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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.
Toshiba has already announced its third-generation HD DVD players, but so far we're a little skeptical about the real-world benefits of the promised upgrades. This means Toshiba's current line of HD DVD players could become a smart value buy over the next few months, as retailers look to sell old stock. The Toshiba HD-A20 sits in the middle of Toshiba's current lineup, offering 1080p output as compared to the budget HD-A2, yet lacking the HQV video processing and analog outputs of the flagship HD-XA2. The 1080p upgrade over the HD-A2 could, in theory, offer better image quality on 1080p TVs, but we weren't impressed with the HD-A20's 1080p output. So while the HD-A20 offers excellent image quality in 1080i mode, so does the HD-A2, which means it's hard to justify the extra money for the HD-A20. If your HDTV has particularly poor video processing, the HD-A20 might be worth the investment; but for most people, the better buy is the HD-A2.
The design of the HD-A20 is nearly identical to the step-down HD-A2, which is a big improvement over the hulking, first-generation HD-A1. The HD-A20 has a comparatively slim-line chassis, with measurements around 2.5-inches high by 17-inches wide by 13.5-inches deep--a full inch and a half shorter than the HD-A1. The front panel is glossy black and sloped forward, which gives it a unique look among more boxy components. To the far left of the device is a Power button, illuminated by a blue light when on and a red light when off--unfortunately, the button can't be dimmed or extinguished. To the far right is the LED display, which, thankfully, can be dimmed or even shut off if you're striving to limit light sources. The bottom third of the player contains a flip-down panel, concealing additional front-panel controls such as Play, Stop, and chapter forward/backward buttons. There are also two USB-like "extension ports," which don't currently have any use, but could in the future be used to add memory storage for downloadable extra features.
The HD-A20's remote is a major improvement over the one included with HD-A1 and the step-up HD-XA2. Instead of the long metallic wand that has become the ire of many an HD DVD early adopter, the HD-A20's clicker has a more traditional design. Toward the center of the remote is the navigation pad, which also has diagonal buttons for some of the more advanced interactive features on HD DVDs and menus. The rest of the controls are adequately placed, although we would have liked to see more button differentiation. To be fair, the HD-A20's remote is probably average at best; it just seems a lot better when compared to the remote included with the HD-A1 and with the HD-XA2.
The main feature of the HD-A20 is that it can play HD DVD discs, and like all other next-generation players, it's also capable of playing standard DVDs. Unlike some first generation Blu-ray players, the HD-A20 can play standard audio CDs, although it can't handle CDs and DVDs that include MP3 or JPEG files.
The HD-A20 offers the same, well-rounded soundtrack support we've come to expect from Toshiba's HD DVD players. It has onboard decoding for standard Dolby Digital and DTS surround soundtracks and also has onboard decoding for the two new, high-resolution Dolby formats: Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD. In other words, it can send those new soundtracks to a compatible AV receiver or processor via HDMI as a PCM stream that most HDMI-equipped receivers can handle. There is no onboard decoding for DTS-HD Master or DTS-HD High Resolution, but the HD-A20 can extract the "core" soundtrack from those formats, the result of which can be slightly better than a standard DTS soundtrack. Like all current high-definition disc players, the HD-A20 is unable to send any of the high-resolution soundtracks to brand-new TrueHD- and DTS-HD-compatible receivers in bit stream format. Toshiba has announced that its new, higher-end players--slated for October--will be able to output soundtracks in bit stream format. Also, Denon has a Blu-ray player with this functionality coming out in December.
The HD-A20's connectivity is reasonably complete, although it's missing some upgrades found on the HD-XA2. For video, it has an HDMI output capable of outputting high-definition video in resolution up to 1080p, an upgrade over the 1080i-only HD-A2. There's also a component video output, along with a standard AV with S-Video output. For audio, the HDMI output is capable of transmitting multichannel, high-resolution audio. There's also an optical digital audio output that can handle standard Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks, as well as a standard analog stereo output. Rounding out the rest of the connectivity is an Ethernet jack, which can conveniently be used to upgrade the firmware on the HD-A20. Note, however, that the upgrade process is lengthy; our upgrade took over 30 minutes.
What's missing? Well, if you step up to the HD-XA2, you get everything on the HD-A20 plus multichannel analog outputs, a coaxial digital audio output, and a RS-232 port. Those connections can certainly be useful, but they're not huge omissions if you have an HDMI-capable receiver and don't need the RS-232 functionality. Tech-savvy buyers will note that the HDMI output is only version 1.2, versus the newer 1.3 and 1.3a specs. While this is true, buyers shouldn't worry as there isn't any enhanced functionality on the HD-XA2 because of the HDMI 1.3 port.
