HD-DVD players may be cheaper, but it's Blu-ray players that have had the upper-hand technically, thanks to their support for 1080p. Until now, that is. With the impending arrival of the Toshiba HD-XE1, the balance will be restored. This player can display video at high-quality 1080p mode and features an HDMI 1.3 port for better color reproduction. There's also an improved range of audio outputs.
The XE1 is phenomenally well-built and feels like it will last a lifetime. The outer case is sturdy metal and the whole unit is surprisingly heavy. We don't think anyone will be sitting on the fence with the HD-XE1's styling. We like it, although its retro appearance doesn't really suggest high technology. It reminds us of a VHS deck from the mid-1980s -- it's not ugly, just different.
The remote control for the HD-XE1 is a fantastic piece of design. It's got a weighty authority about it that makes you feel like you're holding something of value. It has a metallic front with chrome effect keys that light up if you press them, which explains why it takes four AAA batteries. The dimmable display is basic, but it offers enough information to be useful.
To the rear of the machine are several sockets including composite-video, S-video, component-video, analog two- and 5.1-channel audio. There are also two digital audio outputs, optical and coaxial.
The HDMI output is the 1.3 version. The higher bandwidth that this offers is supposed to allow for things like better color range. Bear in mind your TV will also need to support HDMI 1.3 to see any difference. There aren't many of these around at the moment, but at least you're future-proofed with the XE1.
The front of the player features a flap that conceals some buttons for playback control. There are also two USB sockets for future upgrades, although there's no indication yet what this expansion might be.
The XE1's main selling point is that it's a full HD player supporting 1080p. It doesn't differ from Toshiba's previous model in many other ways. However, there is now 5.1 analog audio-out and digital coaxial audio-out (the has only optical digital-out). These are also gold-plated to minimize signal loss, and there's a serial (RS232) socket that can be used for custom remote control systems.
One of the key features HD DVD players offer is the option to connect to the Internet. The main use for this is that at some point in the future HD DVDs will include interactive features -- the first disk to support this is Blood Diamond. So even after an software title is released, there's the possibility of adding more content. This means you can update the player's firmware by simply hooking it up to your home network and selecting an option in the menu -- handy for when Toshiba wants to add a new feature to the player or fix a problem.
The menu system is very easy to use -- the only setting you'll really need to worry about initially is selecting the output suitable for your TV. The options are either "up to 480p/576p", "up to 720p", "up to 1080i" or "up to 1080p". Extra picture control settings are available via the "picture" button on the remote control. These settings are mostly concerned with cleaning up the image of upscaled DVDs, and many of the options won't work on HD DVD material.
As soon as the HD-XE1 was out of its packaging we popped Superman Returns into the tray and waited. And waited. It takes about 1 minute 30 seconds for the player to switch on, accept a disc and start playing it -- this is about 30 seconds slower than the Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player.
If you turn the player off and on again with a disc loaded, it takes about 1 minute for the player to boot and start playing -- fractionally slower than Samsung, which took about 48 seconds to perform the same function. The relatively slow startup times aren't the end of the world, but the waiting can get annoying.
Meanwhile, the picture quality was excellent. We hooked it up to a 37-inch Sharp Aquos LCD so we could make the most out of the full 1080p resolution of the player. Superman Returns looked great, even though it can be a difficult disc to play as there's such as diverse range of footage.
Clark running through the fields 15 minutes into the film showed us how clear the picture can look and how bright the colors can be. Later on, when Superman rescues the aeroplane, we were on the edge of our seats -- this is as close to flying as you can get while watching TV. When Superman crashes through the wing of the plane we pretty much ducked.
The player's sound will depend very much on your setup. If you are playing your HD DVDs through your television speakers, you won't be experiencing the full breadth of sound that you would if you hooked it up to an external Dolby Digital or DTS decoder. Support for uncompressed Dolby TrueHD is mandatory on HD DVD players (it's optional on Blu-ray), which improves upon the quality of compressed audio found on DVD.
The HD-XE1 also upscales your regular DVDs as well. It does a very good job of this, with excellent color and a mostly grain-free image. Our well-worn copy of The Big Lebowski looked great, and it's encouraging to know that it can replace your current DVD player, even if you already own a decent upscaling model.
While the HD-XE1 is a superb player, it's still worth pointing out that the format war between Blu-ray and HD DVD is still raging. Even with today's announcement by Paramount, HD DVD still has less studio support than Blu-ray, but there are still plenty of films available. Universal, and now Paramount, supports HD DVD exclusively, so any films it owns the rights to will be available only on this format. Likewise, Sony supports only its own format -- Blu-ray -- so don't expect James Bond on HD DVD anytime soon.