players are Windows-based computers. Unfortunately, with the incredible computing power of today’s personal computers, also come the inevitable crashes, lock-ups and slow boot times. On average, when changing discs, the time it takes for the machine to boot up and the player to do its HDMI-HDCP handshake is about 45 seconds. I was thinking of getting my exercise in by seeing how many push-ups I could do every time I change a disc.

Sliding down the hidden compartment on the long slender remote control unveils a series of numeric buttons, perfect for typing a chapter number or picking a TV channel manually if you have the remote set up to control your TV or cable box/satellite recover using the included remote codes.. The other buttons under this silver slide down panel are T.Search (an advanced search function), clear (clears out numbers you may have typed in) and the most important button on the remote, “set-up.” Pressing this button brings up a simple and very user-friendly set-up menu. A list of settings for Picture, Audio, Language, Ethernet and General Preferences then comes up. These menus are easy to navigate with the round silver cursor control button in the center of the remote and pushing the “okay” button selects your desired setting. In the picture menu, you can select the size/shape of your TV from one of three settings, 16:9, 4:3 and 4:3 letterbox. My JVC HD-ILA TV is a 16:9 set, so I left it on this, which is the default setting.

Some digital effects, including Enhanced Black Level and Picture modes, with options of Film, Video and Auto, are also available. I have almost always found that the less you have your player do to the signal, the better off you typically are, so I left the enhanced black level off and set the picture mode to Auto.

If you have a receiver or an AV preamp that supports audio on the HDMI cable, the Audio menu is where you can set up your player to output the audio signal with the picture. For my system, I ran the picture via HDMI, but I take a TosLink optical cable and run that into my Integra receiver, which is set up to automatically detect the input signal being fed to it. Users also have the option of running six RCA cables for multi-channel audio from the HD DVD player to the receiver or AV preamp.

Under the general preferences, one can set up the screen saver that will play when the machine is on but not in use, set the clock, change the onscreen play and a host of other options. The menus are basic enough that a beginner can find the correct things to look for and a more advanced user has some decent options for customizing the functionality of the machine. Pressing set-up again takes users back out of the menus and back to whatever disc is playing or to the screen saver if the player has been sitting idle for a while.

On the back of the player, a decent host of connection options are available, including video outputs for HDMI, component video, S-Video and composite video. Digital audio options include the HDMI output, if your system supports it, optical TosLink and coaxial digital (orange cable). Analog audio outputs include 5.1 surround sound outs like those on most SACD and DVD-Audio players, as well as a two-channel audio output that is perfect for running to a second TV, such as a nearby LCD that doesn’t have surround speakers. I do this to my kitchen’s TV, so if I want to watch a movie on the smaller 19-inch LDC HDTV in my kitchen, I change the HD DVD output to component video and turn up the TV and I have a folded-down stereo mix coming out of the player.

Rounding out the connections on the back is an Ethernet port, which can be confirmed to access special online contest from discs and for firmware upgrades. It also allows the player to keep its time based on a network time server. No more flashing 12:00, 12:00 like the old VCR days. A large vent with a cooling fan and a power cable receptacle are on the rear right side of the player.

What is missing from the HD-A1 vs. its more expensive counterpart, the HD-XA1, is an RS-232 control port for a custom installed control system, like a Crestron or AMX. The response time of the player when pressing the buttons on the remote is slow enough that if you are going to be using an HD DVD player in a custom theater, you’ll have to stop reading this review right now, as there is no way to control the HD-A1 via hardwire control. If you use an infrared remote, then this will not be an issue. Just be aware of this fundamental difference in the two players.

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