Comparing the Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on with the Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player

With the release of the Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on drive, I thought people might like to know how it compares feature-wise to the Toshiba A1 HD DVD player. I have owned a Toshiba since it was released, and have used the Xbox drive extensively at work and at home (as a part of the Take Home testing program). At home I use a Panasonic PT-AE900U 720p projector on a 100" screen in my media room, and a Dell W3000 30" LCD in the family room. At work I had a Samsung 23" LCD until recently (when I had to downgrade it as somone else needed it).

Unique Xbox Features

  • Plays Xbox 360 games!
  • VGA output
  • Stop works like a DVD player: can immediately Play to resume the movie
  • Photo viewer (via network or plugged in devices)
  • Audio player (via network or plugged in devices)
  • Available in Europe
  • On-screen indication of trick-play etc

What Xbox Does Better

  • Much quicker to startup, play & eject HD DVDs
  • Quicker at chapter jumping
  • Usable, back-lit remote control
  • Can play PAL format DVDs (so long as region-0)

Unique Toshiba Features

  • Looks like a actual AV component
  • HDMI audio & video output
  • 5.1 audio output via analog connections
  • Front-panel display

What is the Same

  • Great picture quality!
  • Great audio quality!
  • Great HDi interactivity!
  • Network connection
  • Minimum 128M of persistant storage (for storing title data e.g. bookmarks, user preferences, screen-shots)
  • Secondary video decoder (to do Picture in Picture aka PIP)
  • Supports advanced video codecs: VC1 and H264 (and the not-so-advanced-video-codec MPEG2)
  • Supports advanced audio codecs: Dolby Digital Plus, DTS HD, and Dolby TrueHD (and not-so-advanced LPCM)
  • No region control (on HD DVDs)
  • Plays regular DVDs

(The above is true of all HD DVD players really)

  • Firmware upgradable via network or disc

In the interests of full disclosure please also note that the team I work on wrote a big chunk of the Xbox HD DVD player software and also the HDi engine that the Toshiba player uses, so I couldn't be called an independent observer. I am an HD DVD bigot: watching "legacy" DVDs drives me crazy now, with their fuzzy video and primitive menu systems: its easy to get used to HD DVD after watching just a few decent titles, even on the relatively small screen of my LCD.

I am not going to attempt to compare video or audio quality: not only am I not qualified and lack sufficient hardware, but I simply have not had the time: my spare time at home is precious (two pre-school kids) so our HD DVD time is spent watching actual movies, not A-B comparing the two players. The Toshiba is only connected to my projector via HDMI; I tried the Xbox on both the projector and my LCD TV (via component). I saw no issues with either in the picture quality department. For audio quality the Toshiba probably wins by a hair: I don't have audiophile ears, but as the Xbox is limited to multi-channel audio over SP/DIF it re-encodes all decoded formats to high bitrate Dolby-Digital: The Toshiba has the advantage of discrete 5.1 analog audio outputs (and audio-over-HDMI though I have no equipment that can consume that). Don't get me wrong: King Kong sounded amazing from the Xbox despite its on-paper disadvantage.

Conclusion

So which one do you buy? Well if you want to play games, or already have an Xbox then the decision has to be a no-brainer. Otherwise, well, its a bit tricky, and you need to evaluate exactly what your needs and budget are and choose. To make life more complicated, the 2nd generation Toshiba players are coming out soon, but I haven't anything to do with them personally so can't give you an opinion on how they compare.

For a technical description of the Xbox's HD DVD player software, see Shaheen's blog posting on the subject. He's on the Xbox team that worked with our team (and others) to create it.