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Random Musings about the Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD player and the coming of High Definition to DVD

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The next generation of DVD has arrived. Whether we consumers want it or not, the Hollywood machine is driving this train. We only need to decide if we want to take a ride or not, but don’t take too long because the high definition formats are here for more reasons than just the ability to sell all the software to you again. The studios want to move away from DVD even though that side is still very lucrative because of one main reason. Piracy.

You see it at the beginning of many DVDs now, those piracy ads and the issues of downloading. "Downloading is theft." The encryption system of DVDs has been compromised and revenues are not as high as Hollywood thinks they should be. More revenue is being lost each day as more and more people learn how to copy DVD films. With DVD burners at prices well below $50 already and media costs of 20 to 30 cents per disc … a professional looking package can be homemade for under $5 easy … and that includes the rental costs of the DVD too. How can Hollywood compete against that?

No doubt the overall impact of home copying is but a minor blip on the radar as so few people actually know how to do it or are willing to spend that time to do it. It’s the bigger piracy fish that worries them.

Someone recently said that who would have ever thought that the mail order DVD rental services would be such a boom for copying DVDs. They keep mailing them to you and you can download the DVD into your hard drive in 15 minutes.

So there you have it. This is a second reason for the coming of HD on DVD. In some ways, it is not too different from the introduction of HDTV to the masses. Was it to give us improved images or was something else at work here? The government wants to take back the normal TV spectrum to sell off for other uses. There are billions of dollars at stake so the almighty dollar is at work here. The DVD train will stop because Hollywood wants it to stop, but I can’t tell you when this train will finally stop. Let’s just say the Hollywood is motivated.

For now, the encryption systems of the new HD DVD formats are still intact. No copying and no 14 year old boy has cracked it … yet. The powers that be seek to have a tighter control over the writers and the blank media this time, learning from the lessons of the DVD experience.

And all this gets us to the HD DVD formats. They won’t go away because Hollywood cannot and will not allow it to fail.

First in the stores is the Toshiba entry level unit, the HD-A1 unit as first announced at the 2006 CES. It‘s $500 US retail price was the HD DVD camps’ response to the pending introduction of the Sony Playstation 3 (PS3) which would be Blu-Ray compatible. It was a pre-emptive move to counter the effects of the game machine. It also came at a time when everyone thought the PS3 would be on sale in the spring of 2006. Of course by now, we know that it didn’t quite happen that way. The PS3 got delayed to November 2006 and the pricing was not as aggressively low as some had thought.

It is 1997 all over again with the introduction of the DVD and the limited roll out to the 20 major cities in the US that followed. Everyone else had to wait. Those that do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. And so it goes. The same worries and concerns and doom saying is prevalent now just as it was in 1997. We don’t need another format. I can’t tell the difference. There isn’t enough software. It doesn’t record. The unit locks up … and the whining goes on and on.

Do you remember people whining about 8 bit video processing in many of those first generation units? Toshiba and Sony came out with 10 bit right away … and by the second generation of the DVD product; everyone else in the industry had all gone to 10 bit video processing. By the book, 8 bit video processing was supposed to be enough for an 8 bit format. In practice, it turned out that it wasn’t enough as additional processing headroom was needed to provide a more stable image. The first year models were the shakedown cruise models. There were plenty of bad remote control designs. Remember all the whining about how the first players were not DTS compatible? Well, here we are again. It’s déjà vu all over again.

Some people just live to prognosticate doom everywhere they go.

I remember the people that figured that going from VHS to DVD was such a huge leap … and it was. But for those that had gone through the 1980’s and 90’s with Laserdisc, those first generation DVDs were never quite the huge leap in quality as from tape. We’re climbing up a ladder of quality here and this ladder does not permit us to move backwards down the ladder. Once you see what better quality is, it quickly becomes the norm … or the standard bearer in your mind. "You cannot unlearn what you have learned," as Master Yoda would say in The Empire Strikes Back. Actually he says it the other way so he is wrong here.

DVD is everywhere. High definition TV programming is everywhere as well. Whether you own an HDTV or not, you have no doubt seen what HD programming looks like at home or in the stores or over at a friend’s home. (If you haven’t, then quite frankly, the HD DVD formats just won’t be of any interest to you at this early stage so kindly leave the room.) Having seen and tasted what HDTV material really looks like, here comes the first of the two HD DVD formats. In many ways, it is just like the HD broadcasts be they over the air, via cable or satellite. What were you expecting?

