HD DVD vs Blue-ray - HD player review: high definition DVD players from Toshiba & Sony hit the market

HD DVD vs Blue-ray players
compare DLP LED vs SED vs SXRD The new high definition HD DVD player from Toshiba has been released, with the Sony Blu-ray to follow shortly ...

by Adrian Biffen 
Systems Administrator
AeroHOST Web Systems
April 26, 2006

Toshiba HD DVD player vs Sony Blu-ray  

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Toshiba has recently released its first HD DVD player in the high definition DVD format war with Sony, entering the market ahead of the Sony Blu-ray player. The company announced 2 models: the HD-A1 at $499 and the HD-XA1 at $799. The more expensive HD-XA1 has enhancements that include a motorized drawer, a backlit remote, a choice of three different user interfaces, and a pair of USB ports for connecting gaming controllers. The prices of these units are significantly lower than those of the Blu-ray players to be released shortly by Sony, but the Sony will have some additional capabilities that these don't.

Toshiba HD DVD high definition player HD XA1The lower prices are due largely to the fact that Toshiba is using the older Intel Pentium 4-M processor that had already been phased out of production and removed its price lists. The good news is that it keeps the initial cost down, but the bad news is that these units have a long startup time and consume a relatively large amount of power at approximately 80 watts - enough to require a fan. Even worse news is that the high definition 1080i output is only available through the copy protected HDMI output. Note that it doesn't have a 1080p output of any kind, unlike the new Sony BDP-S1 which will support 1080p.

Neither the slow startup time, high power consumption, or lack of 1080p output would stop me from purchasing the Toshiba unit immediately, but the HDMI output restriction certainly has. Here's a brief comparison of Toshiba's HDA1 HD DVD to Sony's BDP-S1 Blu-ray, from what we know so far:

Feature Toshiba HD-A1 Sony BDP-S1
Max Resolution 1080i 1080p
1080i via Component Output No Yes
upscale regular DVD to 1080i Yes (HDMI port) Yes (Component & HDMI port)
upscale regular DVD to 1080p No Yes (HDMI port)
Approximate Price $500 $1,000


If your HD-capable television or projector does not have an HDMI connection, you can still get 1080i analog output from the new Sony BDP-S1, which allows for HD capable sets without HDMI to enjoy Blu-ray Disc high def video. The BDP-S1 is also compatible with standard DVDs with the added feature of 1080p upscaling through HDMI, which gives new life to existing DVDs libraries.

I have seen some video samples of HD DVD and I am pleased to say it looked fabulous, meeting all the expectations I had hoped for. Buying into these new high definition formats will be the single biggest improvement I could make to my home theater system, and I had decided to go this route instead of upgrading my BenQ PB 6200 projector, until I realized I would need an HDMI input (High Definition Multimedia Interface) input connector to view the high definition output of the player. The highest resolution my projector supports is 1080i (analog component input), and I would be able to enjoy HD movies in that format, but only if it came through a component video output.

So, I'm going to wait for a while, to see if there's any way of avoiding the projector upgrade, and whether or not I will spring for the Sony player (I've certainly been enjoying their widescreen 1080i high-def camcorder). I may also build an HTPC and buy an HD DVD drive for it, instead of going with the discrete component approach. Note that Toshiba is about to  release the first laptop (Qosmio G30) equipped with an internal HD DVD drive, so they will no doubt have the raw drives available soon (and NEC is also releasing an HD-DVD burner). I may also wait and get a Playstation 3 (it has a Blu-ray drive). Another direction I'm considering is internet movie downloads and content providers, now that the fantastic new AVC CODEC has arrived.

Apparently, both Toshiba players (and all forthcoming HD DVD players?) will only output high-definition 1080i video from the copy-protected HDMI outputs, so those of you that have HDTV sets or projectors (like my BenQ PB 6200), won't be able to enjoy the improved image quality of HD-DVD. There has been some suggestion that other HD-DVD players or the competing Blu-ray players may still enable high-def output via analog outputs, so I'll definitely be waiting to see about that. If manufacturers of Blu-ray did allow HD resolutions via analog, it would have one more major advantage over the less expensive HD-DVD players, but I'll believe it when I see it, knowing Sony's mania for copy protecting everything it can.

