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.
One of the big selling points of the Sony PlayStation 3 is its integrated Blu-ray player. Microsoft, by contrast, opts to omit an HD disc player from its console, guaranteeing a lower sticker price. But the company does offer an HD disc solution in the form of the Xbox 360 HD DVD Player, a $200 external optical drive that adds HD DVD compatibility to the gaming multimedia rig. It connects to any of the Xbox 360 models via the included USB cable and, like the 360 itself, you can either stand the drive upright or lay it down horizontally. Whichever way you go, the whole outboard concept is a little kludgey compared with the nicely integrated PS3. Moreover, while the affordable $200 price tag may be hard to resist for those who already have a 360, the plummeting price of standalone HD DVD players makes the 360 add-on less of a compelling deal than when it first appeared. Still, Microsoft sweetens the deal by including an Xbox 360 Universal Media Remote and (for the time being) Peter Jackson's King Kong--an HD DVD exclusive title that demonstrates just how great movies can look in high-definition. The value of the HD DVD add-on drive is largely dependent on whether or not you have an Xbox 360 already. If you already have one and don't mind missing out on high-resolution audio, it's a relatively cheap way to get into the format and offers excellent video quality. But if you have to buy both the 360 and the HD DVD add-on drive--or you're an audiophile looking for the best possible sound--you're probably better off with a relatively cheap standalone player instead.
Like most other Xbox 360 accessories, the setup phase of the HD DVD Player is a breeze. Before connecting the HD DVD player to your Xbox 360, you have to insert the included software disc into your Xbox 360. You should also make sure that you've updated your Xbox 360 with the latest system software, which is available for download via Xbox Live. Once you've loaded the HD DVD drivers, you're ready to plug in. Of course, to get the true video quality benefits of HD DVD, you'll need an HDTV with your Xbox 360 connected to it via component video, the optional VGA adapter, or--for newer Xbox 360 Premiums and the Xbox 360 Elite--HDMI. If you're not going to make a high-def connection to your TV, there's really no reason to buy the drive.
The drive has its own external power supply, which means you'll need an extra outlet. It's not as big as the 360's giant power brick, but it's not exactly tiny either. Since the 360 has only a single USB port on its rear panel, you'll need to remove any USB devices you have connected to that port. However, the good news is the HD DVD player has two extra USB ports, so you'll be able to connect, say, your Wi-Fi adapter and your Xbox Live Vision Camera to the back of the drive--rather than to the front USB ports of the 360--and keep those cables hidden behind the console. The rear of the HD DVD drive even has a snap-on mount for the wireless adapter.
The Xbox 360 HD DVD player offered most of the features we expect from standalone HD DVD players, such as bookmarking and a zoom function. It can output HD DVD in 1080p format using either a VGA or HDMI connection, while the component video output is limited to 1080i--just as on other HD DVD players. The output resolution is set in the Xbox 360 Dashboard, so whatever output resolution you use for games will be used for HD DVDs.
On the other hand, the Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on is limited in regard to the new high-resolution audio formats. It cannot output the full resolution of Dolby TrueHD or Dolby Digital Plus, so if you want these high-resolution audio formats, you'll be better off with a standalone HD DVD player, as they all offer onboard decoding for these formats. Additionally, as with all current HD DVD and Blu-ray players, there is no support for DTS-HD Master Audio. Also, unlike Toshiba's upcoming third-generation HD DVD players, the add-on drive and an HDMI-equipped Xbox 360 is currently not capable of outputting these high-resolution soundtracks in bit-stream format to be decoded by an AV receiver with onboard Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master audio decoding--and Microsoft hasn't announced any plans to enable this via firmware. To be clear, you'll still have surround audio: Dolby Digital is the base soundtrack on all HD DVD movies, so you should always get a solid surround soundtrack instead of dead air. It just won't be the next-gen super-high-resolution version that you can get on competing players when they're connected to a compatible AV receiver.
HD DVD currently also has some discs with impressive extras, such as the ability to show video commentary in a picture-in-picture window and even download content from the Web--features Blu-ray won't be adding until later. Luckily, the HD DVD add-on drive is capable of handling these features, as we had no problem accessing the downloadable "Map of Conflict" extra from the Blood Diamond HD DVD. It also was able to play the "In-Movie Experience" video commentary track over the movie, in a picture-in-picture setup. While both of these features worked perfectly well, they did seem a bit more sluggish on the HD DVD add-on drive than on the Toshiba HD-A20--downloads seemed slower and the video commentary didn't seem to play back as quickly. But these are nitpicks, as most people only rarely look at the extra features and they still work perfectly fine.
One final note: while Microsoft doesn't market the Xbox 360 HD DVD player to work with PCs, nor does it officially support PC connectivity, it appears that you can indeed hack the player to work with a PC. However, on top of a set of Windows drivers, you'll also need a copy of DVD playback software, such as WinDVD8, that supports playback of HD DVD discs.
We originally tested the Xbox 360 HD DVD Player in December 2006, soon after it was released. At the time, we compared the picture quality of the Xbox 360 HD DVD player with that of our reference video player (at the time), the Toshiba HD-A1, which we also connected to the component-video output at 1080i. We then sent their respective signals to three HDTVs we had on hand: the 1,366x768 Panasonic TH-50PH9UK as well as the 1080p Sony KDS-R60XBR2 and Pioneer PRO-FHD1. In short, the Xbox 360 looked just as sharp as the Toshiba, and the picture was essentially identical in every way--which is to say, it looked great. We compared the incredibly sharp Swordfish disc, and all of the tiny details came across equally well on both players. We could see every hair on the heads of Hugh Jackman and John Travolta, for example, as they conversed in the coffee shop, and we noticed how their stubble went in and out of focus slightly as they turned their faces. Details in the fabric of the cop's suit as he surveys the villains looked equally crisp on both players, and we could read the fine writing on the computer screens as well as pick out the weave of the chair in which Halle Berry was sitting.
