2007 is going to be the year of high definition, or so we are told, and with that, Toshiba has finally waded in with two players in the UK that are capable of playing back its next generation HD DVD discs.
Although this is the first generation of players in the UK, it's actually Toshiba's second generation of player worldwide, so gone are all the clunky mistakes normally associated with new technology.
Unlike the many prototypes we've seen over the past year from both the Blu-ray and HD DVD camps, the HD-E1 is a slimish device that is no bigger than your average DVD player. We're not talking paper-thin as yet, but certainly not bulky.
The design, which resembles the company's Regza Television range will happily fit under any HD-Ready television - it's black and shiny, and is marked only by a small circular glowing on/off switch that resembles the insignia found on Samsung's range of televisions.
While looks are important it's performance that we care about and the Toshiba HD-E1 performs well on the films we watched on it.
The lower of two models, the HD-E1 is slightly cheaper than the company's other model the HD-XE1, but then comes with limitations to match.
The main difference being that although HD DVD supports a resolution up to 1080p, Toshiba has limited the output resolution to a maximum of 1080i. It's a trait that the company has followed in its television range understanding that at smaller screen sizes - i.e. anything under 42-inches you don't really need to worry about 1080p support.
Basically, if you plan to buy this and connect it to a projector then you'll be wanting the more expensive HD-XE1, if however you're planning on only enjoying your high definition movies on the small (and we mean 42-inch or below) screen then the 1080i support is fine.
Performance wise and there is a noticeable difference in quality compared to the same film played through an upscaling DVD player, but not enough - we felt - that you'd be begging to pay over the odds for the experience at this moment. Don't get us wrong, we want everything to be in HD and agree that it’s the way of the future, but not at any cost (more on this later).
We tested the HD-E1 with Batman Begins, Superman Returns, Unforgiven, The Last Samurai and King Kong and then did a direct comparison with Superman Returns and Batman Begins on DVD - all from Warner Bros.
Noticeable differences between the formats with Batman Begins was the ice fight sequence and the crispness of the darkness in the Batcave, while the shuttle sequence in Superman Returns, complete with its special effects was also improved on HD DVD.
As with Blu-ray, HD DVD discs support accessing the menu system while still watching the movie, and while it’s a feature to boast over current DVD technology, we can't see why you would really want it. If you are watching the movie you are watching the movie.
In an attempt to bring the price down, Toshiba has cut some corners, mainly the lack of 1080p output support, however for most users this won't be a problem and means that you can get a piece of the next generation DVD action without having to break the bank as you currently do with Blu-ray - Samsung's player is £1000.
So how does it compare to the competition?
Against conventional DVD players with upscaling capabilities it is better.
Against the Xbox 360 HD DVD drive from Microsoft the quality and performance is equal. If you're a gamer and have already got the console and don't mind the noisy Xbox 360 fan in the background while watching movies, then it is going to be the cheaper option.
Against Blu-ray, annoyingly it's very much much of a muchness. The quality compared to both the Blu-ray player from Samsung or the PS3 is as equally good here, which makes it even more frustrating that you have to choose which format to opt for as they are inoperable.
If HD DVD was the only format, then we would be shouting from the rooftops that this is a great entry-level player, but it's not the only format and for the time being that's the biggest dilemma.
With DVD the argument was easy. It was clearly better than VHS and there was only one format. Now with two formats to choose from the problem is trying to work out which one is likely to win and therefore investing in the right one.
Amazing, but hindered by a format war.
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