Editors' note: Toshiba officially announced it will stop producing HD DVD products, bringing an end to the format war. For that reason, CNET recommends that people avoid buying this player for high-definition movie playback.
The Toshiba HD-A1 was the world's first HD DVD movie player when it was released in April 2006. While it delivered the goods--offering a true high-definition picture and impressive better-than-DVD surround sound--it came with the quirks and glitches that are an unfortunate inevitability of first-generation hardware. Those technical issues, paired with the risks and caveats inherent to a new and unproven technology--namely, a dearth of HD DVD movies and limited studio support--left us feeling tepid at best about the HD-A1. The subsequent release two months later of the Samsung BD-P1000, the first player compatible with the archrival Blu-ray format, finally gave us something worthy of comparing head-to-head to the Toshiba. During that comparison the Toshiba's video quality won handily, and our enthusiasm for Blu-ray was tempered even further by its twice-as-expensive price. Since our review of the BD-P1000, Samsung has claimed that its player was flawed, and the company will ready a firmware patch to address the issue.
In the meantime, Toshiba has offered multiple firmware upgrades of its own, which can be downloaded and installed automatically via the Internet. We took another look at the HD-A1 with the latest firmware (version 1.4) installed and with several more HD DVD movies on hand than were available during our initial evaluations. For the most part, the firmware upgrades didn't seem to fix some of the player's more distracting quirks. Most notably, start-up time and disc loads are still painfully slow, and HDMI stability is far from ideal--the sort of annoyances that would, for instance, be unacceptable on a run-of-the-mill DVD player. That said, compared to the admittedly crippled Samsung, the half-as-expensive Toshiba is clearly the better choice for the early adopter looking for the best high-def picture quality.
Editor's note: This review has been updated several times since originally posting on April 18, 2006. The review has been changed to reflect subsequent testing on the HD-A1 with newer firmware (version 1.4), more HD DVD movies, and direct comparisons to the Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player. Subsequent changes may be made based on whether future firmware upgrades deliver noteworthy performance adjustments.
Senior editors Phil Ryan and David Katzmaier contributed to this review. Thanks to its rather beefy dimensions--4 inches high by 17 wide by 14 deep--the Toshiba HD-A1 looks like something of a throwback to older DVD players or even some big, old VCRs. Why is it so big and clunky? As it turns out, it's just a Linux PC dressed up to look like a video component, complete with a motherboard, a Pentium 4 CPU, PC2700 RAM, and a 5.25-inch optical drive--all of which are clearly visible in this CNET Out of the Box video.
The HD-A1 lacks the slick upscale look and motorized front door of its step-up sibling, the Toshiba HD-XA1, which lists for $300 more. (There's also an all-black version, the Toshiba HD-D1, that's otherwise identical except that it's a Wal-Mart "exclusive," as well as the RCA HDV5000, which is also a virtual clone of the HD-A1.) The bright blue front-panel display shows information such as output resolution and HDMI status, and home-theater purists will appreciate that it can be dimmed or disabled completely.
A smattering of standard controls (play, pause, eject, and so forth) litter the front panel, and a small fold-down door can be opened to reveal a pair of USB ports; Toshiba hints that they could be used to connect some sort of future interactive controller, but they're moot for now. Of course, most of the interaction with the Toshiba HD-A1 will happen through the unit's remote control. That's unfortunate because it's one of the most poorly designed remotes in recent memory. The long, slender wand utilizes 37 keys and a five-way directional pad, plus a slide-down panel that reveals lesser-used buttons: a numeric keypad and three setup keys. But almost all the keys--including such vital functions as disc transport and resolution--are the same size and shape, making navigation anything but intuitive. And despite the fact that it uses four included AAA batteries, the remote isn't illuminated (backlighting is reserved for the HD-XA1). It can, however, be programmed to control the basic functions of most common TV brands.
