Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD Player

Here are the three most important things you should know about Toshiba's much anticipated HD-XA1, the world's very first high-definition optical disc player: 1. It's not just a DVD player - it's a computer. Really - Pentium and everything. 2. Like any computer - especially one with a new, unproven operating system - it performs well on some functions, but not others. 3. If you can get past the "not others," then you're in for one very serious ride.

By now, you've probably figured out that this groundbreaking device is far from the perfect package. Even so - and regardless of what the rival Blu-ray format may bring to the table later - I'd say that HD DVD is a giant success. If my experience with the Toshba HD-XA1 HD DVD player proves anything, it's that we've crossed a big line in picture and movie sound quality for the home, and there will be no going back.

What We Think
You'll experience spectacular picture and sound - and a few operational quirks - with this groundbreaking player.
There have been some reports questioning the improvement offered by HD DVD over standard DVD, sometimes by folks plugging this player or its $499 sibling, the HD-A1, into an inappropriate display. Let me state clearly that on our affordable 1080p bigscreen HDTV, the differences between the first six HD DVD movies that were released and their DVD counterparts were nothing short of astonishing, as long as the player was properly configured. The HD DVDs crushed the standard-def every time, whether the DVDs were viewed at 480p resolution or upconverted to 1080i by the Toshiba or our reference player. And the HD DVDs were better than virtually every HDTV broadcast of film-based content I could find on our Dish satellite and Time Warner cable systems. Now, let's get on with the show.

THE MAIN EVENT There are many ways to extract different video and audio formats from the Toshiba HD-XA1. I wired our sample for the best signals it could deliver and used a display and surround processor that could take advantage of them. This meant feeding a 1080i HDTV signal and uncompressed multichannel PCM audio from the player's digital HDMI output to the HDMI input of a Yamaha RX-V2600 receiver. The receiver readily decoded the PCM and sent it to Revel Concerta speakers. The Yamaha (with its video scaler turned off) passed the video through its HDMI output to our HP 65-inch DLP 1080p rear-projection HDTV. Note that watching HD DVD movies encoded in 1080p (as these titles were) demands setting the HD-XA1's default resolution to its maximum 1080i, regardless of your display type. The player's internal 720p scaler proved substandard, and setting the player for 720p output resulted in greatly diminished picture quality on both the HP and a new 50-inch Samsung 720p plasma. The image could easily have been mistaken for regular DVD, or worse. When the Samsung was fed a 1080i HD DVD signal, HD-quality detail returned, though the picture never fully captured the magic I saw on the well-tuned HP. This player wants - needs - a 1080p display.