When making the upgrade to high-definition flat-screen displays, pernickety home cinema users often find that standard DVD players no longer cut the mustard. The problem lies in screen resolutions -- most flat screens are much higher res than DVD. It's taken a while for manufacturers to address the issue, but Toshiba and Samsung have both recently released budget LCDs that feature HDMI connectivity, leading them to follow up with higher-spec DVD players.
Toshiba's SD-350 is attractively priced, especially as the player has been comprehensively overhauled since its predecessor, the. There are a few curiosities that could deter you from making the upgrade -- picture quality is better through component video than it is from HDMI, for instance. Also, the player lacks an optical audio output, a standard that is much more popular than the coaxial output that's been chosen. The SD-350 is a funky looking piece of kit, with attractive features such as DivX playback and it's an adequate picture performer -- a perfect candidate if you've chosen something like the .
The SD-350E is a nice player to look at. It's extremely shallow from front to back and it's not very thick either -- it packs in modern technology while remaining the epitome of sleek player design. The front panel boasts a number of badges that should alert gadget lovers to the player's high-end features, including the HDMI logo, a DivX certification tag plus the usual DTS/Dolby Digital seal of approval. There are also three lights on the front panel that inform you of the video output mode, with indicators for 576p, 720p and 1080i resolution outputs. We like the blue light along the disc tray -- it gives the player a premium feel, but you may find it annoying in the dark of your home cinema.
The connections only take up 130mm of space and are bunched together on the left of the 430mm back panel. Most of our wishlist is covered, with RGB Scart, composite, component and HDMI video connectivity all present and correct. Having said that, there's inexplicably no S-video connector. It's not a complete loss, as you can buy a cheap Scart adaptor, but it's a shame to see it missing, as S-video connectors are still included on the front of many televisions, making them much easier to access than Scarts on the rear.
On the audio front, Toshiba's DVD player has one digital audio output of the coaxial variety. Most DVD players and home cinema systems offer optical audio outputs, so it's confusing to see it omitted here -- perhaps a sign of necessary cost-cutting on Toshiba's part. If your home-cinema system only has an optical input, then you'll need to buy an adaptor from somewhere like Maplin. HDMI also carries digital audio signals, although you'll need a very recent or high-end AV amp to have HDMI support.
The remote control is as diminutive as the player itself. It has a black fascia and a silver body -- something of a clash with the player, but stylish nonetheless. The size restricts the amount of space for the buttons, and everything feels too tightly packed together. Your thumb rests nicely on the Enter button though, and it can drop down to the main Play, Stop and other navigation buttons without straining.
Toshiba's player is only worth the upgrade if you have a flat-screen TV or projector, because most of the features are intended to improve DVD playback on high-definition displays. Previously, DVD players featured RGB Scart as the best quality connection. It was fine for a CRT TV, but the analogue, interlaced signal doesn't bode well for digital, progressive-scan displays. Instead of delivering video in an interlaced format, which can produce noticeable flicker on a flat screen, the SD-350E sends progressive images. This means that every line of the display is updated simultaneously, so there's no flicker. Both component video and HDMI support progressive scan on Toshiba's player, and if you want another quality boost, you can make the HDMI output a high-resolution video signal as well.
Many flat-screen owners will have made the upgrade to pre-empt the arrival of high-definition video. This player will act as a stopgap until high definition arrives by upsampling your standard PAL 576-line DVDs to 720p and 1080i. Most current LCDs feature a 1,360x768-pixel resolution -- 768 lines, in other words, so by having a player upscale the video to fit, it will hopefully have fewer visual artefacts when it's displayed. True, many TVs already feature technology to help fill in the gaps automatically, but a player that processes the video before it's transmitted certainly can't do any harm.
The player supports the DivX format, which is great for people who have movies they've compressed for use on the move. DivX can compress DVD movies down to much smaller size, and the Dr DivX software can be used to make the process easier. Those who are really into this video compression technology will probably prefer to use the Xvid codec, which is like Apple to DivX's Microsoft. Unfortunately though, the Xvid we tested didn't play back on the SD-350E. It's worth noting that the player can also be made multiregion via a simple remote control hack -- open the tray, dial '2403960' on the remote, press the enter key repeatedly to go to region 9, and then close the tray.
The component video output offers an excellent quality picture, but the player will not upscale video over this connection. We didn't mind that overly -- the picture from Toshiba's player from component was superbly detailed. We'd say that it edges out Samsung's DVD-HD850 over component, providing colours that jump off the screen and a contrast depth that not even the darkness of Batman Begins could begin to challenge. It's a shame that the player won't upscale via component video though, as it would be useful for last-generation LCD owners who missed out on the jump to HDMI.
The component video performance was one of the reasons we were slightly nonplussed by HDMI upscaling from the Toshiba. Be under no illusions, upscaling will not completely remove the compression artefacts from standard definition video, but there wasn't a noticeable improvement over component at 720p. We'd even say that contrast levels aren't as good as they are through component, which could be a weakness of the player's Zoran 7 chipset or the HDMI connection itself. There was a noticeable difference with a high-quality Monster HDMI cable, but we suspect that the budget price of the player will encourage most users to buy cheap interconnects. If we were to use the SD-350E at home, we would be tempted to stick with component video.
Edited by Michael Parsons
Additional editing by Nick Hide