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SmartHouse takes the Toshiba HD DVD player HD-E1 for a spin, but wonders if the stunning hi-def prowess of HD DVD makes up for a lack of features.

Toshiba’s HD-E1 has finally brought the HD DVD format to Australia. So is this the start of something big? Cheaper than its Blu-ray rivals, it’s a slim-profiled and glossily-finished machine, not unlike any other DVD player, really. The only signs that differentiate it from the crowd are the logos on the front panel – most noticeably, HD DVD and Dolby TrueHD – and two USB extension ports for future ‘additional control options’.
Rear-panel connectivity is surprisingly basic, given the HD-E1’s support for new audio formats like Dolby TrueHD with only a two-channel analogue audio output. If you want high-resolution multichannel audio by coupling it to an existing AV amp, you’ll have to wait for the ‘step-up’ XE1 version. If you play back an HD DVD with TrueHD soundtrack, a 5.1 PCM soundtrack will be available via the HDMI 1.2 output (24bit resolution and 96kHz sampling rates are supported for this). But for now, few amps with HDMI connectivity support it. An alternative is to use the optical digital output for regular DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks.

When it comes to video, the deck outputs up to 1080i. There’s also an HD-capable analogue component output. Standard-definition composite and S-Video outputs are also included.

The final connection of note is a 10/100Mbps Ethernet port, which is something that has been conspicuously absent from first-generation Blu-ray hardware. This will access online content such as video streams if the studios takes advantage of the feature. It will also enable online firmware updates. 

Improved support for different codecs would make a useful update. When cheap DVD players support MP3/WMA playback, simple-profile MPEG-4 (eg DivX/XviD) and JPEG compatibility, it’s a bit galling to find the HD-E1 unable to do any of these things. You might need your existing DVD player for now if you want compatibility with these formats.

Taking the lid off the HD-E1 reveals a neat construction. Nestling towards the back of the cabinet is a power supply that looks potent enough to deal with the main board’s requirements, as well as those of the HD DVD ROM drive that reads the discs.

Setting up the HD-E1 is easy enough, thanks to the player’s no-nonsense simplicity and Toshiba’s attractive and logical menus. Here, you’ll find all of the configuration menus you can expect from a standard DVD player – languages, parental locks and video outputs (480/576i, 480p/576p, 720p and 1080i choices are given) for example. Note that DVDs can be upscaled to 720p or 1080i.

HD DVD-specific setup options include switching between DVD and HD DVD layers on combi discs, firmware update checks and network configuration. The latter is easy, thanks to the presence of HDCP, but a manual configuration is also possible.

The HD-E1 manages to load an HD DVD in a respectable 30 seconds. In use, the HD-E1 will be responsive enough for most. ‘Comfort-zone’ features leave something to be desired although the machine will resume from where playback was stopped and play at various slow-motion and multiple speeds. Repeat playback is also available. As yet, most HD DVD software offers little more than standard interactivity. At least when the studios do begin to experiment, the player should be able to cope.

Performance
The colour performance is nothing short of breathtaking in its radiance and intensity – it’s firmly in ‘so-real-you-could-touch-it’ territory. Excellent shadow definition, and image depth is coupled with a noticeable freedom from digital ‘nasties’ that put some of the earlier Blu-ray MPEG-2 releases to shame. The odd bit of grain, which lent a reassuringly ‘filmic’ appearance to the proceedings, was unspoilt by artefacting.

However, these positive findings were compromised by some obvious motion judder on several discs. Hopefully, the early software is to blame. DVD playback, both standard definition and upscaled, is more than acceptable, while sound quality leaves no reason to complain. Even that two-channel analogue output manages to impress with a dynamic yet transparent character.

Conclusion
Toshiba’s HD-E1 brings HD disc playback tantalisingly close to the mainstream. The player is obviously built to hit a low price point, but its performance is unequivocally next generation.

It’s easy to use with impressive disc loading times – although build quality and AV performance is slightly inferior. Value for money though is high.
Cinephiles, however, are investigate Toshiba’s more advanced HD-XE1, which at the time of going to press was due soon. This player is a significant step-up from the E1 in pure horsepower terms, with loads of new silicon and a full feature list.

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Toshiba HD-E1| $1099 |  | www.toshiba.com.au   
For: HD image quality; fast loading times; nice design
Against: Video judder on some discs
Verdict: An extremely capable entry-level high-definition player

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