The onscreen display is another shortcoming of the player. The setup screen is great: You can effortlessly navigate between the five main categories of the setup menu--picture, audio, language, Ethernet, and general--and their respective submenus. The display can be toggled between any one of three skins for a degree of customization. And those interface niceties are only the hardware-specific ones; individual HD DVD discs have the potential for much more animated and interactive menus and overlays than standard DVDs (see Features for more details). The problem is that the player lacks any other sort of onscreen displays or prompts. For instance, toggling between audio soundtracks (with the remote's Audio button) gives no feedback--either onscreen or on the machine's front-panel display. Similarly, there's no splash-screen when disc playback is stopped; it sounds innocuous enough, but displays connected via HDMI will often start wigging out from the resulting loss of the "handshake signal." HD DVD is essentially DVD 2.0, and like any good big-budget sequel, the new format manages to combine some impressive new special effects without straying too far from the familiar narrative that we've come to expect. The native resolution of standard DVDs maxed out at 720x480, and compared to VHS and even regular analog TV, that was quite impressive. But HD DVD discs can store video with native resolution of as much as 1,920x1,080--as much as six times the detail potential of the standard DVD. Moreover, HD DVD discs can also store new super-high-resolution digital audio formats specifically designed to take advantage of the discs' extra capacity (15GB to 30GB, compared to 4.7GB to 8.5GB for standard DVD). These Dolby True HD, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS-HD soundtracks offer improved bit rates, lossless compression, and as many as 7.1 channels of discrete audio tracks, providing the potential for much more realistic and lifelike sound than DVD's Dolby Digital and DTS tracks.
In addition to taking audio and video to the next level, HD DVD even has the potential to one-up the interactivity offerings and special features that distinguished DVDs from their linear VHS predecessors. For instance, instead of just the familiar director's commentary, HD DVD allows translucent menus and superimposed video to appear over the film itself while it's still running; you could, for instance, see the actors and filmmakers reacting to the movie in real time or see a before-and-after comparison on how a stunt or a special-effects sequence was composed. That offers the possibility for more contextual "making of" featurettes that can be viewed without having to stop the movie, jump back to a main menu, then drill down to a related special feature.
Now that we've told you just how great HD DVD can be, it's time to pile on the caveats. As with DVD, the format's theoretical potential is limited by the quality of the software that's available for it--and the HD DVD roster is certain to be anemic for many months to come: The format launched with just four titles on day one--Warner's The Last Samurai, Phantom of the Opera, and Million Dollar Baby and Universal's Serenity--and a handful of others (including Apollo 13, The Bourne Supremacy, Unforgiven, and Lethal Weapon) have dribbled out in the weeks since. But very few of the titles currently available feature the bells and whistles that Toshiba has promised.
Similarly, HD DVD's vaunted increase in visual and audio fidelity comes with a few buts. Despite the fact that the format supports HD resolutions of up to 1080p, the first wave of hardware--including the Toshiba HD-A1, HD-D1 and HD-XA1, as well as the RCA HDV5000--can output only as high as 1080i. That's not such a big deal, however, since the difference between 1080i and 1080p sources is very difficult to discern on-screen, even with the most cutting-edge hardware.
Another video "gotcha," and one that HD DVD shares with Blu-ray, is analog downconversion. When linked via an all-digital HDMI connector, HD DVDs can be displayed at high-def resolution (720p or 1080i). But to prevent the possibility of pirates making a perfect high-def copy, studios can encode their discs with an image-constraint token (ICT), a software flag that can be activated at the discretion of the movie studio publishing the disc. When activated, it tells the player to downconvert its output resolution to 960x540 when played through the analog component-video outputs, which lack the robust digital copy-protection of HDMI. The result: anyone with an older HDTV--one that lacks an HDMI or HDCP-compatible DVI connection--can lose as much as 75 percent of the maximum possible HD DVD resolution at the whim of the studio executives. Audio capabilities are similarly curtailed from their theoretical potential, although--as with the 1080p issue--the culprit here is more technical than political (more on that in the Performance section). Thankfully, the image-constraint token remains more a threat than an actuality--it apparently has yet to be implemented on any HD DVDs yet released--but it remains an issue worthy of consideration for anyone with an older HDTV.
Having outlined the potentials and pitfalls of the HD DVD format in general, let's return to the specifics of the Toshiba HD-A1. On the surface, the HD-A1's back panel is indistinguishable from that of any other well-apportioned DVD player. It has a full assortment of video outputs (HDMI, component, S-Video, and composite) and audio connectors (coaxial and optical digital output, as well as stereo RCA output and 5.1-analog outs), not to mention a quiet fan to keep the internal electronics sufficiently cool. There's also an Ethernet jack for connecting to the Internet through your home network, a feature notably absent from Samsung's BD-P1000 but which may appear on other Blu-ray players. Those looking for built-in media streaming will be disappointed, however; the networking functionality is currently limited to little more than firmware upgrades.