Take everything you know about HDTV via these three broadcast methods and think of all the things you don’t like about them such as the constrained bandwidth, the reduced resolution, the pixelization on fast moving images, the digital compression noise, and so forth. Now imagine the same HDTV images without these weaknesses and you now know what the HD DVD formats bring to the table.

So who exactly is this first generation of HD DVD players aimed at? Unlike DVD, which was a format that every person that owned a TV could more or less use immediately, HD DVD formats are a bit different. (Even after one year of DVD on the market, there were still plenty of people that did not even know the format existed. It did not take off in year one.) This format takes aim at a subset of a subset if you will. Take all those TVs out there and figure out just how many of the TV owning public has purchased an HDTV since their roll out in 1998? The number at last guess was about 10 to 15% of the public. Let’s be generous and say that 15% of all households now have a HDTV in their home. This is the first subset of TVs that the HD DVD formats are targeted for. Unfortunately, not all who have HDTVs actually have seen any HDTV content on their sets. It is estimated that this number could be as high as 50%. (Leaving us at 7.5%) Some of these people already mistakenly believe that everything they see on their HDTV is automatically real HD content. Certainly the DVDs. Sad as it may sound, this is the rule and not the exception.

So where does this numbers game leave us? A mere 7.5 % of HDTV owners out there have real HDTV hooked up into their system. How many of these people are technology savvy to be looking at the HD DVD formats? Likely more than 50% of these don’t care or even know enough right now to partake of this new technology. For those keeping track, let’s say we are now down to 3% of the TV owning public. Ouch. How many of this 3% will be considered as first adopters? I’ll say one in ten will be part of the first adopter group. This means that we are down to 0.3% of all the HDTVs out there. (Figure 300,000 first adopters from a base of 100 million households with TV sets.)

Yes the math can be flawed a bit but it helps to point out who the target is for these first HD DVD formats. A subset of a subset of a subset. The manufacturers know full well the approximate size of the audience these units are targeted to. Granted lightning could strike and demand could exceed their expectations …

And all this brings us to this first HD DVD player itself from Toshiba. Welcome to my "unreview" of the player.


The size of this first unit is similar to the top end Sony DVD player from 1997 at the introduction of the DVD. Yes, the unit is large, but it isn’t that large or that heavy. Overall, it is on the large side of DVD players, but I have seen bigger and heavier units too even to this day from places like Denon, and Integra and Krell and even Sony. Bigger than average, but not excessively big. The back of the unit has a full assortment of outputs from the absolute low end with composite video, then one S-Video, then Component video and ending with the HDMI. There is also a fan slot that one finds a lot these days on the DVD/HDD recorders on the market. I have rarely heard the fan running though because it is in an equipment rack in a separate room.

Remote Control

The remote is large, but the buttons are generally small and tactile response is weak. Somewhat heavy, it may be the weakest part of the system so get a programmable remote like a Pronto or Harmony and use those or any other good programmable units. This remote may also be a prime cause for locking up the player every so often due to multiple commands from the remote confusing the player. There is reason the player costs what it costs. I acknowledge this and let’s move on.

Under the hood

This unit is like a computer. It literally is a computer. Under the hood, you will find a Pentium 4 2.5 GHz processor, an NEC HD-DVD Rom drive, a gigabyte of 2700 ddr memory, and a compact flash card that stores the operating system of the unit. Having heard many others talk about this aspect of the unit and its slow start up performance, I was actually surprised to find that it booted up just like my Toshiba DVD/HDD RD-XS52 DVD recorder. That unit was described as being computer like and performance was not too different than this.

A slightly extended start up time is hardly new to the DVD community since most of the DVD recorders out there with Hard Drives require some boot up time as well. If your attention span is less than 2 minutes, then you should not buy this product. In fact, you should not buy a computer which takes the same time or longer to boot up. While you are at it, forget about getting any digital projection devices too since all projectors take time to warm up as well as the audio equipment.

