Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD Player Reviewed

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toshiba_HD-XA1_hd_dvd_player.gifToshiba's HD-XA1 HD DVD Player came out a month later than they promised, but so what? Get over it. High-definition disc-viewing is a reality, so let's forget about the "format wars" and dive right in.

This ain't no slim-jim either--at 20 pounds, it's hefty and deep like an amplifier, though not quite so tall, and in fact, the shelf holding my standard DVD player was too small for it. The front is very clean because the majority of controls and the disc tray are hidden below the display window, inside a motorized door. This also includes two USB ports, which they say will let you use special controllers designed for it--it's really for future use, so hello and goodbye to that for now.

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Besides the door, this "big brother" of the HD-A1 (Toshiba's lesser priced HD DVD player) has a better quality "build" and larger "feet," and it also has a motion-activated illuminated remote and an RS-232C port for use with home-automation systems. But that motorized door is a problem. I'd turn on the player and press for the tray to open, only to see the display flashing "opening," even as the motorized door opened and closed, but the disc tray didn't eject. When I told the door to open first, and then pressed Open for the tray, the door would close, and "Opening" would appear again on the display. And again, no disc tray.
As it turns out, you really have to take your time when you first turn this machine on--it's really more of a computer than one of the DVD players we are now used to. It works fine when you turn it on and wait a bit, let the door open by itself, and then tell the tray to eject--and it continues to do so until you turn it off. Frankly, I could do without the door, as it's just another problem to deal with, but I guess there are some who find it appealing. (In comparison, the HD-A1 model I had purchased and received near the end of this review never had this problem--but then it doesn't have a door, either.) One thing I did find with all of the players is that you have to get used to waiting around a minute or so before the video begins. Chalk it up to first-generation tech and the fact that a whole lot of electronics are firing up to provide for video and audio.

The first user-control thing to do is to select the output and resolution (480i/p, 720p, or 1080i). HDMI is HDCP-compliant, so your display must be too. (Toshiba recommended that I set the resolution to that of the disc, not the player, and since they were all 1080p, I used the 1080i setting.) The other video ports are Component, S-Video, and Composite, and of course, you should select the machine output for your best choice. Audio gives you the choice of using a coaxial or Toslink optical, and there are also sets of stereo and 5.1 RCA outs.

There's also an Ethernet port on the back for getting content related to specific discs, which the player can store in its own memory. This requires broadband Internet access. Used in conjunction with a router and home network, the auto-configure process is fairly easy to do, although a manual setup will be more challenging. In my case, the router for the wired network is close enough to my home theater that I was able to run a cable. Others might want to try using wireless, but as always, when dealing with broadband, it is important that the signal stays constant so there are no dropouts.

Of course, this is all moot since none of the discs I had on hand had any hooks for online use. However, I was able to check whether the firmware needed updating-it did, and through the maintanance setting, I was able to follow the steps to take care of it (The Bourne Supremacy showed up in time for me to try and succeed at accessing its picture in picture video streaming).

Tweaking the Controls
The setup menu is similar to those found in conventional DVD players: screen aspect ratios, boosting sharpness, altering contrast, etc. I tend to turn off all enhancements, with the exception of black level, when using my front projector, which is what I used first. Playing a standard-definition test disc to conform this player to your display is always a good idea--although you might end up redoing it all, eyeballing it to play an HD DVD disc.

Seeing in SD
Inside is a Pickup head containing three different laser diodes: these three handle CD, DVD, and HD DVD. The beams for all three of these are focused through the same objective lens in a seamless fashion, as far as we users are concerned. There's also compatibility with recordable DVD-R/RW and DVD-RAM, plus CDs and MP3 and WMA audio.

Upconverting the SD discs via HDMI to 720p, scales it to my Optoma front projector's native resolution, but this shouldn't be confused with making it high-def. I will say that the quality of the SD discs looks as good as what I had been getting from my standard-def DVD player. If anything, the overall sharpness seems to be a bit better; for example, there was improved sharpness in Independence Day's massive amount of special effects, ranging from spaceship scenes to live action crowds to that crowd favorite--the White House going boom (still, it doesn't take the place of a standalone video scaler).

As far as standard DVD compatibility, I tried 20 discs at random--movies, TV shows, music concerts, some recently released and some not so recent. Only one failed, stuttering and freezing. I had to stop and eject the disc.

I even ran 1973's The Seven-Ups (best car chase scenes since Bullitt), and while it showed its age with a bit of grain, that just added to the grittiness--and what a blast to see the old New York I used to live in. But as good as all these discs appear to be, I'm still hoping to be blown away when I switch to HD.

So Get to the HD Discs Already
An HDMI cable is provided, but if you take this home without picking up an HD DVD movie, expect to turn right around and head back to the store. All the titles I have to view right now are from the first wave and listed as being in 1080p--so what does that mean? I spent a few days working out my conspiracy theories before going to Toshiba, who told me that while there are quite a few TVs out there today that say they are "1080p," very few can actually take and send such a signal directly to the display. I was also told that, 1) since the overwhelming majority of "1080p" sets can only accept 1080i or lower, then the TV converts that 1080i to 1080p for display, and 2) Toshiba decided that since the number of 1080p sets is so limited, they would limit the first-generation set to 1080i. I was also told that this decision is, in part, what allowed HD DVD players to be delivered so early--with the plan being that all subsequent models would be capable of sending a 1080p signal. And as often happens to an early adopter, these current players cannot be modified to provide a 1080p output.

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