When Toshiba finally pulled the plug on HD DVD, nobody was quite sure what the next step for the company was going to be. Would it go back to making DVD players, or would it forget the tensions of the format war and release a Blu-ray player? Well, instead of "if you can't beat'em, join'em," Toshiba has decided to go a third way, offering up a new technology called XDE--short for "extended definition"--which, according to Toshiba, "works with existing DVDs to deliver a near HD experience."
At least that's how the news release puts it. In our tests, XDE didn't offer much in the way of new technology, as its "Sharp" mode looked like traditional edge enhancement, "Color" mode artificially exaggerated green and blues, and "Contrast" mode made dark shadows appear a little brighter. And it almost goes without saying that the images we saw from the Toshiba DVD player did not look nearly as good as the high-definition images available on any Blu-ray player.
While we didn't like what XDE did to our DVDs, the XD-E500 did a pretty good job of upscaling once we disabled the XDE modes. Of course, comparably priced upscaling DVD players, such as the Oppo DV-980H, offer a lot more functionality at this price range, including 7.1 analog outputs, SACD/DVD-Audio playback and a USB thumbdrive support for watching DivX movies or viewing JPEGs. So while the XD-E500 can make your DVDs look pretty good with XDE off, overall we just didn't see enough value to justify its $150 price tag.
From the outside the XD-E500 looks like a standard DVD player. On the far left of its front is the disc tray, and above that is a slim button that when pressed, ejects the drive. There's a bright XDE logo right in the center of the unit, which luckily can be turned off in the setup menu. Further to the right is the LCD screen, which is on the small side and cannot be dimmed. The glossy black finish on the XD-E500 fades from a lighter gray color on the bottom to completely black on top. Overall, it's a good-looking disc player that should blend nicely into your home entertainment rack.
The included remote is decent, albeit a little cluttered. While playback buttons are nicely positioned and the directional pad is right where it should be, we definitely felt the need for more button differentiation; navigating in a dark home theater was very difficult. We also would have liked a more prominent position for the "pic mode" button, as we imagine viewers will want to toggle between the different XDE modes frequently to see which one they prefer.
The Toshiba XD-E500 works with your existing DVD collection--in other words, there are no special XDE DVD discs to buy. In addition to DVDs, the XD-E500 can play standard audio CDs, as well as DivX, MP3, and WMA files copied onto CDs and DVDs.
We were disappointed that the XD-E500 doesn't have aspect ratio control, which is needed for some older DVDs that are nonanamorphic. For example, we put in a copy of Carlito's Way in the XD-E500 connected to the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U, and there was no way to make the movie appear in the correct proportions--everything looked stretched horizontally. Sure, it's not a problem with the vast majority of anamorphic DVDs, but we expect more flexibility from a premium-priced DVD player.
Connectivity is sufficient for the average home theater. The main connector is the HDMI output, which can upscale DVDs to 1080p, and can even output at 24 frames per second. The HDMI output is also capable of handling the multichannel audio of both Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks. A component video output is also available, although like all DVD players it's limited to 480p resolution. Both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs are provided, along with a pair of RCA outputs for stereo analog output.
While the XD-E500 certainly has enough features for the average buyer, home theater enthusiasts will notice that it lacks some extras available on the slightly more expensive Oppo DV-980H. The DV-980H has the capability to play both SACD and DVD-Audio discs--and output the audio over HDMI--which is certainly a niche feature, but many home theater fans still have collections of these near-dead formats. The XD-E500 also lacks multichannel analog outputs completely, while the Oppo offers complete 7.1 analog outs for those few discs that support it. The DV-980H also includes a USB port on the front panel, which is convenient for looking at JPEG files or watching DivX movies. These features may be small on their own, but taken together enthusiasts will probably feel like they're getting more for their money from the DV-980H.
The main focus of the XD-E500 is its three XDE modes: Sharp, Color, and Contrast. We'll handle these separately from standard DVD performance, which is covered in the next section.
First up is "Sharp" mode, which can be considered the foundation of the XDE's picture adjustments. While Sharp mode can be used on its own, the other two modes--Color and Contrast--always have Sharp mode enabled, in addition to other picture adjustments. Color and Contrast also cannot be used at the same time.
Sharp mode, from what we observed and what Toshiba has said, is essentially edge enhancement, which is a generic term for artificial edges created around onscreen objects. The problem with edge enhancement is that although it can appear to make an image look sharper at first, in reality it obscures real detail with the artificial edges. (Check out this excellent guide to edge enhancement if you'd like to see some examples.) However, according to Toshiba, the Sharp Mode uses selective edge enhancement--only adding it in certain places--but we still prefer to leave this mode off, as it tended to make movies look more artificial and less filmlike. On the other hand, we could see less some viewers enjoying this mode, although many viewers can get a similar effect by increasing the sharpness control on their HDTVs.