Toshiba HD-E1K review

Toshiba's debut HD DVD player is finally here

Our Verdict

It has its flaws but still makes a cautious argument in favour of HD DVD

For

  • Superbly sharp picture

Against

  • No multi-channel phono audio outputs

After months of delays, including one final one in December apparently caused by a 'minor reliability issue with an outsourced LSI component', the UK's debut standalone HD DVD player, Toshiba's HD-E1K, is finally sat before us.

And with a price tag of just £450, it's barely half the price of even the cheapest of its current Blu-ray competitors. But is that enough to make it a winner?

It's not particularly dressed to kill, at any rate. It's slightly chunky in shape, and its black finish with small silver strip is nothing to write home about.

Connectivity, meanwhile, also fails to set the pulse racing. At first glance, in fact, you'd be hard pushed to spot any difference between the HD-E1's connections and those of a fairly bog-standard upscaling DVD player, which is to say there's an HDMI output, a component video output, an optical digital audio output, and the usual S-Video and composite video suspects.

Closer inspection, however, reveals the surprising (given the S-Video and composite options) absence of any Scarts, and the intriguing addition of an Ethernet port. As we'd hoped, as well as permitting firmware upgrades, this Ethernet port can also access potential 'interactive' HD DVD features, such as downloadable movie trailers, from internet sites.

No such features are available from current HD DVD titles we've seen, so we couldn't check this jack out - but it's nice to know it's there. Especially as we failed to find one on either of the Blu-ray players we've seen.

Damp squib

The excitement raised by the Ethernet port, however, is quickly dampened by the realisation that there are no multi-channel phono audio outputs, leaving the HDMI and an optical digital audio output as the only way of experiencing multichannel sound from the HD-E1.

The HD-E1 supports full Dolby TrueHD playback, as well as Dolby Digital Plus (though only up to 5.1 channels), but only a strangely limited version of DTS-HD that plays just the DTS 'core' of a DTS-HD mix, not the full DTS-HD monty. Such audio oddities sadly seem par for the course in these early days of HD disc formats.

Getting the HD-E1 up and running is pretty straightforward thanks to some sublimely simple onscreen menus that many more overcomplicated rivals would do well to copy. Even the set up for the Ethernet port is as easy as it really ever could be.

The only fly in the ointment at this stage is the remote control, which is really very unpleasant; plasticky, poorly labelled and completely unusable in a darkened room.

During setup we discover that the deck can be set to output up to 480i/576i, 480p/576p, 720p and 1080i - and these settings can be used to upscale standard definition DVDs as well as deliver proper HD from HD DVDs. It's impossible not to rue the absence of any 1080p output option, even though our experience to date suggests that the benefits of 1080p over 1080i are marginal, especially on anything less than a projector-sized screen.

One other disappointment is the fact that the deck. handle MP3 or WMA files.

Popping a King Kong HD DVD disc into the HD-E1 leads to a 30 second delay before the disc menus fire up - slightly tedious, but not as bad as the 45 seconds plus recorded for the deck when it launched in the US. We also suffered rarely with the HDMI handshake issues apparently so rife in the US, so perhaps this area has been improved for our HD-E1 too.

The HD-E1's video performance is very good indeed - far better than anything possible from even the finest upscaling DVD deck, better than that of Samsung's more expensive Blu-ray deck and the Xbox 360's far cheaper HD DVD drive, and nearly as good as the twice-asexpensive Panasonic Blu-ray player. In fact, the HD-E1's pictures are actually more consistent than the Panasonic deck's thanks to the greater consistency of the early HD DVD film transfers vs the hugely variable quality of the first Blu-ray titles.

Sharp pictures

Particularly impressive is how sharp pictures look. The opening scenes of King Kong contain some stunning vistas of old New York, and this Toshiba delivers them with noticeably more clarity and detail than we saw even with the Xbox's excellent HD DVD drive.

Daytime sequences in the jungle of Skull Island, meanwhile, reveal excellent colour response and toning, while motion during, say, the early Vaudeville sequences looks crisp and smooth - again slightly more so than with the Xbox 360's HD DVD drive.

Other good points find the deck's fan noise being kept low enough not to distract, effortlessly deep black levels, and immaculately rendered edges free of both noise and ghosting.

The gig set pieces of King Kong, such as the scrap between Kong atop the Empire State Building and a series of fighter planes, reveal a more than solid audio performance packed with impressive dynamics, startling clarity and intense cohesion.

We're not saying that the HD-E1's pictures are completely flawless, though. For while its King Kong pictures may be sharper than those of the Xbox HD DVD drive, they're also a touch noisier, especially using the deck's 720p mode - possibly as a result of the HDMI connection (the Xbox 360 only uses component) making the small amounts of MPEG noise in the film's transfer and the deck's decoding look more apparent.

The HD-E1 isn't the greatest upscaling deck in the world either, with the extra sharpness it adds to standard definition DVD playback being joined by a touch more processing noise than we'd like to see.

It's also impossible, of course, to reach any conclusion about the HD-E1 without pointing out the inherent risks of backing one format over another in a format war such as that between HD DVD and Blu-ray.

But actually raising this latter point arguably works in the HD-E1's favour. For while you'd have to be seriously loaded to consider taking a punt on a £1,000 Blu-ray player, forking out £450 on Toshiba's HD-E1 is a far less bitter pill to swallow should HD DVD ultimately go the way of the dodo.

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