Toshiba Qosmio Notebook HD DVD DriveSo we know that Toshiba didn't even bother with a component analog output on their new offering, but what about other manufacturers? Turns out, it gets worse ... enter the the AACS (Advanced Access Content System), a copy-protection scheme that is controlled and enforced by movie studios. The upcoming next-generation optical disc players, including Blu-ray and HD-DVD models, will give studios the option to hobble the resolution of the players' analog outputs. The eight-company consortium behind AACS, using the mandatory copy-protection system used by both formats, allows each studio to choose whether to downconvert the output of the players' component-video outputs to 960 x 540 resolution, which is one quarter of the 1,920 x 1,080 resolution of true high definition HDTV.

This means that HDTVs whose only HD compatible inputs are component video or analog RGB (like my BenQ PB6200 projector), including approximately 3 million HDTV display units sold before digital HDMI inputs were available, may not be able to display the full resolution that next generation players offer. If a movie studio chooses to make it so, you won't be able to see movies at 1080i resolution, even if the DVD player has included an analog component output.

Studios can use AACS to record a 'flag' on the disc (the Image Constraint Token or 'Managed Copy' system) that tells the player to allow or disallow full-resolution analog signals. Although no studio has declared publicly that they will be using this copy protection system, Warner Brothers has been the strongest proponent of the system, and Disney, NBC Universal, and Paramount are also likely to take advantage of it. Sony Pictures and Universal Studios have recently announced that they will not be activating the downconversion flag, at least not immediately - so there is some hope we'll see 1080i coming from Blu-ray discs. Studios will be required to state on the outside of disc whether downconversion will be forced for that particular title.

I frankly don't think this will stop large scale copying - it will take place regardless of whether the analog outputs are downconverted, as professional pirates will undoubtedly find a way to do it with the digital output that doesn't involve recording an analog signal. The HDCP protocol (High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection) which defines the encryption scheme at the heart of the HDMI copy protection scheme has apparently already been broken, so all of this additional cost and hassle is probably moot anyway. Princeton mathematics professor Ed Felten recently published a relatively practical examination of how HDCP can be foiled, and apparently it has been publicly known since 2001 that the HDCP encryption scheme is flawed. NEC HD DVD ROM Drive HR1100a

On that note, it is interesting to see that last year a German electronics company (Spatz) offered two new devices, the "DVI HDCP" and "DVI MAGIC" hardware converters that foil the movie studios' attempts to prevent high quality video copying. The converters don't do anything to the HDCP technology normally used to encrypt the HD signal; instead, it uses the actual HDCP chips usually built into high definition displays, so that HDCP "protected" signal sources uncomplainingly deliver their signal, thinking that it has been legally decrypted. They then convert the video signal to RGBHV or unprotected DVI signals.

Enthusiasts like me who bought an HDTV two or three years ago would be unlikely to buy one of the early next generation players just to watch downconverted video, and alienating 'bleeding edge' consumers is never a good idea. HD-DVD and Blu-ray already have enough problems with an already-too-confusing industry that features incompatible formats with high prices - not to mention competition from standard upscaled DVD and future internet downloadable alternatives.

I already get amazingly good 1080i results with my upscaling Zenith DVB 318 DVD player that I bought for a few hundred bucks, and I'm quite content to continue using this for quite a while until I see a reasonable upgrade path that doesn't cost me an arm and a leg just because someone else may be copying DVD's.

Further HD-DVD news:

Microsoft and Toshiba announced earlier in the year that the two companies have entered into a cross-licensing agreement that allows them to utilize each other's patents on electronics technologies. This has created two interesting developments in the HD DVD saga: Toshiba intends to use Microsoft Windows software in its HD DVD players in hopes of reducing development costs, and Microsoft is planning to put HD DVD players in future production releases of its Xbox 360 gaming system. This will certainly put the Xbox in a much better competitive position against the new Sony PS3 gaming system (scheduled for release in November), which already supports Blu-ray HD DVD. Meanwhile, Microsoft is busily embedding the already broken HDCP copy protection protocol into every aspect of its new Vista operating system that will support HD content.  