Now, with the Xbox 360 Elite available, along with the newest Xbox 360 Premiums having HDMI output, we took a second look at performance--specifically 1080p performance. Overall, 1080p performance over HDMI was pretty good, although not without its faults. For example, it failed a few of the tests on Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on HD DVD, which revealed that its 1080i deinterlacing isn't flawless. On the other hand, when we looked at actual program material, like Mission: Impossible III, the HD DVD player fared much better, showing far fewer artifacts than the Toshiba HD-A20 in 1080p mode. So while it doesn't offer 1080p output comparable with Toshiba's flagship HD-XA2, its performance is certainly commendable, especially considering the price difference.
We also took a look at standard definition DVD performance using the HD DVD add-on driver and the HDMI output at 1080p. Overall, it performed nearly identically to the built-in DVD player on the Xbox 360. We started off using Silicon Optix's HQV suite on DVD, and it passed the initial resolution test easily. Moving onto video-based jaggies tests, the HD DVD player struggled, with many jaggies present in tests consisting of a waving flag, three pivoting white lines, and a rotating white line. We were also disappointed to see that the HD DVD player failed the 2:3 pulldown test, with it never kicking into film mode and moire being present in the stands.
We also took a look at actual program material, and the HD DVD add-on drive fared better. On Seabiscuit, it was free of jaggies during the introduction, which is impressive as many players struggle with this disc. It also had no problem rendering the smooth lines in the introduction to Star Trek: Insurrection, proving its 2:3 pulldown process on actual film-based discs. The Xbox 360 HD DVD player certainly isn't as skilled as high-end upscalers like the Oppo DV-981HD and the Toshiba HD-XA2, and even the PlayStation 3 has a slight edge--but for noncritical viewers it will do a decent job.
We also tested the load times on the HD DVD add-on drive, and they are comparable with standalone players. With the Xbox 360 Elite on, we were able to load a disc in about 30 seconds. Starting with the Xbox 360 Elite off, we were able to get the movie playing in about 50 seconds. These times are faster than the first-generation Toshiba HD-A1, but about the same as the newest Toshiba players.
The other way: VGA
Of course, only the most recent Xbox 360 models have HDMI output. Those with older 360s (or older HDTVs) can opt to use the HD DVD drive with the 360's VGA adapter, a $40 optional accessory. It's worth noting that your mileage may vary depending on the capabilities of your television's VGA input. Many big-screen, 1080p rear projectors in particular don't perform well via VGA. The Sony KDL-R60XBR2's VGA input, for example, doesn't allow 1080p sources--including the Xbox 360--to fill the screen, placing about a 6-inch black border around the image. The DVI input of the Mitsubishi WD-65831 (which can accept VGA signals with a simple dongle) caused the image from the HD DVD drive to be overscanned by about 10 percent on all sides, cutting off about half of the black bars above and below the picture as well as a good deal of the right and left sides of the image. JVC's HD-56FN97, for its part, was unable to accept a 1080p signal via VGA; we've detailed the performance of these and other televisions' VGA inputs in our reviews, and they generally perform the same way with the 360's VGA output. On the other hand, most 1080p flat-panel LCDs with VGA inputs handle 1080p VGA sources fairly well. The Sony KDL-40XBR2, the Samsung LN-S4096D, and the Westinghouse LVM-47W1 are good examples of this breed of TV.
We watched a bit of the Swordfish HD DVD on the Westinghouse, the VGA input of which behaves very well, and the results were mostly identical to the picture quality we witnessed via component video. However, we did perceive a difference in one instance. In Chapter 16, there's a close-up of a laptop monitor used in the surveillance of Travolta and Jackman in the coffee shop. We noticed some slight crawl and jagged edges on the monitor's oblique diagonal lines when watching the scene in 1080i mode via component-video on all three of the monitors mentioned above. On the Westinghouse, which was displaying the VGA output's video at 1080p, the lines were solid. Other aspects of picture quality were the same as far as we could tell; the VGA input delivered all of the detail between white and black, and colors were well-saturated, not washed out as we've seen reported in a few online venues. That said, since there are discrepancies between VGA inputs on various HDTVs, you should make sure your HDTV supports 1080p via component video and that it performs to your liking. In other words, before you invest in the 360's VGA adapter, you should try to make sure it'll actually work. Hooking up a PC and setting the resolution to 1,920x1,080 should do the trick; if you get an image from the PC at that resolution, it will likely look the same via the 360's VGA output at 1080p.
Despite its soundtrack drawbacks, the Xbox 360 HD DVD player makes a perfectly suitable means of watching HD DVDs, and it's a good way for Xbox 360 owners to get in on the next-generation DVD action without investing too much. Of course, adding $200 to the cost of the Xbox 360 puts the total cost of the console at the same price as the PlayStation 3 and its integrated Blu-ray drive. Apples to apples, if next-generation DVD is what you're looking for, the PS3 is going to be the better overall solution from a design standpoint and it offers Dolby TrueHD playback. Of course, the Xbox 360 Video Marketplace offers downloadable movie "rentals" that are in high-def as well--pretty much obviating the need for an add-on disc player, if you're not a collector. In other words, the Xbox 360 HD DVD Player is just one of several possible ways to get your high-def video fix on a gaming console.
Assistant Editor David Rudden contributed to this review.