Editors' note: Toshiba officially announced it will stop producing HD DVD products, bringing an end to the format war. For that reason, CNET recommends that people avoid buying this player for high-definition movie playback.
For home theater buffs, Toshiba has been the face of HD DVD in the format war. Toshiba delivered the first ever standalone HD DVD player, the HD-A1, and followed it up with a full second-generation line including the HD-A2, HD-A20, and HD-XA2. Coming into the 2007 holiday season, Toshiba is rolling out its third-generation line of HD DVD players, which delivers more of an evolutionary upgrade than any big new functionality. The $400 HD-A30 is right in the middle of the lineup, offering 1080p output (at both the 60- and 24-frames per second rate) as a step-up to the cheaper 1080i-only HD-A3, but lacking high-resolution bitstream audio output found on the $500 HD-A35. And all third-generation models lack the excellent HQV video processing of the HD-XA2, which remains available.
Overall, we couldn't help but feel that the HD-A30 was extremely similar to its predecessor--the HD-A20--which isn't a good thing, as 1080p output on both players is disappointing. Don't get us wrong, there's a lot to like about HD DVD hardware compared to Blu-ray hardware, such as its lower cost and stronger mandatory requirements. And if your HDTV can accept and properly display 1080p/24, the HD-A30 delivers excellent picture quality as well. The problem is that the vast majority of HDTVs can't handle 1080p/24 properly, which means that for most people, the HD-A30 just doesn't justify the price premium over the HD-A3.
From afar, the Toshiba HD-A30 largely looks the same as its predecessor, with a glossy black front panel and a silver strip down the middle. Up close, there are some significant differences. The front panel controls (play, pause, fast forward/ rewind) are now right on the player, instead of under a flip-down panel like on the HD-A20. There is still a flip-down panel, but it's very small on the left side and houses a single "extension" port, which could eventually be used to add more storage to the unit. Aside from that, the A30 is even more glossy than its predecessor, plus it has a more curved look compared to the boxy second-generation models.
The Toshiba HD-A30's primary mission, of course, is playback of HD DVD movies. Like all HD movie players--HD DVD and Blu-ray alike--it can also play standard DVDs. Unlike some first-generation Blu-ray players, the HD-A30 can play standard audio CDs, although it can't handle CDs and DVDs that include MP3 or JPEG files.
The HD-A30's connectivity suite is solid, although it's missing some step-ups of the more expensive models. For video, it has an HDMI output capable of outputting high-definition video in resolutions up to 1080p, an upgrade over the 1080i-only HD-A3. There's also a component video output, along with standard composite video output, but note the lack of S-Video. For audio, the HDMI output is capable of transmitting multichannel audio soundtracks, as indicated above. There's also an optical digital audio output that can handle standard Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks, as well as a standard analog stereo output. Rounding things out is an Ethernet jack.
Home theater mavens will notice a few connections missing on the HD-A30's backside. For example, the HD-XA2 adds multichannel analog outputs, coaxial digital audio output, and an RS-232 jack. Those connections can certainly be useful, but they're not huge omissions if you have an HDMI-capable receiver and don't need the home integration features of an RS-232 connector. The other missing functionality is the aforementioned ability to send Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks in bitstream format to compatible receivers with onboard decoding. That upgrade is currently available to the HD-A35, and Toshiba claims it will be available on the HD-XA2 in the future via a firmware update.
HD DVD performance
We started off our HD DVD performance test with the HD-A30 in 1080p mode and took a look at Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on HD DVD. The first test we looked at was the video resolution loss test, and the HD-A30 failed. It did not display the full resolution of the test pattern and the image was unstable at many locations. As a point of reference, we run this same test on all HDTVs we test and almost every HDTV passes this test without any problems. We also looked at the film resolution loss test and saw the same result--loss of resolution and an unstable image. The second part of the test pattern, consisting of a panning shot of Raymond James stadium, had some moire in the grandstands, although not as much as we were expecting given the test pattern failures.
The issue is clearly with the HD-A30's 1080p processing. When we flipped the HD-A30 into 1080i mode, the JVC LT-47X788 had no problem properly deinterlacing the signal. Of course, that's the other side of the argument--if your HDTV has good 1080i deinterlacing you can set the HD-A30 to 1080i mode and avoid the HD-A30's lackluster 1080p performance. But if you're going to leave the player in 1080i mode, you might as well save yourself a few bucks and get the HD-A3.
We also looked at actual program material and, sure enough, the faulty 1080p processing reared its head. On Mission Impossible: III, we saw moire on Chapter 8 in the stairs in the background. It also popped up at the beginning of Chapter 11, where jaggies could easily be made out on the stripe of the limo as it approaches Tom Cruise. The HD-A30 performed better on Aeon Flux, but we could still spot evidence of faulty 1080p processing. For instance, in Chapter 9 at about 54:14, we could see jaggies on the grates in the background. When we flipped back to 1080i mode and let the TV handle the processing, the jaggies were gone. The effect wasn't present on every movie though. We watched the first half of The Bourne Identity and although we saw awful jaggies on the introductory menu options, the actual movie was relatively jaggy-free.
Interestingly, the HD-A30 performs much better when the output is set to 1080p at 24 frames per second output. We had the HD-A30 set to 1080p/24 connected to the Sony KDL-46XBR4--one of the few HDTVs capable of accepting and properly displaying a 1080p/24 signal. We rewatched the stairs scene from Chapter 8 of Mission Impossible: III and the moire was gone; the limo from Chapter 11 was cleaned up as well. Unfortunately, few HDTVs can handle 1080p/24 correctly, which means most HDTV owners (even those with 1080p HDTVs) won't be able to take advantage of this excellent performance. However, for those that do own compatible HDTVs, it is one of the few cases where the HD-A30 may be worth the extra money over the HD-A3.
Load times for HD DVD movies were a bit of a disappointment compared to the HD-A20. It took us one minute, 25 seconds to go from powered off to getting a picture on the screen for Mission Impossible: III, and the same movie loaded in 34 seconds with the player already on.
One of the disappointments with the Toshiba HD-A20 was its performance on standard DVD in 1080p mode. It does not appear that the HD-A30 has made any major improvements, as we observed essentially the same lackluster performance on test patterns. We started off our tests with the standard definition HQV test suite from Silicon Optix, over HDMI in 1080p mode. It passed the initial resolution test, demonstrating it can display the full resolution of DVDs, although we saw more flickering than we'd like on several parts of the image. Next up were two "jaggies" test patterns and the HD-A30 performed poorly on both of them, exhibiting jagged edges where there should be smooth lines. This was also very evident in the next test with program material of a waving flag, with jaggies showing up on nearly every ripple. On the upside, it did successfully handle HQV's difficult 2:3 pull-down processing test, kicking into film mode in about a half a second.
However, like on the HD-A20, the HD-A30 performed better when we watched some actual program material. The introduction to Seabiscuit gives a lot of players problems, but the HD-A30 handled it very well, with almost none of the jaggies that often mar the picture. We also took a look at the opening sequence of Star Trek: Insurrection, and confirmed that the player does indeed have 2:3 pulldown processing, as it correctly rendered the curved edges of the bridge railing and hulls of the boats without a problem. So while the HD-A30 struggled with some of the more difficult video-based tests of the HQV test suite, it held its own on more common film-based program material.