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.