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HD-DVD Product Introduction Event
The High Definition format war is upon us, and Toshiba has landed the first blow. By now, anyone with a keen interest in home theater should be well aware of the rivalry between the HD-DVD format fronted by Toshiba and the Blu-Ray format fronted by Sony and its partners. Both HD optical disc products are scheduled to launch later this year; HD-DVD hits store shelves on March 28th and Blu-Ray claims to be not far behind at May 23rd. Although both companies had showings at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Toshiba has ramped up their promotional efforts with a nationwide HD-DVD Product Tour with stops in 40 cities to demonstrate their new disc players to the public. After months of hype, outrageous claims, vicious attacks, and deliberate misinformation spread by both camps, these in-store appearances finally provide a real opportunity (outside of specialty conventions) for interested consumers to take a look at some of the merchandise in action. Having attended the March 1st event in Newton, MA, I can say that Toshiba put on a good show and appears to have a viable product ready to go.

At first glance, the two HD disc formats seem more similar than not in both specifications and features. They both provide true High Definition video content on an optical disc similar to DVD in its convenience and usage. There are specific technical differences in how they work, and each format has its own twist on the included features and how they operate, but by and large it's clear that both are catering to the same intended market. The most salient points of interest are that HD-DVD will be first out of the gate and will have a much lower price point (Toshiba's first HD-DVD player, the HD-A1, will sport an MSRP of only $499, while Samsung's Blu-Ray entry model will be approximately $1,000). However, Blu-Ray has (at least initially) broader support from more of the big name Hollywood movie studios. At this point, it's impossible to tell which selling point, the lower price or the bigger selection, will draw in the most consumers and help to win the war, though of course wild speculation on this topic has run rampant throughout the home theater community.

Questions and Answers

At the event were present a Toshiba representative who ran all of the equipment and several members from their PR firm. I had the opportunity to pull each of them aside at one point or another. All were knowledgeable about the product and eager to provide as much information as they could, though they did not necessarily have answers to every topic I brought up. Some of the key points addressed were:

Distinguishing Features Between the HD-A1 and HD-XA1 Player Models
At launch, Toshiba will release two HD-DVD player models, the $499 HD-A1 and the $799 HD-XA1. Contrary to some recent rumors, both players will be released on the same day: March 28th. According to the Toshiba rep, both players will have identical picture and sound quality, as well as video playback features. The main distinction between them will be that the XA1 has an RS232 port for additional networking capabilities. The flagship XA1 will also have more robust build quality (read: it's heavier) and some cosmetic differences such as a motorized flip-down front panel and a fancier remote control. Is that really worth an additional $300? That's a personal decision, but I would dare to guess that most buyers will be perfectly happy with the HD-A1.

HDMI vs. Component
Both Toshiba players will be capable, from a hardware perspective, of delivering 720p or 1080i High Definition video over either the HDMI digital or component video analog outputs. However, some discs may be encoded in such a way as to reduce the video resolution of the component video connections to either 480p or 540p output. As is a mandatory part of the AACS copy protection guidelines, the player must enforce this downconversion if the disc is marked for it. This is a decision that will be made on a disc-by-disc basis and is entirely up to the home video studio releasing the content. Toshiba themselves have no stake in forcing a resolution reduction, but if the studio flags the disc in this way, true High Definition video will only be available via the HDMI connection. At present, it's not clear which studios will support full HD output over analog component and which will force a lower resolution. It's also not clear whether the discs themselves will be labeled to indicate as much.

Native Resolution of the Disc Content
With 1080p HDTV models (including some from Toshiba themselves) currently hitting the market, it is a bit disappointing to hear that the first-generation HD-DVD players will only offer High Definition video output in the 720p and 1080i formats (the player can scale the content on the disc to either output of your choice). However, it should be noted that the vast majority of HDTVs on the market are still limited to those resolutions. Also, the 1080i output of an HD-DVD player can be deinterlaced to 1080p format on a capable television by the set itself. When I asked what the actual native resolution of the disc content will be, I was informed that this is another decision made by the home video studio on a disc-by-disc basis. The HD-DVD discs are capable of storing content in 720p, 1080i, or 1080p formats (and lower resolutions as well), entirely depending on what the releasing studio wants. Initial reports from some of the mastering facilities are that most movies will be stored in 1080p24 format. The Toshiba rep said that the second generation of HD-DVD players may allow 1080p resolution output, but this has yet to be finalized.

Internet Connection and Player Firmware Updates
Rumors (some would say paranoid hysteria) last year claimed that one or both of the HD disc formats would require a mandatory permanent internet connection to allow playback of any movie content so that the movie studios could monitor what you watch and disable your player if they felt like it. Fortunately, at this point both sides are reporting that rumor to be false. Although the Toshiba HD-DVD players will allow for internet connectivity, it is not required. The connection will facilitate firmware upgrades to the player should new features become available after purchase, or should the AACS specifications change and require the player to be updated before it can play new discs encoded with different (as yet unfinalized) types of copy protection. Toshiba says that their firmware can also be updated by a disc (either burned on your computer or requested from Toshiba) should you not want to connect your player online.

