Microsoft Xbox 360 HD DVD player
High definition for less
Review The shops are jam packed with HD tellys in the run up to Christmas, but there's surprisingly little HD content available in the UK at the moment. Sky and Telewest customers are sorted - for a somewhat large fee - but other than that there's little else to show off your brand spanking new set for a reasonable price. Until Microsoft joined in, that is...
Of course, watching HD content is all set to change as HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc players finally start arriving in the shops - but you're still looking at around £500 for a standalone HD DVD player and the same, if not more, for Blu-ray.
Microsoft, however, has cunningly put out a bargain Xbox 360 add-on that will have you set up for HD for less than £130. No, really - just £130. Even if you haven't already got an Xbox 360, you can snap up a Core system for £200 bringing the whole caboodle to a mere £350 once you've factored in the cost of an HD cable.
The drive matches the Xbox 360 styling and you can stand it horizontally or vertically depending on your preferred orientation. In the box you'll find the unit, a mini-USB cable, power supply, remote control and a copy of King Kong on HD DVD - not a bad little package, although the remote and King Kong may be limited freebies.
To install, simply plug in the power and USB cable and you're ready to go. Providing you've got the latest Xbox 360 update, the drive will be recognised and you can sit back and hit play. The only difference to the Xbox Dashboard is the circular drive icon is now split in two, with the internal drive on the top and HD DVD on the bottom. The drive also has two additional USB ports on the back, so you can still plug in a wireless adaptor or camera if need be.
HD DVD supports a maximum resolution of 1080p - and the latest Xbox 360 firmware update adds support for this. In addition, you can also choose to downscale to 1080i or 720p if either's the native resolution of your TV. For HD output you'll need either a component-video or VGA cable - unfortunately there's no HDMI cable for the Xbox 360. While this isn't a huge problem at the moment, it could cause issues in the future.
Such an issue involves the HD DVD spec, which includes a feature that allows the content owner to force the hardware to lower the resolution of the picture if the content is sent over non-secure connections - such as component-video. This is done via an Image Constraint Token (ICT) embedded in the disc. It's not implemented in the current crop of discs, but if it's implemented in the future then output over component-video could be restricted to 540p - basically defeating the point of having an HD source in the first place and potentially turning the Xbox HD-DVD player into something only slightly better than a standard DVD drive.
Spinning disc hell
Hasn't there been some concern over discs which spin fast and external drives before? I seem to remember that a few external drive manufacturers began to include a breaking mechanism which activated on tilt into their draw based CD drives.
HD-DVD spins quickly, puts out quite a lot of data throughput and slowing the disc down could be detrimental to this. If the breaking mechanism is excluded, well, frisbee? Or more to the point, evil microsoft odd job style frisbee.
I can hear the lawyers knocking at redmond now.
I have little trust in what microsoft produce, with burning Xboxs and virus ridden operating systems. Something has to be wrong with it, the old addage "if it sounds too good to be true it generally is" is the sub note to the microsoft OS mantra, "Faster, more reliable, more secure, more stable"
The Plasma Issue
Like most plasmas the Panasonic TH-42 PH9 only has a native resolution of 1024x768 (a 4x3 res requiring some odd stretching for Widescreen).
This is much closer to the 960x576 (Widescreen Anamorphic PAL) coming out of a decent de-interlacing DVD player than the 1920x1080 that the HD-DVD disks are encoded in or the 1280x720 (composite) 1366x768 (VGA native) that the XBOX 360 will be outputting to most LCD screens.
Hardly surprising that there is not much difference between DVD and HD-DVD on most Plasma.
As far as I know no plasmas actually have a proper widescreen pixel format other than the very latest (and largest) 1080p native models.
I agree with previous poster
I completely agree with the previous poster. The guy who wasn't impressed has a huge 42" screen with a measly 1024x768 native resolution, so it's no wonder it doesn't look that much better.
The xBox360 with HD DVD is a BUDGET solution.
I think the unimpressed guy is missing the point. I may not have a "good setup" but I have an 32" HD CRT (480p/720p/1080i), an xbox 360 with an xbox HD-DVD, and a 5.1 system. I can watch iDTV, HD-TV, HD-DVD & SD-DVD, as well as being able to play SD/HD games all in 5.1 surround sound.
The point is, all this cost less than £900.
Not sure what you were looking at.
To the previous poster, I'm not entirely sure what you were watching. Can't find any info about your Plasma, but are you sure its a decent resolution? Just because it's labelled HD Ready it doesn't mean it does true 1280x720 or higher.
I've compared King Kong, V for Vendetta, Superman Returns, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Serenity, Swordfish, Van Helsing and Mission Impossible III on DVD/HD-DVD on my Toshiba 32WL66 HD LCD, and on my Panny PT-AX100E projector (at about 70" diagonal). Using XBOX360 connected via component for HD-DVD, and an upscaling DVD player (Panny DMR-EX75) connected via HDMI to play DVDs.
On both displays you can clearly see a huge difference in quality when watching the HD versions. Kongs fur/scars look nowhere near as lifelike on standard DVD as they do on the HD release. The plane rescue scene in Superman is unbelievable and only the HD version does justice to how good the effects in that scene really are. The dragon/egg stealing scene in HP blows the SD version away.
On all the movies the darker scenes are much more clearly defined, and detailed on the HD versions, and all have much more realistic colours and definition that almost jumps out of the screen.
I could go on, but I won't. Suffice to say that the jump to HD is great, and all I wish now is that Fox would jump of the Blu-Ray ship and get the StarWars saga out on HD-DVD asap. :)
Not Impressed At All
I'm afraid I have to tally disagree with the review. I like many others, have found that if you have a good set up then this HD-DVD player doesn't really offer much over normal DVD.
I've compared both King Kong & Serenity on both formats and couldn't see that much difference and I do have 20-20 vision. This was via a an Arcam DV88+ and Panny TH-42 PH9 panel. It would be helpful if the reviewer stated on what equipment he based his review. I only started to notice a real difference once the picture was outputed via my projector on to 90" screen. Also, disappointingly, the reviewer makes no mention of how poorly the Xbox decodes 5.1 digital sound tracks or how at the present time it can't handle True HD audio or Dolby Digital +.