The second HD DVD player to be released in the US looks to be a machine from RCA, according to the Wal-Mart website. The RCA HDV500 machine will supposedly ship on 18 May, almost a month after Toshiba's HD-A1 and HD-XA1 players US launch. RCA showed the slimline HDV5000 at the CES show in Las Vegas in January, but it appears to have undergone a redesign since then, looking more like the bulkier Toshiba player.

HD-DVD and Blu-ray Content News:

Jennifer Anniston and Kevin Costner on HD DVD Hybrid disc So what will we be able to watch? Universal Studios, with 14 officially announced HD DVD titles is a strong supporter of the HD-DVD format. So far, it is the only major Hollywood studio that is going HD DVD exclusively.

In a recent press release, it was announced that 'The Bourne Supremacy' will be the first title to make use of the benefits of the special features of the HD DVD format. The Bourne Supremacy DVD will be the first film from Universal to introduce a new interactive feature called "Bourne Instant Access," a feature length picture-in-picture presentation that simultaneously transports viewers behind the scenes with the cast and filmmakers, all without leaving the movie experience. In a recent press release, Universal announced that all HD DVDs will showcase enhanced interactive menus that allow viewers to easily navigate and access any menu option at any time while the movie is playing.

Soon, the second wave of HD-DVD titles from Warner Bros. will hit stores:

May 2nd: "Swordfish" and "Goodfellas."

May 9th: "Training Day" and "Rumor Has it" which will be the first hybrid disc for the format.

What is a 'hybrid disc'? The release of the first hybrid title, Rumor Has It, contains both the HD DVD and regular DVD format, giving consumers the greatest flexibility in viewing options. If you own an HD DVD player, you'll get all the benefits of HD DVD (but only if your set has an HDMI input), and you'll be able to play the disc in existing DVD players. If you are considering a future purchase of an HD DVD player, you can still enjoy the movie until you upgrade, then watch it again in high definition mode.

So that also begs the question 'are there going to be dual HD format players?' The answer is 'yes' - both Samsung and LG have announced upcoming players that can play either HD-DVD discs or Blu-ray discs. It's unclear, though, whether these players will support all 3 formats and play the old regular DVD too.

New Generation Audio

I didn't want to leave out the new developments in the audio side of HD-DVD as I consider it to be literally half of the entire viewing experience. The Toshiba HDA1 has standard decoders for the regular Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus and DTS formats found on regular DVD disks, but it also has decoders for Dolby TrueHD® (2-channel) and DTS-HD®.

Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus and DTS are audio compression formats used in standard DVD's where some audio data is lost upon decompression, although Dolby Digital Plus brings increased realism and sound detail to soundtracks. 

Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD, used in the new HD-DVD and Bluray formats are lossless, where audio reproduction is bit-for-bit identical to the high definition studio master recordings.

*  *  *  *  *

This series of articles is designed to help you get through the complicated process of choosing and setting up an HDTV home theater system. It is part of our overall website, which is about the X10 home automation system that uses the A/C wiring in your home - you don't need to run any wires. (for complementary home automation products such as lighting control and motorized blinds and shades, see our home automation DIY kit article) Here's a brief topic summary of these home theater articles, with direct links:
Article# Topic
1 HDTV Definitions and terminology used in home theatre systems
2 HDTV news from Jan 2005 Las Vegas CES show
3 HDTV remote control consolidation issues
4 DLP projector decision: My reasons for purchasing
5 BenQ DLP 6200 review -projector setup process
6 HTPC: using home theater PC for DVD display
7 DVD software player review: watch DVD on your PC
8 Upsampling DVD player vs HTPC - comparison with Zenith DVB 318
9 Sony HDRHC1 Handycam review: widescreen high definition 1080i camcorder
10 Wireless video sender solves the 'extra tv' problem
11 SED Toshiba-Canon HDTV display review - the flat panel HDTV race heats up!
12 Canon SX 50 Realis LCoS projector review - first 3 chip LCoS projector under $5,000
13 Optoma H78DC3 'DarkChip3' DLP projector review - first 'Dark Chip3' DLP projector under $4,000
14 Xbox 360 review: best buy for game play online? - Windows Media Center Extender
15 Play Station 3 vs Xbox 360 - Sony and Microsoft Compete for gaming market
16 SXRD vs SED vs DLP - Sony raises the HDTV bar with Qualia and Grand Wega series
17 LED DLP light engine from Samsung vs SXRD, SED - 1080p resolution arrives
18 HD DVD vs Blu-ray: We review the new Toshiba HD DVD players (HD-XA1 and HD-A1)
19 H.264 AVC: High Definition advanced codec for movie downloads and HDTV Online

