After a one-month delay, Toshiba has released the first standalone HD DVD player in Australia, an alternative to Blu-ray for high-definition content. To be fair, Toshiba's Qosmio G30 laptop with a built-in HD DVD drive was released back in July, but that's not a unit designed to sit permanently beside your plasma or LCD, and at AU$5,000 it's a very expensive way to watch films. The HD-E1 sells for AU$1,099, which is still quite expensive for a something that essentially plays movies.
While the HD-E1 is the first real HD DVD player on the market, it's not exactly the smallest of devices -- Microsoft is expected to release a HD DVD player about the size of a hardback book for its Xbox 360 console in March. At 430mm by 66mm by 345mm, the Toshiba is slightly larger than a regular DVD player, although it should fit effortlessly into most home entertainment cabinets.
The HD-E1 is mostly black, with an angular silver flip-down front panel revealing two USB ports, which Toshiba tells us will allow you to connect game controllers and other peripherals. No supported USB devices have been announced yet, and we haven't seen any HD DVD titles that have special features that require USB add-ons at this stage.
Rear connections on the HD-E1 are fairly sparse. There's composite, S-Video and component (Pb, Pr, Y) for video, 2-channel analog and optical for audio, HDMI and an Ethernet jack. Like the two USB ports, the Ethernet connection allows for expansion -- Toshiba tells us the HD-E1 will be able to connect to the Internet to update its firmware and download disc-specific special features such as in-movie shopping for music and products -- again, we haven't seen discs with such extras yet.
For AU$1,099, Toshiba should have added a backlight to the black remote control, which is taxing to navigate in the dark. The only notable thing about the long, plastic remote is an eight-way navigation pad, up from DVD's four, providing diagonal directions in addition to the regular up, down, left and right keys -- which we can only assume will be used for special features on HD DVD.
Setting up the HD-E1 is straightforward; it worked out of the box for us after connecting to a TV via HDMI. Video output resolution can be set to 480i/576p, 480p/576p, 720p or 1080i, but a HDMI needs to be used for the latter high-definition resolutions. Home theatre aficionados will notice the lack of support for 1080p -- the HD-E1's bigger brother, the HD-EX1, supports this "full high-definition" resolution. Most punters shouldn't be concerned, however, as it's very hard to tell the difference between 1080i (interlaced scanning) and 1080p (progressive scanning) unless you have a very big telly and you know what you're looking for: slight shimmers or comb-like patterns in high-motion scenes.
An assortment of logos on the HD-E1 lists its disc format compatibility: CD, DVD and HD DVD. DTS, Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus are also supported on the audio side. Dynamic range control and dialog enhancement on the HD-E1 can be switched on or off, digital SPDIF output can be set to bitstream or PCM, and HDMI out can be set to PCM or downmixed PCM. Language preferences can be chosen through the set-up menu for subtitles, audio and the onscreen display.
Networking over Ethernet includes support for DHCP, a proxy, an NTP server, network speed and cookies. The HD-E1's MAC address can also be displayed for those with filtering security on their network.
The HD-E1's front panel shows title and chapter number and time progression through the disc, as expected. Further to this, extra information can be displayed onscreen through the remote control to show the video codec, audio channel, angle, video output and audio output. Language can be changed using a dedicated button on the remote, or on the fly by navigating through pop-up menus onscreen while a movie plays in the background. The HD-E1 remote can also change channels and adjust the volume on some televisions.
We didn't get off to a good start with the HD-E1. The first disc we tried to play, a Region 1 DVD (standard-definition) of The Last Samurai, wouldn't play -- the HD-E1 isn't multi-region. There is no region encoding implemented on HD DVD yet, and we were disappointed to see Toshiba locking down DVD compatibility.
We found the HD-E1's start-up time too sluggish -- about 35 seconds to boot up, another 25 seconds to load a HD DVD title. You can hear the HD-E1's fans when you're up close, but insignificant when you're sitting at a viewing distance greater than a metre or two. More irritating is the audible groan the HD-E1 makes skipping titles on a disc, but this usually happens when accessing special features from the title menu rather than during a movie itself.
High-definition isn't a cheap hobby, even with this entry-level HD DVD player from Toshiba. The HD-E1 is, however, AU$500 less than Samsung's BD-P1000 Blu-ray player and AU$1,650 less than Panasonic's first Blu-ray player. There's not much competition in the HD DVD player market yet, with Microsoft's HD DVD Xbox 360 add-on down as the next player to be released in March, which will carry a recommended retail price of AU$250 (in addition to the AU$650 console, of course).
We hooked the HD-E1 up to a 37-inch Toshiba Regza LCD and were impressed with the level of clarity the we saw in two HD DVD titles we were sent: Mission Impossible: III and The Last Samurai. Apollo 13, on the other hand, didn't look all that great -- it was better resolution than DVD, but some scenes still looked grainy and relatively low quality. Regular DVDs upscaled to 1080i over HDMI looked much better than normal, and gave Samsung's BD-P1000 a run for its money in terms of sharpness.
The HD-E1 hit a few stumbling blocks during our testing, first it froze when we tried to turn it off via the remote -- we couldn't get rid of the "Goodbye" message on the display. Turning it off at the wall then back on again fixed the problem. Second, when an HD DVD title had fingerprints on it, we noticed jittery playback. Rubbing them off with a cloth was easy enough, though. Lastly, the HD-E1 didn't cope well when we tried out the zoom feature on one of the titles. Upon blowing the action up to 8x zoom, audio became garbled, video froze, and on resuming playback the movie became out of sync.
Pop-up interactive menus, one of the new features HD DVD offers, were a little jerky, as were menu animations. Nevertheless, we like being able to adjust settings while a movie is playing in the background, and to select particular scenes with the help of thumbnail images. Another handy HD DVD feature is being able to bookmark scenes from the pop-up menu to return to later.
So far Blu-ray has the upper hand in terms of movie studio support, but HD DVD is cheaper to produce. Still, it remains to be seen whether HD DVD or Blu-ray will triumph as the successor to DVD, and unless you're willing to take a gamble, we'd recommend waiting until there is more competition in the market and player prices drop as a result. If you have got a big-screen TV sitting in your living room, hungry for HD content, the Toshiba HD-E1 will provide you with some great viewing -- for now, at least.