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Review: Xbox 360 HD DVD a bargain at $200

Story Highlights

• Xbox 360 HD DVD 1/2 the price of today's stand-alone players
• Comes with an Xbox 360 Universal remote
• Faster disc-load times compared to Toshiba's current players
• Doesn't offer HDMI connectivity
By David Carnoy and David Katzmaier
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(CNET.comexternal link) -- While the Sony PlayStation 3 may have an integrated Blu-ray player, Microsoft is doing its best to blunt that possible competitive advantage with a next-generation DVD player of its own for the Xbox 360.

Dubbed simply Xbox 360 HD DVD player, the fairly basic external drive connects to the Xbox 360 via a USB cable. Like the 360 itself, you can either stand the drive upright or lay it down horizontally. Whichever way you go, the whole outboard concept is a little kludgey, but the drive's $200 price tag is quite reasonable considering today's stand-alone HD DVD players start at $500.

Better yet, Microsoft is also throwing in an Xbox 360 Universal Media Remote and, for a limited time, a copy of Peter Jackson's King Kong HD DVD.

Setup was a breeze. Before connecting the HD DVD player to your Xbox 360, you have to insert the included software disc into your Xbox 360.

You should also make sure that you've updated your Xbox 360 with the latest system software, which is available for download via Xbox Live.

Once you've loaded the HD DVD drivers, you're ready to plug in. Of course, we assume that, if you're reading this review, you have an HDTV and your Xbox 360 is connected to it with the component-video cable (the HD DVD player also supports playback via an optional VGA connector, but more on that in a minute). Otherwise, there's no reason to buy the drive until you do.

The drive has its own power supply -- thankfully, it's not a huge brick like the Xbox 360's, but it's not tiny either -- which means you're going to need an extra opening on a wall socket or power strip to plug it in.

Since the 360 has only a single USB port on its rear panel, you'll need to remove any USB devices you have connected to that port. However, the good news is that the HD DVD player has two extra USB ports, so you'll be able to connect, say, your Wi-Fi adapter and your Xbox Live Vision Camera to the back of the drive -- rather than to the front USB ports of the 360 -- and keep those cables hidden behind the console. (The rear of the HD DVD drive even has a snap-on mount for the wireless adapter.)

Faster load times

The first thing we noticed when we popped in the King Kong HD DVD was that it loaded somewhat faster than did the first-generation Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD player we had on hand.

Powered off, the Xbox 360 HD DVD player took about 35 seconds to boot up and be ready to accept a disc. Once we loaded Kong into the player, it took another 30 seconds for the Universal Studios logo to appear, which adds up to a boot time of about 1 minute, 5 seconds. With the notoriously sluggish Toshiba -- and yes, we're using the latest firmware -- it took about 1:48 to get to that Universal logo from a powered-off state.

The Xbox 360 HD DVD player also responded more quickly to button-presses and other commands, but we suspect that future HD DVD players will be faster than the HD-A1.

The Xbox 360 HD DVD player offered most of the features we expect from stand-alone HD DVD players, such as bookmarking and a zoom function.

However, its feature set falls short in other areas, particularly in terms of connectivity. First and foremost, it lacks an HDMI output, at least until Microsoft creates one for the 360. Should studios ever elect to institute the image constraint token (we doubt they will, but you never know), 360 HD DVD owners will be relegated to low resolution for affected discs (more info). The bigger issue, however, is that image quality is generally better via HDMI than component video.

Also, if you want the full resolution of Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby True HD, or DTS' trio of new formats, any or all of which are available on HD DVD, you're not going to get it from the Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on. That's because these formats require either an HDMI output or an analog multichannel output -- both of which are lacking on the 360 and the external drive.

The 360's current component video and VGA adapters both have an optical digital output as their highest-quality audio jack, which can carry only standard DVD-level Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound. The good news: Dolby Digital is the base soundtrack on all HD DVD movies, so you should always get a solid surround soundtrack instead of dead air.

Performance testing

Our first video-quality test involved its most basic configuration: using the Xbox 360's component video connector to play HD DVDs from the drive. We set the console's output to 1080i because, as we discovered, even when set to 1080p the player switches to 1080i output when playing back an HD DVD -- although the console's dashboard menus remain set to 1080p. If Microsoft issues another firmware update to enable 1080p support for HD DVDs via component video, we'll update this section.

We compared the picture quality of the Xbox 360 HD DVD player to that of our reference video player, the Toshiba HD-A1, which we also connected to the component-video output at 1080i.

We then sent their respective signals to three HDTVs we had on hand: the 1,366x768 Panasonic TH-50PH9UK as well as the 1080p Sony KDS-R60XBR2 and Pioneer PRO-FHD1. In short, the Xbox 360 looked just as sharp as the Toshiba, and the picture was essentially identical in every way -- which is to say, it looked great.

