Considering Toshiba's original entry-level HD DVD player (the HD-E1) only launched towards the end of 2006 at a price of £450. So it's remarkable that its direct replacement, the HD-EP30 here, is widely on sale for less than half as much.

The format war with Blu-ray is a big driver behind this. But what might be bad for Toshiba's profit margin means good news for consumers. At least for the time being.

Of course, in the back of any potential buyer's mind is the fact that HD DVD players like the HD-EP30 can't spin Blu-ray titles, and vice versa.

While HD DVD has gathered support from Paramount, Universal and Warner studios (the latter releasing also on Blu-ray), industry support for Blu-ray is also strong. Toshiba's format remains in danger of becoming the niche alternative, unless dual-format players become the preferred choice in the market.

Full HD resolution

But what of this cut-priced HD-EP30 deck? In many ways it's identical to its pricier forerunner, bundling CD and DVD playback alongside HD compatibility, though the continuing lack of DivX playback will be a letdown for some people.

Standard DVD images can be upscaled to a maximum of 1080p resolution, improving on the HD-E1's 1080i limit. As before, the DVD upscaling is excellent, giving a serious boost to your existing DVD collection and compensating for any high-def movies that are only on Blu-Ray.

Just remember, however, that the HD-EP30 is locked to Region 2 for plain DVDs but is multi-regional for HD DVD. We played US releases, like the new Heroes box set, without any problems

The HD-EP30's HD DVD playback is also offered up to full 1080p quality, with the bonus of unconverted 24-frame-per-second output - the preferred route for cinephiles who have shelled out for the latest, high-spec flat-screens and video projectors.

24fps mode for 'true cinema'

24fps output removes frame-rate conversion problems that show up when trying to get movies onto TVs, which are based on variations of 25 or 30 frames per second as opposed to cinema's 24.

The connections on the HD-EP30 are similar to the older and rather limited HD-E1 player, including the v1.2 HDMI port. So it's unable to deliver the widest selection of picture and sound options for those with the newest v1.3-equipped gear.

But for most people, the line-up of sockets should be adequate and, as before, there's an Ethernet connection for fetching software upgrades and online interactive features via broadband.

Sound-wise, the player once again omits a set of multichannel phono audio outputs, so the only way to get a fuller range and quality from new high-end soundtracks such as Dolby Digital Plus, TrueHD and DTS-HD is to connect a surround sound amp that has HDMI too and use PCM audio.

An optical digital audio output is included for conventional Dolby Digital/DTS playback, which the newer formats also provide as part of their backwards compatibility.

Good visuals

Visually the HD-EP30 continues the good work established in the HD-E1. With the more spectacular discs, colours are eye-poppingly vivid and the detail as crisp as your screen allows, particularly hardy perennials such as Serenity, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Blood Diamond, which are authored to a high technical quality.

The continuing lack of picture tweaks at source, however, means that some more shadowy looking movies ( Miami Vice, for example) can seem overly murky, especially on a plasma TV. Here's where coughing up a little extra for the more feature-laden HD-EP35 model could be a better long-term investment.

Despite price drops all round, the HD-EP30 is still more affordable than the cheapest Blu-ray players. If you take into account this generation's addition of 1080p/24fps output and the generally decent audio-visual performance from HD and conventional DVD, then it's an absolute bargain.

However, whether that makes it an essential purchase depends on what happens with the Blu-ray format war and the Korean dual-format machines. Words: Ian Calcutt