The HD-A20 supports 1080p output via its HDMI output, although it doesn't support 1080p output at 24 frames per second. While some have claimed this feature can reduce judder with compatible displays, we haven't seen an increase in performance with the 1080p/24 Blu-ray players we've tested. However, we are continuing to test 1080p at 24 frames per second with different displays, so we cannot say definitively that it won't make a difference in some setups. As the vast majority of buyers don't have displays that are capable of taking advantage of this feature, it's not a big omission as far as we're concerned. Toshiba supposedly is also planning to release a firmware upgrade that would allow the HD-A20 to output at 24 frames per second.
HD DVD Performance
Because the HD-A20's major upgrade over the HD-A2 is 1080p output, the performance of the HD-A20 in 1080p mode is critical to whether the HD-A20 is worth the extra money. To start, we looked at some of the tests from Silicon Optix's HQV test suite on HD DVD in 1080p mode on our Pioneer Pro-FHD1. The results were disappointing. The HD-A20 struggled with the Film Resolution Loss tests, with moirÃ© present in the image of stands at Raymond James Stadium, and a strobe effect occurring on a shifting resolution pattern. The HD-A20 also did a poor job with the Video Resolution Loss test, with the same strobe behavior occuring on certain areas of the test pattern. We even saw significant jaggies (stair-step patterns along the edges of lines that should look smooth) on the Jaggies test with three shifting lines--which is notable, as most players and displays ace this test. We looked at these same patterns with the HD-XA2, and it passed every single test. Additional test discs also confirmed the HD-A20's limitations in 1080p mode--most importantly, the player failed to resolve the finest detail on test patterns from the HD DVD version of Digital Video Essentials.
We also looked at actual content to see how often these failures affected program material. Unfortunately, we found several instances where the HD-A20's subpar 1080p performance had a significant impact on the viewing experience. When we loaded up MI:III, we noticed some flicker on the bottom of the main menu right off the bat, along with some significant jaggies on the computer-generated graphics in the background. Jumping into the movie, one of the worst examples was at the beginning of Chapter 8 of MI:III, where there's very noticeable and distracting moirÃ© on the stairs in the background. At the beginning of Chapter 16, we could see obvious jaggies on the limo as it rolled up to Tom Cruise. These are only the some of the easiest places to spot the jaggies--we saw them popping up constantly throughout MI:III.
While MI:III looked pretty mediocre for HD DVD, other movies exhibited significantly less jaggies. We didn't see nearly many visible jaggies in Batman Begins, and Aeon Flux was also mostly jaggy-free, even on difficult scenes such as Chapter 9, where we've noticed issues before.
In all, whether the HD-A20's 1080p HD DVD performance is worth it over the step-down HD-A2 really comes down to how well your HDTV handles 1080i deinterlacing. If your HDTV has average or better built-in video processing (and most do), the HD-A20 definitely isn't worth it. If your HDTV has noticeably poor video processing, then perhaps the HD-A20's 1080p mode will provide a slightly better viewing experience. Whether that's worth the extra money is up to you, but it's worth noting that very few of the HDTVs CNET has tested over the last year exhibited worse video processing than did the HD-A20 while in 1080p mode.
Load times were definitely an issue on the first-generation HD-A1, but luckily the HD-A20 is a bit faster. We tried four discs (MI:III, Blood Diamond, King Kong, and Aeon Flux) and they all loaded in about 30 seconds from the time we hit the close-tray button until the picture showed up on the screen. When starting from the off position, it took us about 52 seconds to get MI:III playing.
Since most buyers of the HD-A20 will have larger DVD collections than HD DVD collections, the HD-A20's DVD performance is important as well. We kicked off our tests with Silicon Optix's HQV test on DVD in 1080p mode and were a little disappointed. For example, two of the jaggies tests were clear failures, with both a rotating line and three pivoting lines appearing full of jaggies. These jaggies were also present in footage of a waving flag. We were able to minimize some of the jaggies by switching to 1080i mode, which might provide better video quality, depending on your TV. On the other hand, the HD-A20 did a good job with a 2:3 pulldown processing test, kicking into film mode in under a second. The HD-A20 also had no problem displaying all the detail of DVDs, as demonstrated by its solid performance on a resolution test pattern--although again, the image was more stable in 1080i mode versus 1080p on our Pioneer Pro-FHD1.
The HD-A20 faired better with actual content material. It showed off its 2:3 pulldown processing during the introduction of Star Trek: Insurrection, with boats and curved railings rendering smoothly. It also did an excellent job with the difficult introduction to Seabiscuit, looking just about as good as we've seen this sequence. To be fair, the HD-A20 handled all of the film-based discs we threw at it pretty well, so while it may have failed some of the difficult video-based tests from HQV, it should do a good job with standard film-based movies.
DVD load times with the HD-A20 clocked in at 17 seconds from the time we hit the close-tray button until the time a picture came up on the screen.