We compared the incredibly sharp "Swordfish" disc, and all of the tiny details came across equally well on both players. We could see every hair on Hugh Jackman's and John Travolta's heads, for example, as they conversed in the coffee shop, and we noticed how their stubble went in and out of focus slightly as they turned their faces.

Details in the fabric of the cop's suit as he surveys the villains looked equally crisp on both players, and we could read the fine writing on the computer screens as well as pick out the weave of the chair in which Halle Berry was sitting.

The HDMI issue

Our biggest complaint about the Xbox 360 HD DVD drive is the simple fact that you can't use it to watch discs via HDMI. That has a direct impact on picture quality, because HDMI almost always outperforms component video, especially on today's digital displays.

Comparing the Toshiba's HDMI output vs. the Xbox 360's component signal, we saw that, on the Pioneer PRO-FHD1, for example, the image looked significantly sharper via HDMI. We could discern dimples and pits in Halle Berry's forehead during an extreme close-up as she threatens Jackman with a gun, as well as the lace in her lingerie looked sharper and better defined.

Via component video on the Pioneer, these details were obscured somewhat. Of course, every display handles component video and HDMI differently; the Panasonic plasma, for example, looked equally sharp via component and HDMI.

The other way: VGA

Next, we checked out some movies using the 360's VGA adapter. The current advantage of using the VGA connector (a $40 accessory) in conjunction with the HD DVD drive is that the VGA connector can pass 1080p with HD DVD movies, while the component-video connector cannot.

That said, it's worth noting that your mileage may vary depending on the capabilities of your television's VGA input. Many big-screen, 1080p rear-projectors in particular don't perform well via VGA.

The Sony KDL-R60XBR2's VGA input, for example, doesn't allow 1080p sources--including the Xbox 360--to fill the screen, placing about a 6-inch black border around the image.

The DVI input of the Mitsubishi WD-65831 (which can accept VGA signals with a simple dongle) caused the image from the HD DVD drive to be overscanned by about 10 percent on all sides, cutting off about half of the black bars above and below the picture as well as a good deal of the right and left sides of the image. JVC's HD-56FN97, for its part, was unable to accept a 1080p signal via VGA; we've detailed the performance of these and other televisions' VGA inputs in our reviews, and they generally perform the same way with the 360's VGA output.

On the other hand, most 1080p flat-panel LCDs with VGA inputs handle 1080p VGA sources fairly well. The Sony KDL-40XBR2, the Samsung LN-S4096D, and the Westinghouse LVM-47W1 are good examples of this breed of TV.

We watched a bit of the "Swordfish" HD DVD on the Westinghouse, the VGA input of which behaves very well, and the results were mostly identical to the picture quality we witnessed via component video. However, we did perceive a difference in one instance. In Chapter 16, there's a close-up of a laptop monitor used in the surveillance of Travolta and Jackman in the coffee shop. We noticed some slight crawl and jagged edges on the monitor's oblique diagonal lines when watching the scene in 1080i mode via component-video on all three of the monitors mentioned above.

On the Westinghouse, which was displaying the VGA output's video at 1080p, the lines were solid. Other aspects of picture quality were the same as far as we could tell; the VGA input delivered all of the detail between white and black, and colors were well-saturated, not washed out as we've seen reported in a few online venues.

That said, since there are discrepancies between VGA inputs on various HDTVs, you should make sure your HDTV supports 1080p via component video and that it performs to your liking. In other words, before you invest in the 360's VGA adapter, you should try to make sure it'll actually work.

Hooking up a PC and setting the resolution to 1,920x1,080 should do the trick; if you get an image from the PC at that resolution, it will likely look the same via the 360's VGA output at 1080p.

Despite its connectivity drawbacks, the Xbox 360 HD DVD player makes a perfectly suitable means of watching HD DVDs, and it's a good way for Xbox 360 owners get in on the next-generation DVD action without investing too much. Of course, adding $200 to the cost of the Xbox 360 puts the total cost of the console at the same price as the PlayStation 3 and its integrated Blu-ray drive.

Apples to apples, if next-generation DVD is what you're looking, the PS3 is going to be the better overall solution from a design standpoint. But for die-hard Xbox 360 fans, the PS3 just isn't an option.

Editor's note: Microsoft didn't market the Xbox 360 HD DVD player to work with PCs, nor does it officially support PC connectivity, but there are reports on the Web that you can indeed hack the player to work with a PC. However, on top of a set of Windows drivers, you'll also need a copy of DVD playback software, such as WinDVD8, that supports playback of HD DVD discs.

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