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On the last day of March, Toshiba put on sale the world's first HD-DVD player, the HD-XA1. HD-DVD is one of two formats vying to replace DVD for high-definition movies and the players have been awaited for some time.
Over the last week I've had a chance to use the HD-XA1 at home and while the choice of movies is still limited, the few available have given me a taste of how the player shapes up.
In terms of picture quality, I'm pleased to report that the player delivered everything I've come to expect from high-definition.
I played a few discs: The movies "Biohazard" and "Moonlight Jellyfish" are bundled with the player in Japan, and I also purchased "Zozakura," an HD presentation of Japanese cherry trees in full bloom that has the distinction of being the first commercial HD-DVD content on the market. All looked great.
All three discs are encoded with the MPEG4AVC codec, which is one of three HD-DVD codecs. To be honest, I couldn't tell the difference between the HD-DVD disc and the MPEG2-encoded HD television that we have in Japan. I'm sure a professional lab could show a difference, and perhaps under precise circumstances in a specially lit room there might appear to be some difference, but I think most consumers will be hard pressed to distinguish HD-DVD from Blu-ray Disc or broadcast HDTV.
That makes this format battle a little more interesting because, unlike similar battles in the past, it's going to be less about the picture or audio quality and more about the content, features, and functionality of players.
Not So Speedy
So what about the usability of the Toshiba player?
My overwhelming impression of the HD-XA1 has been of slowness, and this is mainly down to the start-up. It takes about 35 seconds for the "Toshiba HD-DVD" logo to appear on-screen after hitting the "on" button, and the "Welcome" message remains on the player's display until 55 seconds after launch. There's a further 10 seconds elapse--meaning 65 seconds in all--before the first images from the disc appear on the screen.
What's more, you can't do anything while the player is booting up, so it takes about a minute just to eject a disc from the machine. That isn't very impressive.
Disc load times while the machine is running are also slow. It took 28 seconds for the "loading" display to change to "HD-DVD" when after slipping in a disc, and a further 10 seconds for the disc to start playing. Loading a DVD disc is slightly quicker, but only by about 5 seconds.
Toshiba realizes the player takes a long time to start and wants to improve this, according to a spokeswoman.
It should be noted that I recorded disc load times of between 25 seconds and 3 minutes when I tested a pair of Blu-ray Disc recorders in 2004 from Sony and Panasonic, so perhaps this is something consumers will have to live with from first-generation machines.
When the machine has started and the disc has loaded things are quicker. Skipping from chapter to chapter or calling up the menu on HD-DVD or DVD discs takes about the same amount of time normally experienced with today's DVD players.
The on-screen set-up menu is clean and crisp and Toshiba gives three different skins from which users can select. But there is some unevenness in the overall on-screen display. Pop-up messages from the player are in a more basic and less professional looking on-screen dialog box and that's a bit of a disappointment. It would be nicer if the cleaner menu style was adopted for all on-screen dialog.
One of the discs, the "Zozakura" cherry blossom title, had the much-talked about interactive menus. Unlike a conventional DVD, where you have to jump back to the original menu screen, on this HD-DVD title it's possible to bring up a menu that is overlaid on the video while it plays. On "Zozakura" this enables jumps between chapters, but content producers have shown demonstrations of more complex content. For example, an actor can appear on-screen above the movie and give his comments on the current scene being shown.
Overall the HD-XA1 is a little disappointing, especially because of the speed. The player has a hefty price tag--it is currently available in Japan for about $847 and will be launched this month in the U.S. for $800--and the slow boot-up is a surprise. But make no mistake, the picture quality is great and these speed problems don't affect enjoyment or operation while movies are being watched.
HD-DVD has shown itself through this player as a format with much promise for high-definition content. If the same can be said of Blu-ray Disc, which seems likely, consumers might have a difficult choice on their hands.