The Toshiba HD-A1 and all forthcoming HD DVD and Blu-ray players can play all your standard DVDs, including home-burned DVD-/+Rs, DVD-/RWs, and DVD-RAM discs, and upscale them to 720p and 1080i resolutions through the HDMI output. The HD-A1 can likewise play back CDs as well as MP3/WMA CD-Rs and CD-RWs, but it won't spin SACDs or DVD-Audio discs.
Of course, the Toshiba HD-A1 can't play Blu-ray discs, but Blu-ray players don't play HD DVD discs either. And despite some juicy rumors, there are no officially announced universal players on the docket, so HD fans are left choosing a mutually exclusive high-def Coke-or-Pepsi equivalent for the time being. But it's worth noting that the Blu-ray format offers virtually the same benefits and shortfalls as HD DVD once players hit stores later in 2006, with two key distinctions: Blu-ray players will offer 1080p output straight out of the gate, and the format is backed by a wider list of studios (including Fox, Sony, Warner, Paramount, and Disney) as compared to just three majors for Blu-ray (Warner, Paramount, and Universal). But that bleeding-edge video offering and bigger catalog potential won't come cheap; entry-level Blu-ray players are slated to cost double the Toshiba HD-A1's price, though the Blu-ray-compatible Sony PlayStation 3 is scheduled to be available for $500 to $600 in November 2006. The Toshiba HD-A1 can be set to output at 480p, 720p, or 1080i via the HDMI or component connections, but HDMI is the only foolproof option because, as mentioned previously, the studios can encode their discs to restrict the image to sub-HD resolution via the component outs, though none have yet opted to do so. On most digital displays, HDMI also looks better than component video. The HD-A1 can alternately output standard 480i video via the composite or S-Video ports, though doing so completely obviates the whole point of buying a high-def player in the first place.
We popped in The Last Samurai HD DVD, set the output resolution of the player to 1080i, and connected it to a variety of displays, including a Samsung HL-S5687W 1080p DLP and the Sony VPL-VW100 projector. The resulting image was impressive: minute details in the film--the blades of grass, the cresting waves, the pores of the actors' faces, the stitching of uniforms and tapestries--leapt from the screen with startling crispness. Then we watched the same scenes from the standard DVD version of the movie on a $150 Sony DVD player (upconverting to 1080i resolution) and yes, the good ol' DVD looked pretty fine. The difference between the DVD and the HD DVD was quite significant on the big screens however, and after watching the HD DVD for the comparative softness of the DVD really stood out.
Over the course of a few weeks, we auditioned all of the early HD DVD movies we could get our hands on, including Apollo 13, Doom, Full Metal Jacket, Training Day, and Serenity--in many cases, doing the same A/B comparison between the HD DVD and standard DVD versions of the respective films. We were able to draw some conclusions about the Toshiba HD-A1--and, perhaps, the HD DVD standard as a whole. With the early discs, at least, the player delivers a picture that's unquestionably superior to that of standard DVDs--if you have a high-def display and a discerning eye. Color saturation is the biggest improvement: high-definition video offers a more extensive color palette, and it's evident with more natural skin tones on actors, for instance. Improved resolution is noticeable as well, but it can be a bit harder to detect; we noted on the HD DVD that we could read the actual words on the cue cards that Tom Cruise's character drunkenly ignores during his opening speech in The Last Samurai, but they were merely a blur on the standard DVD.
With the available pool of HD DVD movies still limited, the fact that the HD-A1 can upconvert your existing DVDs to HD-friendly 720p and 1080i is a nice plus. We auditioned a variety of resolution patterns from our HQV and Avia Pro test discs at 1080i and via the HDMI output and found the results to be on a par with those of the better upscaling DVD players.