SD performance

This player will also upconvert standard 480i DVDs to HD resolutions like 720p and 1080i. Since I also own the Toshiba DVD/HDD recorder from last year that upconverts, I was expecting to be somewhat familiar with the performance here. I was not surprised at all. Lacking the Faroudja deinterlacing found on other dedicated DVD upconverting players, I found that the SD performance failed two of the tests from Silicon Optix’s DVD Benchmark test disc. The jaggies test showed the trademark pulsing and thus the flag test had jaggies as well. The "Mixed 3:2 Film With Added Video Titles" test also was tough on the player resulting in a fail there as well. This particular test is a non issue since almost no real DVD film material has this type of video material mixed in. Even failing the first test is a non-issue because this deals with conversion of video based material and the last time I looked, film is not video based material.

(The equipment that I am using in my systems are two Lumagen Vision HDP scalers onto a BenQ 8700 DLP projector, a Dell 50" plasma set and a Toshiba 44NHM84 44" DLP RP set. Reference normal DVD players also in the systems are two LG 7832NXC upconverting DVD players (Zenith DVB 318 equivalent) doing 1080i, the Panasonic DVD-S97 upconverting player doing 720p, two Pioneer DVD/HDD recorders doing 480p, and the Toshiba RD-XS52 recorder doing 720p. Since I am an ISF calibrator and an ISF trainer, my equipment is, to no ones surprise, calibrated. Thank goodness for all those separate grayscale memories that the Lumagen scalers have. )

Compared to the upconverting DVD players that use the Faroudja chip, the SD up conversion falls short of their performance on these tests. Does this make the SD a poor choice for up conversion, not really? I classify it as being in the good to very good category where as the others are in the very good to excellent category for up conversion. I don’t like the Samsung upconverting players for instance so they fall into the poor category. Some might find the macroblocking characteristics of those players using the Faroudja chip to be more bothersome so this is a call I leave to you. Liking an apple over an orange does not make the apple a better fruit. I simply report it as I see it.

Similarly though, I did see a slight hint of the chroma up sampling error or chroma bug on the SD up conversion. It is by no means huge, but it is there none the less. The error is small but visible if you really try to look for it. My Panasonic Demo clip entitled "Harmonie de la Beaute" is a great test for the bug. A series of multicolored letters and anything with red in it will show up looking jagged/ribbed when CUE is present. Also verified with a few other red chroma bug scenes that others like to use.

Now out of pure curiosity, I decided to see what the composite and S-video on the player did. Would the player actually down convert the 1080p material on the disc to NTSC resolutions and how would it look? Well, it player will down convert the HD material to 480i … when the player resolution is set to 480i, 480p and 720p. There is no image from these outputs when the player is set to 1080i. I would rate the down converted images to be mediocre at best. I’ve seen some satellite receivers down convert HD to S-video resulting in exceptional SD images … but sadly that is not the case.

In the end, I will leave the SD up conversion to my DVD players as they do it better. I’ll leave the Toshiba HD DVD player to do what it does best.

HD performance

Like everyone else right now, I can’t fully test the performance of the HD section with test patterns since no HD DVD test discs exist. No DVE HD or AVIA HD or Monster ISF HD discs. The closest to proper calibration of the HD section I can get is with my Accupel HD signal generator running 1080i test patterns. I hope the Toshiba player does not deviate too much with these generator signals. The SD section on the player looks close to the HD test patterns. We won’t know for certain just yet.

As has been mentioned numerous places already, the Toshiba HD DVD player should be set to output 1080i when you put in HD material mastered at 1080p. It says so on the HD DVD packaging. If the HD DVD material is mastered from a 720p source, then set the DVD player accordingly. One should not set the DVD player to match the resolution of the projector for instance. If the projector is a 720p unit, do not set the HD DVD player to 720p for 1080p material. The following image scaling/processing occurs in the player if you do this. The 1080p signal is down converted to 540p … and then this signal is unconverted to 720p. The process literally drops 75% of the data and the end result is little better than an unconverted DVD.

You will find that most 720p digital displays handle 1080i signals very well. Often times, even better than 720p signals.

So what do we get out of the image from the player? Well, not 1080p … next generation only. This unit will output 1080i and to say it looks nice is an understatement. The rich HD color palette just jumps out at you. The extra details just make for a most satisfying time. As I mentioned at the start, take all the things you like about HDTV OTA/Cable/Satellite broadcasts and then take away all the things that bother you to no end about those same signals and you will have an ideal of what the HD DVD images look like. It is not night and day better than broadcast. Just satisfyingly richer an experience.

You sit back and watch an image that just feels right. You are never distracted by compression noise or edge enhancement halos. The little things you wished you could see more clearly are now clearer. You don’t struggle to see what things look like anymore. It feels like film (but it’s not film of course). There are no distractions. Nothing takes you out of the moment when watching the HD material.