It's worth noting that the players used in this event were still technically prototypes, and were not yet fully equipped with all of the user convenience features the format promises. They were essentially only functional for basic movie playback functions, but Toshiba insists that all features will be enabled on the retail players on the launch date of March 28th.

The Demonstrations

With all of that information out of the way, of course the main point of the event was to actually demonstrate the product. Toshiba had two HD-XA1 players up and running. Unlike what had reportedly happened at CES, there were no technical failings or false starts. Everything was working properly. Attention was drawn primarily to a unit set for 1080i output and connected via HDMI to a Toshiba 1080p DLP rear projection HDTV. Unfortunately, only a single piece of HD-DVD content was available to display, a special demo disc with HD vs. SD comparisons and a series of movie trailers. The Toshiba rep said that she had hoped to bring real HD-DVD movie discs with her to show, but she couldn't obtain any in time for the event.

The disc started with a string of split-screen comparisons. The left half of the screen was true High Definition video, and the right side was said to be Standard Definition video upscaled to the same output resolution. The difference was dramatic, and I have to admit wholly contrived and unfair. Naturally, the left half of the screen looked razor sharp, with terrific color definition and fine object detail, and the right half of the screen was blurry and dull. The side that was supposed to represent SD quality was obviously crippled to look worse than a normal decent DVD would actually look. I fully expected something like this (Sony pulled the same stunt at CES), and paid less attention to the supposed comparison than to looking at the quality of the HD side of the screen.

After this were at least eight movie trailers presented in High Definition. The Toshiba rep said that she believed the disc was encoded in 1080i format, but was not certain because all of the documents that came with it were printed in Japanese. The trailers I caught were: The Dukes of Hazzard, Serenity, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, The Interpreter, King Kong, and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. Batman Begins and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were also in the mix, but because the rep kept jumping around on the disc I didn't get to see those. Some of these trailers were presented in 2.35:1 widescreen with the appropriate letterbox bars, but some of them were modified to fill the 16:9 screen. Since these were just trailers, they are not necessarily representative of how an actual movie disc would be presented, but do give a good idea of the format's potential for picture quality. To that end, they all looked terrific.

The High Definition picture was, as we should all expect, decidedly better than even the best-looking DVD. The images were extremely sharp and detailed, with vivid colors and depth. I happened to watch Serenity on DVD just a few days earlier, and the HD-DVD trailer was significantly more detailed. I would also say that the examples looked better than any broadcast HDTV I've seen. The Toshiba rep claimed this was because HD-DVD has a higher bit-rate, but that's actually misleading since HD-DVD uses a completely new compression format (the disclaimer at the beginning of the disc just said "MPEG4" but there has been some speculation that it may have actually been VC1) and the bit-rate numbers are not directly comparable. Nonetheless, the picture quality was pretty stunning. The King Kong trailer was a particular hit with the crowd. I did see some minor artifacts in a few of the clips (The Interpreter was the least visually compelling), including what appeared to be some thin edge ringing in the split-screen video comparison, but because this demonstration was happening in a retail store rather than the controlled environment of the home, I had no way of checking the picture settings on the TV being used. It's entirely possible that the TV may have been poorly calibrated and could have caused these flaws, which I really have to emphasize were incredibly minor. I was certainly impressed with the quality on display, as were most in attendance.

A second HD-XA1 player was set up on the other side of the room, connected to a Samsung 1080p HDTV. This was situated side-by-side with a similar TV running content via an HP Media Center. Both machines were playing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on standard DVD in unison. The point of this was to demonstrate the HD-DVD player's upconversion quality for regular DVDs. The Toshiba player did indeed look slightly better than the HP unit, but I was honestly not all that impressed with either. I feel that the DVD picture I get at home currently looks better than what I was seeing here. Again, however, without being able to control the TV calibration I don't think this is necessarily indicative of the player's true abilities. As with any promotional event, the demonstrations on display were just a taste of the real thing. The true test will come when we can get the players home, connected to our own equipment, to see how they fare.

Wrapping Up

The Toshiba HD-DVD Product Tour was a definite success, and should provide a boost to the format in these critical stages before launch date. Which product will eventually win the format war (if either) is still too early to tell. For the record, I fully expect Blu-Ray players to have near-identical quality to what we've seen of HD-DVD. Hopefully Sony, Samsung, or one of the other Blu-Ray partners will hold similar promotional events to give us a peek.

For more information on HD-DVD, please visit the official Toshiba HD-DVD Promotional Site.

Want to share your thoughts on HD-DVD? Be sure to drop in the HD Talk forum area and join the discussion.

- Joshua Zyber

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