An ongoing complaint has been the high price for a HD DVD player, but few seem to remember that the first DVD player cost upwards of $1000 USD dollars, or that it takes a few generations for the price of any electronic device to drop. So we should be patting Toshiba on the back for the rapid release of new models featuring prices well under $500 USD. Lets’ take their HD-A20 for example. It retails for $399 UDS but can be found for around $310 USD online through various merchants. But what’s important to keep in mind is that the feature of set of this player isn’t being downgraded along with the cost, but instead it comes fully loaded with 1080p resolution.
Features and Design
It may not look as cool as one of those Blu-ray players, but the HD-A20 isn’t crippled and can play CDs as well as home-brewed discs (but no JPEG, MP3 or other music files). Like all HD DVD players, it’s much deeper than a standard DVD player and is also more “PC” in how it functions – so things like the fast forward being jerky on this model is unchanged from those that came out before it. However, there have been some improvements – it weights half as much as the first generation HD-A1 and the basic star-tup sequence has improved. Still, you’ll be waiting up to a minute for the disc to pop out for insertion, and another dozens of seconds for the image to begin playing. The worst part of all this is that if you make a mistake and hit the Stop button now or at any future time (instead of Pause). the disc will start all over again from the beginning. Another bummer is the remote. True it’s lighter and more responsive than earlier models, but it’s missing backlighting or even glow-in-the-dark capabilities to aid in finding the right button to press. Since there’s a whole lot of these tiny guys, that makes using it in the dark really difficult.
You’ll want to use the HDMI connection if you can because it allows for full 1080p resolution as well as transmitting audio. The only outputs for audio on the player are an Optical out and a pair of RCA for ste-reo, so using the HDMI port is the only way to gain the new high-def audio formats like Dolby Digital+. Since there are no analog outputs for audio, the downside of this player is that unless your amp has HDMI inputs, there’s no accessing these formats.
Also be sure to insert an Ethernet cable into the LAN port so the player can join your network and access the Internet. Without a network, you won’t be able to download firmware updates or watch additional con-tent from selected HD DVD discs taken off of the Internet (but the player can be used to play discs even without the connection).
We first attached the HDMI output on the A20 to a Denon amp that has HDMI inputs and which is sending the video signal to a 56” Samsung LED 1080p Rear-projection display. Turning the player on, the first thing we’ll do is go to the Setup menu and set the aspect ratio to 16:9 (rather than 4:3 or letterbox) and the resolution to 1080p (we’re leaving off all the other enhancements such as noise reduction, etc. as we prefer to do fine-tuning at the display). Going to the network settings, we tell the Toshiba to automatically join the network, which it does. This will be the case for pretty much everybody and really makes the whole process easier than having to manually input router and ISP settings. Now that the network is onboard – the player lets us know that there’s a firmware update to download. Giving it the OK, the player begins to the process and finishes about 15 minutes later (shutting itself off when done). Turning the player back on, we check that the settings haven’t been affected (they aren’t), and go to the Audio settings to make sure that HDMI is selected so that it can process any sound formats it encounters.
The back of the Toshiba HD-A20
We’ll start by seeing how well the HD-A20 handles DVDs. Once inserted in the tray, the disc comes up as fast as if it was in a regular DVD player – with all of the functions working as you’d expect them to. Running the HQV test disc, the results show that the HD-A20 scales and upconverts to 1080p with reasona-ble quality overall; doing a good job at color reproduction, noise reduction and maintaining detail. But it could do a whole lot better at handling “jaggies” (such as what you’d see in a rippling flag or a spinning clock hand), so we have to give it a 6 out of 10 there.
But since test patterns aren’t what people watch, we’ll put in the DVD of Creature Comforts America, which hand-animates clay figures. The video quality of the images looks smooth and free from artifacting overall, and we can even see cracks and smudges on some of the clay figures (think how much more glaring they’d be in HD!). For something faster paced, we’re riveted watching the climactic car duel in Death Proof, as the player resolves all the action of two cars insanely crashing into each other at high speed. You can probably catch the player’s disadvantage at controlling “jaggies” if you stare hard enough, but the eye tends to be forgiving when it comes to action movies anyway.
Oppo 981HD Remote (left) & Toshiba HD-A20 Remote (right)
Time for HD DVD
There’s really nothing to comment on about the audio other than it sounds as good as any Dolby Digital track – so we’ll move on to the HD DVD version of Digital Video Essentials, whose highly mastered scenes lets us compare and calibrate sharpness, color and other aspects of the video image in 1080p; and which shows that this player resolves high-definition quite well. Playing episodes from the first sea-son HD DVD box set of the TV series Heroes, exteriors are sharp and crisp, with color brilliant and mod-erate in contrast so that the plentiful detail is not being smudged. We also watched some scenes from the newly released HD DVD of Top Gun and while there is some grain in the film due to its age, the image is still very detailed.
To see how flesh tones stack up, we switched to the comedy Knocked Up. Colors are spot-on and the overall image is crisp, without any “noise” in the sky or other distractions. We’re also able to access the web-enabled features without any problems – the disc lets you download and view unseen clips from the movie along with other Universal content. We should also add that Dolby Digital+ sounds impressive, but frankly if you’ve a good sound system, then even listening to the “old” audio format of Dolby Digital is great.
The biggest obstacle to getting HD discs into homes has been the high price of the players – something that the HD-A20 effectively eliminates. While its use as a regular DVD player could be far better, you’re buying it for how splendidly it displays HD discs after all (plus updated features such as 24 frames per second can be added via online updates, and in fact have been). So if you’ve been hesitant to jump into the high-def pool, now’s your chance to get a HD DVD player that won’t let you down.
• High-resolution image
• Provides full 1080p resolution
• Ethernet port for networked content
• Reasonable price
• Multi-disc playback capabilities
• Internet connection for updates and added content
• Lack of analog outputs for the new audio formats
• Average performance when playing regular DVDs
• Inactive USB ports
• Remote difficult to use in dim light