A discussion with my brother in Hawaii brought up a question as to whether I had tried to hook up the Toshiba player to my Gateway 21" LCD widescreen computer monitor? At the moment, the answer had been no, but since the monitor was also designs to integrate with home theater signals, I figured why not. The monitor was HDCP compliant with its DVI input. Well, I am glad I hooked it up because the resulting image is even sweeter than on the two DLP projectors. The computer display has a resolution of 1680x1050 which, while less than full 1920x1080 is almost there with 1.75 million pixels versus the 922,000 pixels we get from the 1280x720 displays. All crammed into a 21" 16:10 footprint. So unlike the projected images, this was a direct view image of the HD DVD form and much easier to closely scrutinize.

I had read some things about people saying that the difference between DVD and HD DVD was negligible on small displays, but it just wasn’t the case here. There is no way a person looking at this HD image on this 21" screen could mistake it for a DVD image; perhaps from five feet back, but certainly not from normal viewing distances (typically about two feet for a computer monitor). If the display has the resolution capability, then HD DVD will still work just fine at this size.

A nice surprise so far with this unit is that the ICT or image constraint token has not been activated for the initial batch of films. The HD DVD player passes full 1080i from its component video output. My main projector is hooked up with component video and this has been a pleasant surprise.

All is not perfect with the image output though and for the moment, at least for me, I pick the component video HD signal over the HDMI signal for an overall satisfying experience. The HDMI output has a few issues right now with its ability to display below black material and above white material. The blacker than black information is there on the component video signal as well as the above white information. With component video, I can set up the image to be more accurate on the dark end. On the bright end, I want to be able to see some of the above white material. It adds to the experience. On the Monster ISF calibration disc, one of the test patterns has a man sitting there in a white shirt. Via the HDMI output, I cannot see much detail in his shirt … although that is technically correct. Now via the component video output, I see all the subtle nuances of the fine details in the shirt. These are details I want to see. They make the image more natural. Under the HDMI, the whites are too white. Fine details that enhance the experience could be lost.

I can’t make any definitive statement about more detail or less detail via the component versus the HDMI yet because of the lack of a proper resolution test pattern. But things like improved contrast ratios are preferable to a bit more resolution.

The HDMI output is also a little buggy when it comes to the HDCP handshake it has to make with the display. There is a proper sequence to get things working properly. The TV must first be turned on and set to the HDMI input before turning on the HD DVD player. If you follow this sequence, the player will operate fine. However, problems start to occur if you reverse this sequence. If the HD DVD player is turned on first without the HDMI signal on the TV end … the DVD player will show an HDMI error message and things will not work right. You may have to shut down the DVD player and try again. If you decide to change inputs on the TV while watching the HDMI input … (say switch over to a Basketball game for a moment.) … you may lose the HDMI connection with the HD DVD player and have to reset the player. This will not be the case with every display so bear that in mind. Switching between PIP inputs on my Gateway monitor between the computer desktop and the DVI input playing the HD DVD material did not result in any errors from the player end.

Word has it from a few people in the know that the color conversion of the player is not quite right when it comes to the HDMI output. The color conversion being used is not the HD matrix, but rather the SD one. This appears to happen when converting the HDMI to DVI for those with DVI connections. A firmware update from Toshiba may yet address this issue, but people using Lumagen scalers can rejoice a little sooner. The Lumagen people have issued a firmware fix that accounts for this weakness in the Toshiba player. I’ll leave this discussion to Stacey Spears and those that want to visit the AVS forum to read more about this. The component video output is not affected by this error.

The one gigabyte of memory was theoretically supposed to take care of layer changes by buffering the playback to get through the layer transition on the dual layer discs. You can see the buffering at work whenever you press stop since the playback lags by a few seconds before a real stop. This is almost as if the buffer is being cleared out even as the HD DVD-ROM drive has stopped.

Well, for whatever reason, I am not sure this buffering actually works sometimes to hide the layer transition as I saw a noticeable pause in the image in both Swordfish and The Last Samurai. The discs were clean and yet the image just paused. If this is the transition of layers, then the layer change is even more apparent and slower than most normal DVD players. Unfortunately, going back and trying to recreate this pause at these same segments resulted in smooth play. Not a layer change issue, but rather a glitch in the playback.

