Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player

It's here, but only just. On April 18th Toshiba launched the HD DVD format with the release of the $499 HD-A1 player. On the same day Warner released The Last Samurai and The Phantom of the Opera on HD DVD, and those two titles were joined by Universal's Serenity. Warner's Million Dollar Baby, also scheduled for the launch, was delayed initially but is in stores now. These were joined on April 25th by additional titles, including what is the easily best film released on the format so far, Apollo 13.

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Most of the reported 10,000-15,000 HD DVD players shipped to dealers apparently went to Best Buy, and if that retailer is representative, only 2-3 players were allotted to each store, along with a handful discs. The players were gone within a day—some dealers had put them up for sale on the 17th.

In a piece of questionable if not misleading promotion, Toshiba prominently displayed King Kong in its print and online ads for the HD DVD format. While everyone expects to see that Universal film on HD DVD eventually, a high-definition release of that DVD has not, to the best of my knowledge, been formally announced.

The limited release of players had the unfortunate side effect of delaying release of the players to many review publications, including ours. As this report goes to deadline we have just received a sample of the upscale HD-XA1 player ($799), and will post a full review of that model in May. In the meantime, I managed to get my hands on an HD-A1, along with several HD DVD titles, for this First Look.

The Bad, and the Ugly
I'll start off with the bad (and the ugly) first. But before I do, let me lead on a positive note: in its most important duty—providing pristine high-definition images and sound—the HD-A1 has hit a home run, if the very limited available software I've seen is any indication. For that alone, it's the most important product release of early 2006.

The HD-A1 may be set up for 1080i, 720p, or 480p in HDMI, plus 480i in component (there are some limitations to the component settings with standard definition DVDs, however—more on that a bit further on).

While the HD DVD releases to date have been mastered and engraved on the discs in 1080p, the player does not output that resolution. Since the high-end displays available to me at the present time are not 1080p, I could not test the player's 1080i output into a 1080p display. Nevertheless, with the SIM2 C3X three-chip DLP and Yamaha DPX-1300 on hand (both 1280x720) to serve my 78-inch (wide) screen, and the Pioneer Elite Pro-1130HD 50" plasma (1280x768) as a smaller screen reference, there was no shortage of good displays on hand for judging the image quality of the player and discs.

So I rustled up an HDMI cable, set the player up for 720p—an instinctive first step, given the native resolution of my reference displays—and settled in for some sweet high-definition goodies.

Yuck. That was my first reaction. The Last Samurai was spinning in the player, but even before I got to the movie, the Warner HD DVD promotional trailer that opens the disc looked very soft. Then when I got to the movie, all I could think of was that it looked no better than DVD. Soft as a grape. In fact, a subsequent comparison convinced me that it actually looked worse than the DVD of the same film upconverted by the Toshiba (the HD-A1 has proven to be a very good upsampling DVD player.) If this was HD DVD, then something was very, very wrong.

As it turns out, that something is the quality of the player's scaling from 1080p (the source material on the first discs released) to 720p. When I switched the player's setting to 1080i everything changed. Now I was clearly seeing a high-definition image. More to the point, a high definition image at least as good as the best I've yet seen in my home theater, and perhaps better. Lesson learned.

I understand from Toshiba that in converting the 1080p to 720p both of the players first convert the 1080p down to 480p and then back up to 720p. In short, the player converts down before it converts back up—meaning in this case that the resulting 720p output is no longer high-definition since it's been reduced to standard definition by the conversion to 480p.

A Toshiba rep, questioned about this, suggested the player will work best if the resolution is set to the native resolution on the specific HD DVD you are playing. That is, 1080i for material encoded in 1080i or 1080p and 720p if the disc was mastered at 720p (none are, yet, but it's possible that ABC's 720p HD shows such as Lost might be in the future.) And in fact, by the time we'd received our HD-XA1 for review it included an owner's manual addendum admonishing purchasers of that player to always use the output resolution matching the native rate of the source. (It would be helpful if there was a selectable Auto mode to trigger the player do this automatically, but there is not).

Upconverted DVDs, however, look just fine in either 720p or 1080i. The restriction to a 1080i output for HD DVDs will leave you captive to the scaling and conversion of your 720p display. If you're satisfied with the performance of your 720p television or projector on 1080i high-definition material from current sources (such as satellite or cable fed directly into the set in 1080i form without external conversion to 720p), the HD-A1's HD video quality will not disappoint you.

Nothing, however, can save the player's remote control—the worst I've seen on any DVD player short of the very cheapest. It's pretty, and obviously some effort and expense went into its design and tooling. But it was obviously designed for backlighting, but doesn't include it. The remote for the more upscale Toshiba HD-XA1 player apparently uses the same remote but with vibration-triggered backlighting (pick it up and it automatically comes on.) But without backlighting of any kind, this remote is abysmal. Most of the controls are lettered in small gray type on a black background—nearly impossible to see in anything but the brightest lighting. And the Stop control is too close to the several other frequently used controls, including Play and Chapter Skip (forward). Why is this a problem? Because with normal DVDs on most players (and the HD-A1 as well) if you push Stop once you can resume play at the same point on the disc by simply pushing Play. But not with HD DVDs on this player. Push Stop and the only way you can restart an HD DVD is from the beginning!

The player is also snail-like in its responses, particularly when you first load a disc. It seems to take forever. Even after its power-up start, it took over 50 seconds from the time I pushed Play until any picture and sound appeared—with either HD-DVDs or standard DVDs. Compared to the fast reactions of even the cheapest recent generation DVD players, this aspect of the HD-A1's performance definitely takes some getting used to (CDs, thankfully, loaded within 15 seconds.) And don't push another command button after you've loaded a disc until the disc actually starts playing. The player won't respond—or even becomes confused—when its processing sequence is interrupted. That means if you put in the wrong disc, or change your mind, you now have nearly a two minute wait—one minute to wait for the first disc to load and then eject, and another minute to load the second disc.

The player will not output both HDMI and component at the same time. A video output control (VOutput) on the remote switches between them. But when you switch these outputs on the fly with an HD DVD playing, the player stops and then starts up again from the beginning.

The same start-over drill applies if you change output resolutions with an HD DVD playing. To start the process you push the Resolution button on the remote. Each push of the button switches the resolution by one step, from 480i to 480p to 720p to 1080i in that order (though there is no 480i selection with HDMI.) The player stops, and an on-screen message tells you to push the OK button on the remote. The disc then starts playing again—from the beginning. Furthermore, when you push the resolution button with an HD DVD in the player, you're flying blind; the resolution indicator located in the player's front panel display window goes blank until the changeover is completed.

You can, however, change the video output or the resolution on standard DVDs without being forced to stop the player and start the disc again from the beginning.

Upconversion to 720p or 1080i is not possible for standard definition, copy protected DVDs from the component output. The only options there are 480i and 480p. You can select 480i component only when the player is stopped. And if you've set the player up for 480i and switch to 480p while the disc is running, you cannot switch back to 480i unless you stop the player again.

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