Toshiba HD-E1 review:

Toshiba HD-E1

Typical Price: £389.00
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4 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

The Good Superb HD pictures; good DVD upscaling; much more affordable than a Blu-ray player; slim design.

The Bad Lethargic operating times; no 1080p; no analogue surround sound output.

The Bottom Line While it lacks advanced features and is very slow to respond, the HD-E1 is the first standalone high-definition movie player that feels like it's worth the money. With excellent picture quality, a large selection of movies already available and affordability that puts the current Blu-ray players to shame, HD DVD is looking very tempting

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8.3 Overall

Although the Xbox HD DVD drive add-on beat it to launch by a few weeks, the HD-E1 is to all intents and purposes the UK's first HD DVD player. Hook this up to a high-definition TV or projector and you'll be able to watch movies in 720p or 1080i format.

HD DVD has a rival in Blu-ray Disc, but this player has a couple of immediately obvious advantages over the two existing BD players. First, there's the issue of price: the HD-E1 costs around £400, while the Samsung BD-P1000 is around £800 and the Panasonic DMP-BD10 £1,200. Second, thanks to HD DVD's non-use of region coding, there's a huge range of movies available already -- Blu-ray's current UK library, on the other hand, is spectacularly unspectacular.

We should also mention that this is the cheaper of two Toshiba HD DVD players. The high-end HD-XE1 should launch very soon, priced at around £550.

This is a slim, compact player. Toshiba's first stab at an HD DVD deck (the US and Japan-only HD-A1) was ugly, enormous and weighed a tonne, so it's nice to see something a little more living room-friendly, not to mention better-looking. The build quality is solid, if not up to the tank-like standards of top-drawer DVD decks -- it's similar to what we've seen on the two Blu-ray players which, considering the price disparity, isn't too shabby.

The front panel is pretty straightforward. There's a disc tray and LED display, and a flap opens to reveal a pair of USB ports. These don't do anything at present -- according to the manual they will be used for future expansion, but there is no indication of what this might be.

All the other connections are located at the back. For video, you have a choice between HDMI, component video, S-Video and composite. The latter two are standard definition, so are only really useful when you're setting up the player. Audio-wise, there is a digital optical output, a stereo line output and, of course, the HDMI. There isn't an analogue surround-sound output, so you'll need an HDMI-equipped home cinema receiver to take advantage of HD DVD's lossless Dolby True HD sound, which cannot be carried by optical.

The final socket is an Ethernet port, which allows you to connect the HD-E1 to your home network and subsequently the Internet. As with the USB ports, it isn't much use at the moment, but in the future we'll see HD DVDs that offer access to online content, and this port means you'll be able to get to it. It's worth noting that neither the Samsung nor Panasonic Blu-ray player has any form of Internet access, despite the format having similar online capabilities.

The HD-E1 is simple to set up. It lacks the tweakable image enhancement and noise reduction features of the Blu-ray players (and some standard DVD players), so all you have to do is choose an output resolution for the video and decide what sort of audio connection you want to use. The high-definition resolutions available for HD DVD are 1080i and 720p (plus standard-def 480/576p and 480/576i), and if you use the HDMI input, the player will also upscale regular DVDs to these resolutions.

There's no 1080p mode, but as none of the existing hi-def disc players on the market manages to make 1080p look any better than 1080i, we don't see this as a big deal -- 1080p as it stands makes no difference unless you have a very large television or a projector, and even then your display device's internal processing may well do a better job of upscaling than the player.

On the audio front, the big deal about this player is that it can internally decode Dolby True HD and DTS-HD, two new surround formats offering better, more lifelike sound. Unfortunately, you'll need a receiver with HDMI to get these working, and even then True HD is limited to 5.1 channels (the format is capable of 7.1) and DTS-HD will merely be the non-lossless 'core only' version.

There isn't much to the HD-E1 besides its HD DVD, DVD and CD-playing abilities. While most DVD players will happily play MP3s, WMAs, digital photos and the like, this won't. Perhaps those USB ports at the front will remedy this eventually?

The included remote control is compact, with small buttons. Obviously this has its advantages, but we did find the buttons a little too undersized and unresponsive for our liking.

Our chief gripe to do with using the HD-E1 is its sluggishness. Switch it on and you'll be twiddling your thumbs for around 40 seconds before it's ready to do anything. Stick in a disc and it's another 30 seconds before the movie begins to play. When the cheaper Xbox 360 HD DVD drive can start up in a matter of moments, we're left wondering what Toshiba's excuse is.

Once the thing gets going, though, it really shows how great high-definition pictures can be. Detail levels blow anything DVD can do out of the water, making everything look sharper and bringing out tiny things -- strands of hair, pores in skin, individual bricks in buildings -- that you'd never see with standard definition.

Just as impressive is the total lack of picture noise, MPEG blocking and the rest of the annoying artefacts that we've come to expect from DVD and even Sky's HD service. Colours seem clearer and more vibrant. Along with Blu-ray, HD DVD really is a generational leap from DVD.

Admittedly, we've only got a few products to compare the HD-E1 to at present, but it provides a better picture than Sky HD and one that's on the same level as the Xbox 360 drive and the two Blu-ray players. Standard DVD upscaling is also good here, on the level of a decent DVD player like Toshiba's own SD-360E deck.

Sound quality is also excellent, although again we have very little to compare it to. Effects are livelier than with regular Dolby Digital, so we look forward to hearing more of Dolby Digital Plus and True HD in the future.

Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield

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