After a production-related delay of several months, Toshiba's second HD DVD player is now available in the UK.
The HD-XE1 is a step up model from the cheaper HD-E1, with Toshiba claiming it offers better features and better build quality - not to mention the all-important ability to output 1080p, the best form of hi-def video available today.
Along with these improvements comes a heftier £650 price tag, about £300 more than the HD-E1's. So is it worth the extra outlay?
One thing is immediately obvious when you pull the player out of its box: its build quality is indeed better - in fact, vastly superior - to that of the HD-E1.
Whereas that model felt plasticky, lightweight and, well, not really worth £350, the HD-XE1 is unmistakably a solidly built piece of kit. It's reassuringly heavy, with casing made of thick metal, a tough brushed-steel front panel and gold plating on all the connections.
It's a handsome product, too. The black finish will fit in with most home cinema setups nicely, and at a mere 74mm in height, it's helpfully skinny and unobtrusive. An LED display keeps you abreast of what's going on with your discs, and the front panel drops down to reveal a pair of USB ports - these don't do anything at the moment, but Toshiba says they'll be used for extension purposes in the future.
The only sour note in the build is the disc tray, which rather gives the impression that it might fall off if you look at it the wrong way. To be fair to Toshiba, it's probably strong enough - it just looks too plasticky and skinny compared with the rest of the player.
Another obvious improvement is the generous selection of sockets on offer. The HDMI output has the latest 1.3 specification (the HD-E1 has 1.2), which means it can carry Toshiba's new Deep Colour technology.
It will also carry 1080p video and lossless Dolby TrueHD surround sound to compatible screens, projectors and amplifiers. Other video options available include component (which enables you to output in HD resolutions up to 1080i here, but not 1080p) as well as non-HD S-video and composite video.
You also get a better selection of audio connections than with the HD-E1, which only had a stereo line output, an optical digital output and the HDMI for sound. Here there are both digital output types included, as well as a set of 5.1-channel analogue outputs.
This means you can connect the HD-XE1 to an amplifier and get lossless TrueHD surround sound, even if the amp doesn't have an HDMI input; all you need are 5.1 analogue inputs.
If you're determined to make the most of HD DVD's lossless audio, then this might well save you the bother of having to shell out a few hundred pounds for a new HDMI-equipped amp. As with the HD-E1, disc-loading times are glacially slow. Switch on the player and you have to wait 45 seconds for it to do anything, while it takes 30 seconds to react after you slip in an HD DVD.
Setting the deck up couldn't be much simpler. There are only a handful of options available, and a quick trip to the menu enables you to swiftly set your desired video resolution, preferred audio output and so on.
You can even set up a network connection - the HD-XE1 has an Ethernet port that, when used with compatible HD DVDs, will enable you to download exclusive bonus content from the internet. Disappointingly, there aren't any such discs on sale yet, and at the time of writing there are none officially announced, but rumours suggest they'll be on sale before the end of the year.
As good as the design and features might sound, it's the picture quality that's the real test of an HD DVD player, and we're happy to report that the HD-XE1 doesn't disappoint when it comes to delivering a top-class HD image.
Goodfellas is arguably the best film currently available on HD DVD, and we've never seen Scorsese's masterpiece look as good as it does here. With the Toshiba hooked up to a 40-inch, 1080p-compatible screen, the detail on offer puts DVD to shame - even when upscaled by £1,000-plus DVD players.
The edges around characters and objects are crisp, colours are rich and there's barely a scrap of noise to be seen, unless you get close to the screen and start purposefully looking for it.
With a more recent movie, The Last Samurai, the picture is even more impressive. The sharpness and detail are more pronounced, and colours are beautifully vibrant without being unrealistically garish; the green field where the final battle is staged is so deeply emerald that it fairly leaps off the screen.
The colour reproduction apparently owes its intensity to Deep Colour, a new technology that supports 30-bit, 36-bit and 48-bit colour depths and reportedly enables the player to render over one billion colours.
Now, not being cyborgs from the future, we weren't able to count them all to verify these claims, but the colour reproduction certainly seems a notch above the efforts of the other HD DVD players launched in the UK so far.
A little shaky
Our one real criticism of the HD-XE1 is that it exhibits a slight judder during horizontal pans. This is most noticeable in slower, steadier pans, and seems to be somehow related to the refresh rate of the image. It's not overly annoying, and we've seen it on other HD DVD players and Blu-ray decks too, but it's something you don't notice with DVDs or games.
Sound quality is obviously another high point, and with the Xbox 360 drive restricted to regular Dolby Digital and the HD-E1 only able to output lossless via HDMI, this deck offers the best audio experience of any HD DVD model sold in the UK.
The quality will depend very much on how good your amp and speakers are, but TrueHD really impresses through a decent system - it's just a shame more discs don't carry it.
All things considered, the HD-XE1 is the best HD DVD player available in this country. It offers better picture quality than the alternatives, plus a far better selection of audio outputs. It's not perfect - the slow loading times are particularly annoying - but at the moment there's no other HD DVD deck that comes close.