Update: Toshiba HD-A20 HD DVD Player, Firmware Version 2.5 Page 2
But there were a few snags in the player's newfound 1080p/24 performance as well.
A Fumble and a Recovery
Mere hours after I turned in the final copy of this report for editing, I tried to play the HD DVD version of a Dolby demo disc at the 1080p/24 setting. This disc contains both film- and video-based material. The player produced severe motion stutter on the entire disc, the jerky images clear evidence that the player was dropping frames.
Early the next day, our web maven, Jon Iverson, reported the same jerky performance on his updated HD-A20, but in his case only on one specific standard definition DVD (Broken English). The same 1080p/24 setting worked fine for him on other standard DVDs.
With these new issues to investigate I went back to gather more information by sampling a wider range of SD discs and HD DVDs on my HD-A20. I began in a rather unusual way, with the player turned off but the drawer open (it had been shut down by unplugging it the night before). I inserted a disc and turned on the power. The drawer closed and the "Welcome" message came up on the front panel screen.
The player never got beyond this point. It froze up completely, the Welcome sign still shining bright. No amount of plugging and unplugging would free it, and the cures suggested by Toshiba failed to return the player to normal operation.
Toshiba suggested that the cause of the lockup might have been starting the player from Off with the drawer open. As unlikely as this may sound, the player is apparently sensitive to the order in which actions are performed, particularly if those actions are not the normal way of doing things. Whether or not this is the case here, a word to wise owners of A20s, and perhaps other Toshiba HD DVD players as well: Don't power it down with the drawer open and start it up again with a disc in the open drawer.
Toshiba was able to overnight another sample of the A20 to get things back on track. It had not been updated, so I installed the latest firmware without any problems. Finally I could begin the investigation that had been aborted a few days earlier.
Why Do These Discs Stutter?
On the updated HD-A20, 1080p/24 will work fine on most HD DVDs. I spot-checked 20 HD DVDs on the second HD-A20, using its 1080p/24 setting, to look for smooth motion. Sixteen of them were nearly flawless (two of them, Darkman and For Love of the Game, tripped up once with a single, non-repeatable stutter). All of these sweet 16 were film-based.
But for some—generally those mastered in another HD resolution and/or frame rate—you will need to go into the setup menu and switch the output to 1080i/30 or 1080p/60 to avoid severe motion stuttering. Concert videos may be particularly susceptible to this. But there aren't enough of them on HD DVD as yet to say for certain if 1080i/30 will turn out to be the preferred mastering mode for this type of programming.
Four HD DVDs had severe motion stutter issues in the 1080p/24 setting: Eagles Farewell Tour, The Sound of High Definition (the HD DVD Dolby demo disc), Overtime (Lee Ritenour), and the ocean documentary True Blue (the last two are Japanese releases).
After puzzling this out for a time, I finally was able to confirm that the last three of these discs were mastered in 1080i, and the evidence suggests that the Eagles disc was, as well. Apparently the player does like playing back 1080i/30 discs in its 1080p/24 setting.
Note that while you can also upconvert standard definition DVDs to 1080p/24 on the HD-A20, as described earlier, there are exceptions. On the SD movie discs I tested, the menus and the studio logos that preceded the actual start of the film exhibited the same motion stuttering described above. The stutter stopped, however, once the film itself began.
But some DVDs stuttered throughout. These included a PBS documentary, The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization, a BBC documentary, In Search of the Trojan War, and The Best of the Muppet Show. Interestingly, Ken Burns' documentary, The Civil War, stuttered on the menus, but not on the main program material itself.
It's probable if not likely that the menus, logos and programs referenced above are video based material that will not play back properly at 24fps.
With a standard DVD you can keep the setting on 1080p/24 and suffer through the stutter that will be common on menus until you get to the film. The film itself should be fine, although concert videos and perhaps some TV shows might not be. The 1080p/24 setting definitely results in smoother motion on some discs—assuming of course that your display can show it without converting it to 1080p/60.
The other choice for SD DVDs is to change the player's output setting to 1080i/30 or 1080p/60. You'll eliminate the stuttering on the menus and other peripheral material (I also noticed stuttering on some special features), but will still experience the usual 3/2 pulldown judder.
Remember that the HD-A20 will not be on its best behavior if you set it to output 1080p/60. In that mode, the data on an HD DVD discs, which are inherently progressive on all but a few discs, are forced through an internal 1080p-1080i-1080p processing, which compromises the output. This was true before the update, and remains true after.
In fairness, however, the artifacts I see on a 1080p/60 output are much more obvious on test patterns than with normal program material. And the issue isn't all that difficult to work around. If your display itself has superior 1080i-to-1080p deinterlacing you can set the HD-A20's output to 1080i if and when you cannot use 1080p/24.
If you can use the HD-A20's 1080p/24 setting, however, it will produce superb high definition images, unsurpassed by any other high definition player I've yet seen. And its ability to output 1080p/24 from standard definition discs is an added bonus.
Review System Notes:
The display used for these tests was the InFocus IN82 1080p DLP projector, which adds no edge enhancement of its own when set to its minimum Sharpness setting and does a superb job deinterlacing 1080i sources to 1080p. It will accept a 1080p/24 source and display it at 1080p/48. Its on-screen information display also shows the frame rate of the incoming signal—which was indispensable for this test.
The test discs used were the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark HD DVD, the Spears and Munsil test HD DVD, and the HD DVD version of Digital Video Essentials. The latter has test patterns mastered at 1080p/24 (in addition to 1280x720, which I did not use).