Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD Player

There's probably a smug look on the face of the cynics among us right now. You know, the types who are so negative about the format war that they're willing to ignore the fact that we not only have high-def on a disc, but we have the best HD we've ever seen and heard, period. And Toshiba, which launched the HD DVD format with two players in Spring of 2006, released its second generation players in December and January, with not even a full year in between the two generations.

Toshiba's second-gen players promise to maintain the pure picture and sound performance that won its first-gen players universal praise, while improving on the disc access and ergonomic issues that made them the butt of many jokes. While the $500 HD-A2 actually has fewer features than its predecessor, the $999 HD-XA2 is the one that many of us have been waiting for.

The HD-XA2 offers many significant upgrades over its predecessor. In addition to being built on an IC platform that's much faster than the Intel-based PC that was the heart of the HD-XA1, it has HDMI 1.3, full Dolby TrueHD decoding and 1080p output. That alone is enough to get your attention, but the player also features Silicon Optix HQV video processing to make sure that DVD collection you've been building for years continues to look its best.

The HD-XA2 just came into my hands a few days ago, so this is not quite the full review. Look for a Take 2 soon that will cover some of the areas I couldn't get to in this short a period of time.

Outside- Slimming Down Without Jenny Craig
I might have dated myself with that one. Should I have said South Beach Diet, or is even that just too last year?

Anyway, the first thing you'll notice is that the HD-XA2 is about half the player the HD-XA1 was. Although relatively stately looking, the HD-XA1 was not dainty by disc player standards. The HD-XA2 is much slimmer in profile top to bottom, which makes it more modern looking if a bit Spartan for being all black instead of two-toned silver and black.

There is a drop down door on the front, but it's not motorized this time around. The drop down drawer and the top of the player are finished in brushed black aluminum. Overall, this player's fit n' finish is fine, if not as substantial or flashy as Sony's BDP-S1 Blu-ray player at the same price.

With the front drawer retracted the front of the unit exposes only the open/close disc tray and power buttons and the front panel display. Opening the drawer reveals a two-position Mode switch- Position 1 makes the HDMI and component outputs hot at the same time, something the HD-XA1 didn't do, and Position 2 is for the poor souls who will buy this $1K player and use the composite and S-Video connections (uh, right). There are also basic playback functions included here, and two USB extension ports for future use with game controllers, external storage, or whatever they come up with next.

Movin' round back, there's the mandatory Ethernet port (good for quick and easy firmware updates now and perhaps interactivity features in the future), coax and Toslink digital audio outs, and outputs for HDMI and component video. Unlike the second-gen HD-A2, the XA2 does feature 5.1-channel analog outputs so you're not screwed for Dolby TrueHD if you don't have HDMI 1.1 (or higher) switching. One disappointing aspect is that instead of the standard IEC AC outlet that adorned the HD-XA1, here there's only the chintzy connection for one of those power cords that are more appropriate for a free cable set-top box than a $1K disc player. I'm sore as hell about this; there's really no excuse.

The remote is black and heavy, but is essentially the same as the remotes that were panned in the first-gen players. This one is backlit, but not vibration activated, which is fine by me. Easier on the batteries and less distracting when the woofing woofers cause it to light up every few seconds (How loud do you play your home theater, Shane? —TJN). Oddly, you have to hold the Backlight button for several seconds to activate the backlighting. Once activated it turns on with a button push. I'd never seen this and only found out how to activate it after contacting Toshiba and reporting that the backlighting didn't work. Turns out the explanation is in the manual. My bad.

As with the first-gen players' remotes, the worst aspect is that the main playback function buttons are bunched up close and only the Play button is of a different size, with a bead on it to assist in finding it by feel. Since this remote was reviled by virtually everyone in the first-gen players I'm surprised to see it pressed into service again here. On the plus side, the wheel in the middle of the remote that's used for directional navigation has been much improved, so it's easy to be far more sure-footed during navigation, which helps tremendously.

No Intel Inside
I'm kinda kidding. There's still as Intel chip inside, but the fact is that the HD-XA2 is built on an integrated circuit solution that requires less external computing power than either of Toshiba's first-gen HD DVD players. In other words, there isn't a Home Theater PC built into the XA2. As you'll read, this does pay dividends in disc startup and access speeds. I've not yet spun enough discs to gauge just how much overall stability is improved, so look for that in the upcoming Take 2.

On the video front, over HDMI the HD-XA2 outputs 1080p that's almost native on the disc. I say "almost" because for movies what's on an HD DVD disc is 1080p/24, but what's output here is 1080p/60. Rumors abound that a firmware update to allow 1080p/24 is imminent and not far off. Still, we've stepped in the right direction with 1080p, as you'll read.