| Originally Posted by CNET's By David Carnoy |
Executive editor, CNET Reviews
(April 26, 2006)
For Tom Cruise watchers, April 18 was a big day. Yes, there was something about him having a kid with Katie Holmes, but more importantly for videophiles, The Last Samurai HD-DVD was officially released along with Toshiba's new next-gen DVD player, the HD-A1 and three other discs: The Phantom of the Opera, Million Dollar Baby, and Serenity. Kudos to Toshiba for actually getting a semiaffordable first-generation product out well ahead of Sony and Camp Blu-ray. But as I've said before, that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of things to complain about. So, here we go. I've ordered my gripes from mildly bothersome to really irksome. And of course, feel free to add your own peeves.
1. Initial HD-DVDs are just rehashes of the existing DVDs
OK, so it's early in the game. But this is the same complaint that folks had about a lot of early Xbox 360 games--that they're just graphically spruced-up versions of their Xbox counterparts. Hopefully, we'll soon see some HD-DVD discs that actually show off some of the interactive features that Toshiba is touting.
2. Extra features not in high-def
This format is called HD-DVD, so why am I not watching extras in HD? Enough said.
3. Player doesn't do enough
I understand Toshiba wanting to come out with a basic player for a semiaffordable price. Five hundred bucks is a lot, but it's half the price of what Blu-ray players will start out at, and it's not an outrageous figure for those wanting a first crack at cutting-edge technology. That said, the company's step-up HD-DVD player, the HD-XA1 ($799) should have offered a little more in the way of features--instead, it boasts only a motorized front door, some better-looking cosmetics, an RS-232 port, and a backlit remote. How 'bout a little DVD-Audio support? (SACD is probably a no-no, since it's a Sony-backed format.) What about slots for memory cards, so you can show your digital photos at high-def resolutions or play back digital music? And why couldn't those USB ports in front accept thumbdrives filled with digital photos and music?
4. No 1080p output
The high-definition video output of first-generation HD-DVD players is limited to 720p or 1080i, not 1080p, which is currently the best high-def image you can get. With only a handful of HDTVs out there that accept and display a native 1080p signal, what's the big deal? For starters, 1080p is quickly becoming the new de facto gold standard for HDTVs, with 1080p inputs set to become a lowest common denominator for nearly all 2006 HDTVs. But the dearth of 1080p output is most frustrating, once you find out that HD-DVD movies are being mastered in 1080p--but that theoretically better picture quality will remain locked on the disc until 1080p HD-DVD players appear (sometime in 2007, if not earlier). Needless to say, it's a bummer to not get 1080p right out of the gate, especially when first-gen Blu-ray players will offer it. I don't need to be completely future-proofed, but give me some basic protection, please.
5. Component video can be flagged
I almost wrote a full column on this issue alone. The unfortunate fact is that studios can encode their discs with an image-constraint flag that downconverts the HD-DVD's output resolution to 960x540 when played through the analog component-video outputs, which lack the robust digital copy-protection of HDMI. That means discs that are so flagged will display only a quarter of their best possible resolution if you own one of the early HDTVs that are lacking digital video inputs (HDMI or HDCP-compatible DVI). Yes, Blu-ray discs carry the same restrictions, and almost all of the studios have tentatively agreed to not flag their initial batch of releases. But that still leaves early adopters at the mercy of the studio bosses, who can choose to reverse course at any time.
6. Wacky audio
HD-DVD discs allegedly offer even better sound than do DVDs. And while we actually believe this--HD-DVD discs are encoded with the higher-resolution Dolby True HD, Dolby Digital Plus, and/or DTS-HD soundtracks--the player's audio setup is a real hassle to figure out, and we're still not certain we've gotten optimal sound out of the home theater here in our lab. In our review of the HD-A1, we note that, "There's a full-page chart in the manual that details which connections can pass which types of soundtracks, including footnotes such as this: 'Bitstream audio output is possible only when the connected HDMI device has bitstream decoding function. If not, sound is output in PCM (48k) format.'" If that isn't confusing enough, word is that Warner's initial HD-DVD offerings don't appear to have been mastered correctly. As reported at DVD enthusiast site The Digital Bits, if you go from watching The Last Samurai to Universal's correctly mastered Serenity, your speakers may get blown out, because the latter disc is so much louder--a fact to which we can attest.
7. HDMI hiccups
Toshiba didn't create the finicky beast known as HDMI, so we can't totally fault the company for this one, but the fact remains that we've encountered our share of problems while trying to connect the HD-A1 to various HDTVs in our lab. On a couple of occasions, the player simply stopped playing in the middle of a movie, or we got an "HDMI error" message--and a black screen of death--when we switched inputs while the player was running. Blame game aside, we expect that HD-DVD early adopters will encounter their share of connectivity snafus.
8. Sluggish performance
One of biggest disappointments with Toshiba's first-gen player is how slow it is. Yeah, the first DVD players weren't jackrabbits either, but HD-A1 truly chugs--Windows XP loads faster on some PCs than HD-DVDs do on this thing, and certain button presses give new meaning to the word delay.
9. The smaller the display, the smaller the difference
So we compared the The Last Samurai HD-DVD to its DVD counterpart on a Panasonic TH-42PX60U 42-inch plasma. The standard DVD was in our reference player, the Denon DVD-3910 (outputting at 720p), while the HD-DVD was, naturally, in the HD-A1. We flipped back and forth between the TV's two HDMI inputs, and though the HD-DVD image was distinctly sharper and clearly had the edge, the difference wasn't huge. We're pretty certain, however, that you'll see a much bigger difference the bigger you go. As we wait to get a large HDTV back in our labs--say, something along the lines of a Sony KDS-R60XBR1 60-inch SXRD rear-pro or a higher-end front projector--we'll stick by our recommendation that at these prices, next-gen DVD players should interest only those with HDTVs of 50 inches or larger.
10. A dearth of discs
Originally, HD-DVD was supposed to launch with 30 discs, but that number shrunk to 4--and we ended up finding only 3 in stores the week of April 18. Any way you look it, that's a paltry number. By comparison, DVD had at least 30 titles available within the first month of the format's March 1997 debut. HD-DVD backers hope to have around 200 titles--by the end of 2006.
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