April 18, 2006, 9:49 AM — On the last day of March, Toshiba Corp. put on sale the world's first HD-DVD player, the HD-XA1. As most people following consumer electronics know, 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. 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. 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.