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.
Toshiba describes Color Mode as delivering richer blues and greens, which is pretty misleading in our book. We looked at a test pattern that displayed the gradations from different shades of blue on Digital Video Essentials, and activating color mode had the effect of "clipping" blue. In other words, when Color Mode was off, we could see several different shades of blue, but with it on, several of the brighter shades of blue just blended together into the same shade. While that effect may make the picture jump out on the showroom floor, it makes images look unnatural and loses the more subtle elements of good picture quality. While the effect on green was more difficult to see in test patterns, it was readily apparent in program material.
For example, Chapter 15 of House of the Flying Daggers starts off with a foggy landscape scene that's far from vibrant, but looks natural. Engaging Color Mode completely changes the look of the image, washing the entire scene in blue, making the trees look completely artificial. Similarly, at 36 minutes 49 seconds on the same disc, there's a lot of greenery in the image and activating color mode makes the leaves turn neon green, as if they were made of Astroturf. Perhaps some viewers will enjoy the effect, but it's certainly not what the director intended and doesn't have anything to do with getting closer to high-definition. And again, viewers can get a similar effect by merely turning up the color control on their HDTVs.
Contrast mode, as Toshiba explains it, enhances the details in darker scenes. That's a decent explanation, although it's more accurate to say that it increases the brightness in certain portions of shadow detail. The effect was readily apparent in Sin City, as we flipped between Off and Contrast on a scene with Bruce Willis driving. It's worth noting, again, that we were mostly able to recreate the effect of contrast mode by jumping into our HDTV's picture settings and increasing the brightness a few points.
While we recognize that it's possible for some viewers to subjectively prefer these images-altering modes compared to "the way it should look," we still have a hard time finding the value of the XDE modes, especially since viewers can come close to recreating the effects simply by changing the settings on their TVs.
Standard DVD performance
While we're not fans of the various XDE modes on the XD-E500, you can disable them, which lets us compare the XD-E500's performance with that of other upscaling players. We set up the XD-E500 in 1080p mode at 60 frames per second, connected to a full suite of flat-panel HDTVs, including the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U, Pioneer PDP-5020FD, LG 50PG20, Samsung PN50A650, and LN52A650.
We started off with Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on DVD, and the XD-E500 got off to a good start, displaying the full detail of DVD and without any of the instability we sometimes see on this pattern. The next jaggies test with a rotating white line looked good too, as did a test with three pivoting lines. The Toshiba also did well with the difficult 2:3 pull-down test, kicking into film mode in less than a second, and keeping the grandstands in the background moire-free. It finished up with excellent results on a pair of tests with scrolling titles, as they looked smooth and legible.
We switched over to program material and took at look at the beginning of Star Trek: Insurrection. The XD-E500 deftly handled the material, with its 2:3 pull-down processing smoothly rendering the curved lines of the bridge railing and the hulls of the boats. We switched over to the opening sequence of Seabiscuit, and again we were impressed by that the XD-E500 handled the black-and-white photos without nearly any jaggies. Finally, we took a look at Serenity and the XD-E500 did a good job with the action-packed sci-fi flick. We compared it directly with the Oppo DV-983H, and while the DV-983H definitely did a better job, but the difference was minor, as it often is when comparing upscaling DVD players.
We also took a look at the XD-E500's 1080p output at 24 frames per second, also commonly referred to as 1080p/24. The idea behind 1080p/24 is that by outputting at film's native rate of 24 frames, you can avoid some of the judder that occurs from 2:3 pull-down processing--although the idea makes more sense with Blu-ray Discs which are natively encoded at 24 frames per second, than with DVDs, which are encoded at 30 frames per second. In our tests, we didn't see any benefit from enabling 1080p/24 mode, and we looked closely at panning sequences on both Star Trek: Insurrection and Serenity.
We enabled the appropriate modes on the TVs we used for the test--48Hz and 72Hz modes for the Panasonic and Pioneer plasmas, dejudder off for the 120Hz Samsung LCD--but couldn't detect any difference between those and the standard 60Hz TVs. It's worth nothing that a display needs to refresh at a multiple of 24 frames to take advantage of 24p output, and the majority of HDTVs can only refresh at 60Hz, so this feature won't even be applicable for most viewers.
The irony is the XD-E500 actually performs pretty well with all its bells and whistles disabled, but its price is still hard to swallow given its feature set and the fact that upscaling players sell for less than $100 these days.