This is the flagship model in Toshiba's second generation of HD DVD players, which makes it the de facto leader for the blue laser format. The HD-EP35 is currently the best specified player of its kind and this seems set to stay that way in the near future.

So, how does this high-end HD DVD player improve on Toshiba's impressive first-gen range topper, the HD-XE1? Let's find out...

On the looks and build quality front, there's little difference. If anything, the EP35 is slightly less stylish and sturdy than the XE1 and, while the older player felt solid and weighty enough to dampen down any performance-affecting vibrations, the newcomer is more than a kilogram lighter.

While we wouldn't go so far as to call it flimsy (the disc tray action is reassuringly robust), it's certainly not up to the standards of high-end Blu-ray players such as the Pioneer BDP-LX70A or Sony's BDP-S1E - but then it does cost a great deal less.

It's certainly not a bad looking piece of hardware, though; you can't really go wrong with a black and silver colour scheme and its slim frame should slip easily onto most racks or into most TV benches.

It's quite impressive under the bonnet. The player outputs all the hi-def formats under the sun, including 1080p at 24fps.

This mode is as close to real film as you're going to get as it runs at the same speed as the projector at your local multiplex, while regular 720p, 1080i and 1080p modes run at 50Hz, resulting in a slight increase in audio pitch and some juddering during motion. In addition to HD DVD, the player will also upscale standard DVD movies to hi-def resolutions up to 1080p.

It also boasts the best set of connections ever seen on an HD DVD player. First and foremost is the HDMI, which conforms to the latest v1.3 spec and can, therefore, carry lossless bitstream surround sound to a compatible receiver, as well as Deep Color pictures to a compatible TV or projector.

Those less up to date on the TV front can go with component video (which offers up to 1080i resolution for HD DVDs), while standard-def S-video and composite video make up the numbers. Aside from the aforementioned HDMI, audio options are dedicated 5.1 analogue (for those who want to use the EP35's built-in surround sound decoder), analogue stereo and optical digital.

As per the older Toshiba HD DVD decks, there's an Ethernet port which enables you to connect the player to the internet. You'd want to do this to update the firmware and to receive the bonus HD DVD extras only available online. Also on the front is a USB port labelled 'for future use' and currently redundant.

Thanks to an exhaustively detailed manual and simple onscreen menu layout, setting up the EP35 for use is dead easy, especially if you've connected your screen and/or sound system via HDMI: you just select your preferred video resolution and audio mode.

That said, when it comes to day to day usage, the player can be a tad frustrating because, like most hi-def disc decks, it's a little on the slow side to start up from standby (around 30secs) and to start playing an HD DVD (the intro screen usually appears around 30 to 35 seconds after inserting the disc).

Also, the player doesn't automatically bookmark your spot in a movie when you press the stop button or put it into standby, so when you resume you have to seek it out manually using the menu and chapter skip controls. It's not ideal, especially as you need to stop a movie in order to change any of the player's settings.

The picture quality is certainly the best we've seen from an HD DVD player. On our test TV (a 52in, full HD 1080p, 24p compatible Philips 52PFL9632D), the EP35's 1080p/24p output delivered a smooth, almost totally judder-free picture with test favourite King Kong. Even the kind of steady panning shots that gave the HD-XE1 shaky nightmares were rock steady in their smoothness.

Colours in the movie's jungle scenes were clear and bright, skin tones natural, and the sunrise over New York City at the end showed an aptitude for clear, contour-free transitions.

We can't say that we noticed any improvement from the Deep Color feature, and for some reason it disables itself when you use the 1080p/24p output mode anyway - we'd advise you to stick with this resolution, as we noticed juddering with regular 1080p.

Of course, there was loads of detail on show too, with the New York backdrop bursting out of the screen. We did spot the odd jagged edge on diagonal lines, but nothing drastically distracting.

DVD upscaling is impressive too, although not quite up to the standards of some of the best dedicated decks we've seen from Denon and Marantz. These models seem to add more detail, while the EP35 delivers an altogether smoother and cleaner image.

Owners of HDMI-toting, bitstream-compatible amps are spoilt here - the EP35 will output raw, lossless data to your receiver and let it do the job of decoding. Obviously the quality will depend on your particular amp and speakers, but chances are it's going to be mind-blowingly excellent.

The alternative is to have the player decode the audio itself and then output PCM via HDMI (limited to 5.1 channels) or the 5.1 analogue output. Both are compatible with Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD (the latter only in its core version). This delivers an immersive, powerful soundtrack, too.

Unbelievably, this player is available online for £270 with seven free HD DVDs and an HDMI cable included. It's a truly remarkable deal when you consider that entry-level Blu-ray players with less features are retailing at £320 without offering any extras in the box.

Despite one or two minor niggles, this is certainly the best HD DVD player on the market today, and the fact that it's available for such a small outlay means we give it our wholehearted recommendation.