For the sake of clarity, here is a repeat of some acronym and terminology definitions relating to the various display technologies, used in the other table below to compare the various screen types:

TLA Three Letter Acronym
HDTV High Definition Television. The highest quality video picture available in Digital TV. In the U.S., the 1080i and 720p resolution formats in a 16:9 aspect ratio are the two acceptable HDTV formats. Regular NTSC analog TV is 480i.
HTPC Home Theater Personal Computer. The use of a PC as a processing and source control platform for a home theater system.
RPTV Rear Projection TV. The type of home theater screen system where the image is projected onto the back of the screen. Can be DLP, LCD, CRT projection technology.
Lumens An ANSI Lumen is a measurement of light radiation or brightness. A 3,000 Lumen projector creates a brighter picture than a 2,000 Lumen unit. The ANSI prefix is a standards designation (American National Standards Institute).
Nits Plasma and LCD manufacturers use this term to define the brightness of their screens. Another term for Nits is Candelas per square meter (Cd/m2). One nit = 0.2919 foot-lambert. Nits includes an area definition, unlike lumens, so you can't simply divide by Watts to establish a Nits/watt spec.
480i 720p 1080p resolution measurement in lines, p for "progressive scan", i for "interlaced scan". Conventional TV (e.g. 480i) is interlaced whereby the screen is scanned twice by alternate lines that are interleaved (interlaced), whereas HDTV (e.g. 720p) can scan all lines sequentially (consecutively or progressively).
DVI HDCP Digital Visual Interface technology with High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection. Developed by Intel Corporation, HDCP is a specification to protect digital entertainment content through the DVI interface. The HDCP specification provides a transparent method for transmitting and receiving digital entertainment content to DVI-compliant digital displays. Some products, such as set-top boxes and DVD burners will require this connector. Even if you have a HDTV set-top box, if it lacks the DVI, your signal may be degraded.
HDMI High Definition Multimedia Interface. Like DVI, HDMI is another digital interface, and from what we saw at CES 2005, it may become the universal standard. Developed by Sony, Hitachi, Thomson (RCA), Philips, Matsushita (Panasonic), Toshiba and Silicon Image, the High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) has emerged as the connection standard for HDTV and the consumer electronics market. HDMI is the first digital interface to combine uncompressed high-definition video, multi-channel audio and intelligent format and command data in a single digital interface.
SACD Super Audio CD uses a new recording technology called Direct Stream Digital. DSD records a one bit digital signal at a sample rate of 2.8 million times per second, 64 times higher than conventional CD's. 
NTSC Existing color TV standard developed in the U.S. in 1953 by the National Television System Committee. NTSC vertical line resolution is 525 lines/frame and the vertical frequency is 60Hz. The NTSC frame rate is 29.97 frames/sec.
CRT Cathode Ray Tube - venerable old style picture tube
PDP Plasma Display Panel, plasma is a physics term for an electrically charged gas
LCD Liquid Crystal Display, same as laptop screens
TFT Thin Film Technology, a type of LCD
DLP Digital Light Processor, a reflective light switch chip developed by TI. Has a very fast response time - no motion lag
TI Texas Instruments Corp., original manufacturer of DMD's and DLP's
DMD Digital Micro-mirror Device - chip for DLP technology by TI
DNIe Digital Natural Image enhancement - chip for optimizing video picture quality, by Samsung (used in their DLP units)
LCoS Liquid Crystal on Silicon, reflective light switch
SXRD projection Silicon X-tal Reflective Display: Sony's incarnation of LCoS technology. Sharp picture, no pixelation, very high resolution, reflective system won't burn out picture element, "no moving parts" design usually incorporates 3 imaging chips for primary colors, instead of color wheel.
SED Surface conduction Electron emitter Display by Toshiba/Canon
FED Field Emission Display: New technology from Sony
OLED Organic Light Emitting Diode display: new technology from Seiko-Epson
D-iLA Direct Drive Image Light Amplifier, LCoS chip developed by JVC
QXGA high screen resolution of 2048 x 1536, attained by D-iLA chip
DCDi Directional Correlation Deinterlacing (a de-interlacing method to eliminate jagged edges (jaggies) along diagonal lines caused by interpolation, developed by Faroudja corp. An important feature to look for, this Emmy® award winning technology was once only available in products costing $20,000 or more, and is now available in numerous products costing well below $2,000
aspect ratio ratio of screen width to height. An aspect ratio of 4:3 is conventional TV and 16:9 is HDTV (and film)
3-2 pulldown a method of film-to-video conversion
twitter and judder   terms describing film conversion related artifacts
anamorphic lens   a special lens that compresses the pixels of a 4:3 screen into a 16:9 format, and allows a projector to use the full brightness of the display, without black bars above and below the image. Must normally be removed for regular 4:3 viewing.
SDE  Screen Door Effect is a term used to refer to the visible pixel structure on a screen.
YADR! Yet Another Dang Remote! A common exclamation heard from people who just bought their third or fourth home audio/video component. And then there are further unmentionable expletives when you find out a component isn't supported, or it's just too complicated to program everything in?? Maybe it's time to read about our experience in the remote control review article.

