If you thought getting hold of an Xbox 360 late last year was difficult, you should try finding one of the HD DVD drives. The shop where I had my original order didn’t get any and, according to my friend who owns it, Gem (the main UK Microsoft distributor for indies) only had a couple of dozen for the whole country. Gameplay told me that they couldn’t supply my preorder until, after much ado, it turned out that they could.
Obviously an external drive isn’t the most elegant way to play HD DVD but what this does is make an excellent stopgap until the standalones come down in price a bit. How many HD movie players are there for £130 again?
It’s admittedly a bit disingenuous to say that this is an HD DVD player for £130 when you need a £200 machine to run it, but a quick calculation tells me that £130 + £200 = £330, which is significantly less than the £400+ for the standalone HD players or the PS3. It comes with the remote (usually £20 on its own) and the King Kong HD DVD (£14.99 on Play), and when you look at the aggressive pre-Christmas bundling going on with 360 consoles I don’t think it’s a bad deal.
Pricing aside, the most important thing is how well this works. The answer is pretty well. Not perfect, although it does represent excellent value for money and the quality is very high. It’s certainly the best way to play HD movies without breaking the bank.
The drive itself is slightly bigger than I expected – see the above picture for it next to the 360, and it’s the same depth – and, since it has its own power supply, runs independently of the console so that it can be opened and closed without turning on the 360. The build quality on it is actually a little better than the 360’s standard DVD drive, with the eject icon lighting up and the button itself not feeling as cheap and clicky as the other one. It’s mercifully quiet but unfortunately you’ll still have the 360’s fans going. Generally it’s not too bad, but it can be audible in quieter moments.
Installation is quick and painless, and when you’re finished the drive icon on the 360 dashboard becomes some weird Pokéball that lets you switch between the DVD and HD DVD drives. My one complaint about this system is that I often use my remote to eject discs and, at the moment at least, my Harmony can only control the built-in drive. I couldn’t find any new remote codes that they may have added, so unless I’m missing something that should be on the to-do list.
Playback quality is the most important thing and it seems very much comparable to the Toshiba HD-A1 that I saw a while back. Although I’m never going to get the full effect on my 26″ LCD, it’s a noticeable step up from upscaled DVD, albeit not as night and day as some might expect. There’s obviously more detail in the picture (close ups and things like King Kong’s hair really benefit here), but there’s also a lot more pop and three-dimensionality to the colours. I’d be quite interested to hook it up to a standard def CRT and see if the improvements carry across to that. Possibly the biggest improvement over DVD is how the menus work – they work without interrupting the film and let you change settings on the fly, and are just extremely smart. The bundled Kong disc is a fantastic showpiece that looks gorgeous; it’s just a shame about the film.
Audio is the one area where connectivity limitations become apparent, as it encodes all audio formats (typically only Dolby Digital Plus or Dolby TrueHD at the moment) to standard Dolby Digital. There’s no option to output the PCM audio to your amp or, for obvious reasons, output them over HDMI and while it’s not too big of an issue for me since I’m limited to DD and DTS, the volume it was outputting seemed a bit low. I suppose for those with better equipment than mine it’s something to bear in mind, though.
So overall it’s a very credible HD DVD playback solution, with a few quirks that should hopefully be worked out in future updates. And, it’s worth noting, this one can actually scale your HD movies to 720p.