Other annoying characteristics about this player include the lack of a "resume" memory. I could be watching the film for 15 minutes and then I press stop. When I press play, the disc returns to the beginning of the disc promo material. It should just resume from the point where I pressed stop. So until this gets fixed via some firmware upgrade, the only choice is to hit the pause button when you want to stop playback for a moment. This part isn’t computer like at all since HTPC DVD programs tend to resume play just fine.

Audio Formats

I’m confused so I had to go dig out some explanations of what the new audio formats are in these new players. In some cases, I just visited the Dolby site and read up on their explanations for what their new formats did. If anyone would know for sure, they would have to.

Dolby Digital Plus – is an enhancement to the current low bit rate sound format that we have all come to enjoy on DVDs. The main thing here is that the audio track enjoys a significantly higher bit rate of at least three (3) mbps compared to the maximum of 448 kbps for normal DVD. Dolby’s specification says that DD+ can be as high as six (6) mbps, but it has to be at least three. (That’s 3000 kbps versus 448) Apparently this is getting into the DVD-Audio format quality. This improved sound quality is delivered via the HDMI output of the HD player as well as the analog 5.1 outputs of the player. So to hear this enhanced audio in all its glory, this is the only way to go. Problem is … there are no audio devices on the market currently that can accept the raw DD+ signal via HDMI and this stuff won’t show up until the fall of 2006.

So what do you get if you use the Toslink or the Coax digital outputs of the HD DVD player? Apparently things get interesting here as neither of these two outputs can handle the higher quality audio. The Toshiba HD DVD player will take the native DD+ 3 to 6 mbps bit stream and convert it to a DTS bit stream of 1.5 mbps. If you go this way, your current stereo receiver will see this as a DTS audio track. (If you have a really old receiver that is not DTS compatible, then you have to use the 5.1 analog outputs.) On some future HD DVD players, the DD+ may be output as a DD bit stream of 640 kbps which existing DD compatible receivers are capable of decoding. The DVDs just don’t go higher than 448 kbps, but the DD decoders have more headroom to them and can handle more.

The DTS bit stream of 1.5 mbps may be less than the full DD+ audio stream, but in most cases, it will be much better than the DTS that we find occasionally on the DVD format. When DTS first came out on DVD, the bit rate was 1.5 mbps, but because of space limitations, many studios were reluctant to include this space hungry audio track on the release. It wasn’t until Saving Private Ryan came out with a DTS bit rate of half the 1.5 mbps that DTS enjoyed increased exposure. Looks like Toshiba decided that a 1.5 mbps bit stream was preferable to the 640 kbps bit stream.

Dolby Digital True HD – is the second audio upgrade format for the system that offers lossless audio quality. The bit rate here is significantly higher than even the DD+ format with rates as high as 18 mbps. Only a few titles so far have this audio track option. Once more, this is only available via the analog outputs of the player and the HDMI output. This first generation Toshiba HD DVD player is not fully compatible with this format and will only decode it as two channel audio. 5.1 to 7.1 audio channels get down mixed to two channel stereo.

DTS-HD – is the third audio upgrade for the HD DVD format. It is similar to the True HD format with lossless audio delivery. The Toshiba player though is not fully compatible with this format and can only deliver what they call the DTS core via any of its outputs, digital or analog. DTS core is the legacy 1.5 mbps format that DTS started out with on DVD and Laserdisc.

Set up Menus

The graphic overlays remind me of the windows media center and look very computer like. To no one’s surprise, it’s because it is a computer. Circuit integration would surely change this in generations to come, but for now, it is a computer.

In the end …

So where does that leave the unit? Yes, there are bugs, but I have never walked away from my computer before because of them. For me, the rewards of that most satisfying image far outweigh the idiosyncrasies and annoyance that come with this first generation player. Fortunately, I have no illusions about the unit and what role it will play in the overall picture. I know it will not be the last player that I buy nor do I need it to last five years. It’s a good start and when better units appear at lower price points; this unit will quickly take its place as a good secondary unit for the second home theater set up in the home. It’s a means to an end; a tool and nothing more.

Blu-ray DVD is coming soon; another month to go and we will see what that format has to offer. Will the glitches be the same? I doubt it, but there will be all new glitches to talk about with that format. In the end, it’s all about the movies anyway … mixed in with a generous helping of first adopter bragging rights.

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