How does HD DVD compare to Blu-ray? Direct comparisons won't be available until August, when Warner releases some Blu-ray titles, such as Training Day and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, that are already available on HD DVD. In the meantime, we put the best-looking HD DVDs up against the best Blu-ray discs on the same display and felt that HD DVD had a leg up. Swordfish on HD DVD, for example, looked absolutely spectacular, with hyperreal details and a sharpness that seemed to leap off the screen. The same went for The Chronicles of Riddick, where HD DVD again looked sharper and more realistic than anything we'd seen on Blu-ray. Whether to blame any of this on the players, as opposed to the individual titles, is something we can't do until we have another Blu-ray player to compare--and the fact that the Samsung has since admitted that its BD-P1000 has a flawed chip that overly softens the picture makes us all the more desperate for another Blu-ray player to hit the market.
It's also worth noting that high-def movie players--HD DVD or Blu-ray--can't overcome the limitations of the display on which you view them. We watched movies on a wide range of displays (plasmas, LCD flat-panels, DLP projectors, big-screen DLP rear-projection TVs, and even our reference Sony KD-34XBR960 direct-view CRT reference monitor), and the picture quality varied from one to the next. Black levels are still going to suffer on an LCD, for instance, and the level of detail will look best on displays bigger than 50 inches and those with the highest native resolution. We also noticed that a lot of the resolution was wasted when we set the player to 720p output mode, even when watching a 720p-native-resolution display. We tried the HD-A1 on an Optoma H78DC3 projector with a 100-inch screen, for example, and details in Serenity looked noticeably sharper with the player set to 1080i mode than to 720p.
While the HD-A1's video lived up to its next-generation billing, audio was another story. There are at least five ways to get audio from the HD-A1: via the HDMI cable (which also carries the video), via the optical or coaxial digital outputs, via the RCA stereo audio analog (red and white) outs, or via the 5.1 analog outputs. If you're looking for a quick and easy audio hookup, you'll probably be fine--none of these options are, on the surface, different from what you'd find on a well-equipped DVD player. But if you're expecting a noticeable improvement over your existing DVD soundtracks, think again. While the HD DVD discs are said to be encoded with the higher-resolution Dolby True HD and/or Dolby Digital Plus soundtracks (DTS-HD will be an option on later releases) actually hearing those more nuanced sounds can be a challenge. You'll need to access the player's audio setup menu to specify which type of digital audio stream you want via which digital output, depending on how you've connected your HD-A1. We were able to get surround audio from all three HDMI-equipped receivers (the Yamaha RX-V2600, the Denon AVR-2807, or the JVC RX-D702) we tried via the HDMI input, but it took more finagling with the player and the receiver menus than we would've liked. Of course, first-gen Blu-ray players suffer from the identical set of limitations.
Three other major issues with the HD-A1 are hardware-specific and have nothing to do with the HD DVD format as a whole. The first is the long load time for discs. Power up the player and pop in an HD DVD disc, and you're in for a long wait--and then some. True, DVD players aren't the fastest animals, but the HD-A1 qualifies as downright sluggish. Powering up and ejecting the disc tray takes about 45 seconds (that's a bit longer than the 38 second boot-time using the original firmware.) Pop the disc in, and it takes another 60 to 75 seconds for the player to recognize the disc and get to the menu screen--or to a point where you can skip a preview to get to the menu. So you need to budget about two minutes when you're starting a movie just to get to the title screen. Moreover, once the disc finally starts playing, your travails may not be over; the HD-A1 has some real issues with HDMI compatibility. The player's front panel frequently flashed a dreaded "HDMI error" message during the four weeks we lived with the HD-A1. The errors often occurred when we switched between inputs on an A/V receiver--imagine pausing a movie and switching over to ESPN to check the score of a game, for example--but on at least one occasion, our movie just stopped playing. The HDMI problems occurred when the HD-A1 was connected to a variety of receivers, HDTVs, and cables we had on hand, so we asked for a second opinion. The result: the Toshiba HD-A1's HDMI implementation wasn't up to industry standards with its early firmware and remains somewhat dodgy, even after the latest firmware upgrade. For many users, this may pass unnoticed, but depending upon which TVs and receivers you connect to it, the HD-A1 could perform erratically, as it did for us.
If you're willing to live with that laundry list of "known issues," the Toshiba HD-A1 will deliver a stunning picture from its small but growing list of available movies. But if you don't have to be the first in line for the latest technology, we heartily recommend waiting for a more stable and mature second-generation HD DVD player.