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Toshiba third-gen HD DVD players on the way--but how useful are their new features?

Toshiba officially announces a trio of third-generation HD DVD players which include some new features not found on previous models. But are those bleeding-edge features really worthwhile?

Toshiba HD-A35 HD DVD player
The Toshiba HD-A35 is the flagship model of the third-gen lineup Toshiba

When a trio of new HD DVD players popped up on last week, the question wasn't so much, "Are they real?" as "How are they different from the existing models?" Toshiba clarified the issue today by officially announcing the three new models in a press release that trumpeted a handful of new features that will appeal to enthusiasts. But some key questions about those step-up features remain unanswered.

First, the basics. All three of the new models boast new, slim cases that are only 59.5mm high (less than 2.5 inches). And unlike many Blu-ray players--including models that cost hundreds more--the new HD DVD players each include active Ethernet ports and upgradeable firmware, so they can take advantage of the growing number of HD DVD titles that make use of interactive online features. The new lineup breaks down as follows:

  • HD-A3 ($300, October 2007): With its output resolution limited to 1080i, the primary appeal of the entry-level model is its affordable price tag. Except for the slimmer case, this looks to be nearly a clone of the current HD-A2, which is currently selling online for as little as $200.
  • HD-A30 ($400, September 2007): An extra $100 buys you 1080p output, HDMI CEC compatibility (which allows for control between other CEC-enabled AV products when connected via HDMI and using a single remote control), and 24-frame video support (1080p/24).
  • HD-A35 ($500, October 2007): In addition to the same features as the HD-A30, the top-end model in the fall 2007 lineup adds 5.1-channel analog audio outs, support for Deep Color video and HDMI passthrough audio.

Sounds great. Of course, there's a secret about those cutting-edge features that all those other blogs aren't telling you.

The HD video market has already become very commoditized, so the old set of must-have features--1080p, HDMI 1.3, lossless audio--have already become old hat. So manufacturers are ratcheting up for a new set of bullet points, such as 24-frame video, Deep Color, and HDMI passthrough audio. But they're beginning to become so mind-bogglingly complex that even an informed reader needs some additional exposition. And the key point for all three is this: they're essentially useless if the player isn't connected to compatible gear--or playing discs--that support each feature. In some cases, the compatible hardware and software doesn't quite exist yet; for others, the advantages may just not be as noticeable as the manufacturers will lead you to believe. And while we're focusing on Toshiba and HD DVD in this case, rest assured--these issues apply just as much to Blu-ray players and manufacturers. Or they will, just as soon as more Blu-ray players begin to support these features as well.

For instance, the 1080p/24 feature--in theory--delivers a more "film-like" experience by matching the 24-frame display rate native to motion pictures. In the CNET Labs, we have yet to see existing implementations deliver any noticeable real-world benefit over the default 30-frame presentations. That could certainly change in the future; in the meantime, few TVs currently support 24-frame refresh rates. Deep Color, meanwhile, has the capability to break the existing eight-bit color depth limitation of existing HD video. But you'll need a TV that can accept and display Deep Color sources, and HD discs that are so encoded--the TVs are in the pipeline for the fall, but as to when we'll see the movies is anybody's guess.

The HDMI passthrough audio is an even thornier issue. To date, the Dolby TrueHD soundtracks on HD DVD (and Blu-ray) discs are decoded in the player, then passed to the receiver via HDMI or analog outputs. In theory, the "High Bit Rate Audio" feature (as Toshiba calls it) will finally let you decode lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks in compatible AV receivers (such as newer mid- to high-end models that are or will soon be available from Onkyo, Pioneer, Denon, Sony, and Yamaha). It's pretty much a wash for Dolby TrueHD--the receiver-decoded audio should sound identical to the player-decoded audio, but at least the little "Dolby TrueHD" light on the receiver will finally fire up. But audiophiles will have their first opportunity to hear DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, since existing players don't yet have the hardware to decode them.

So what's the rub? Again, if your receiver isn't one of those brand-new models, it won't be able to decode the HD-A35's pure bitstream output. But even if you do have one of the new receivers with onboard Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD decoding, certain discs may not support it--forcing you do use the player's onboard decoding instead. Something called the "Advanced Content flag" may preclude bitstream output (external decoding), because the interactive features on the disc need to be mixed in real-time--such as the In-Movie Experience (picture-in-picture director's commentary). In other words, the cooler the features on the disc, the less likely you'll be able to use the High Bit Rate Audio mode.

Another notable point about these new features: the (heretofore useless) Deep Color feature is already present in the Toshiba HD-XA2. Furthermore, 24-frame compatibility will be added to that model and the HD-A20 via a promised firmware upgrade due next month. In other words, owners of those models have little incentive to upgrade.

The other unanswered question on the new Toshibas is their video processing. The previous high-end HD-XA2 model delivered a magnificent DVD upscaler, courtesy of HQV's Reon chipset, but retailed for a hefty $800--at least initially. But with the HQV name not touted in Toshiba's press release--and the fact that it still commands a premium price tag--we're wondering if there will be an HQV-powered HD-XA3 announced at CEDIA this year, or if the line tops out at the A35. Of course, the initial press release for the HD-XA2 didn't mention HQV, so it may be included in the HD-A35 after all.

The bottom line: At the very least, a new batch of modestly priced HD DVD players with newer and better features keeps the pressure on competing Blu-ray models to do the same, and that's a good thing. As always, we'll reserve judgment on whether these new players are worth buying until we get them in for review. In the meantime, though, anyone considering an HD DVD player would be well advised to wait a couple of months before taking the plunge.