The following table provides a quick comparison of the display types; "pixelation" refers to the ability to see individual picture elements (pixels) at normal viewing distances (note that all the types below can contribute to the YADR index). Please note that these products are being constantly improved and not all manufacturer's models may be subject to the disadvantages listed below:

CRT conventional
picture tube
Cathode Ray Tube: very sharp and bright, high contrast ratio, good picture view from side, low cost, handles regular analog NTSC channels well, no moving parts heavy and bulky, limited in size to about 36", picture can fade 
CRT projection
low cost, large screens possible, no moving parts heavy and bulky, limited viewing angles, visible raster lines, mis-convergence can be a problem, picture can fade over time 
LCD flat screen panel Liquid Crystal Display: bright, sharp picture, light and compact, can hang on wall, solid state, no moving parts picture can fade over time
LCD projection fairly bright, large screens possible, sharp picture, no moving parts display can fade due to heat damage to organic compounds that some manufacturers use in the LCD, projector bulb can fail
PDP Plasma flat screen panel Plasma Display Panel: bright picture, light and compact, can hang on wall, wide viewing angle, no moving parts, handles fast motion really well expensive, some pixelation, display can burn out.
DLP projection Digital Light Processor: bright, sharp picture, high contrast, no  pixelation, reflective system won't burn out picture element, very fast response time - no motion lag. possible visual "rainbow" artifacts on single chip versions caused by spinning color wheel, projector bulb can fail
LCoS projection Liquid Crystal on Silicon: bright, sharp picture, no pixelation, very high resolution, reflective system won't burn out picture element, "no moving parts" design usually incorporates 3 imaging chips for primary colors, instead of color wheel. projector bulb can fail
SXRD projection Silicon X-tal Reflective Display: Sony's incarnation of LCoS technology. Sharp picture, no pixelation, very high resolution, reflective system won't burn out picture element, "no moving parts" design usually incorporates 3 imaging chips for primary colors, instead of color wheel. projector bulb can fail
SED panel display Surface conduction Electron emitter Display: very bright picture, very high resolution, can hang on wall, very high contrast ratio, can be viewed from any angle, no moving parts, handles fast motion really well expensive at first, not available yet
FED panel display Field Emission Display: New technology from Sony, properties are similar to SED expensive at first, not available yet
OLED panel display Organic Light Emitting Diode display: new technology from Seiko-Epson expensive at first, not available yet

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