OK let’s answer the question in the title right up front. I’ve been using the new Toshiba XDE DVD player for about a week and it isn’t better than my Playstation 3 (PS3) Blu-Ray player. But Toshiba did some things very right and it (and other DVD players like it) could keep Blu-Ray from ever replacing DVD. This is because consumers tend to buy on price and the majority of them will gravitate towards quality considered “good enough” and the Toshiba XDE to me IS good enough. Home theater owners will clearly still prefer Blu-Ray.
We remain a fan of the Oppo DVD players which have been around for some time. These players provided high quality upconversion for prices around $200. Unfortunately Oppo lacks the marketing strength of a major CE vendor and the competing upconverting players from the majors were cheap imitations of what the Oppo could do.
In a nut shell, what upconversion does is take a regular DVD image and improves it so it looks better on an HDTV set. I’ve been showing folks movies side-by-side comparing an HD-DVD player, Blu-Ray Sony PS3 and the Oppo for over a year now. The consensus is that people can see that the Blu-Ray and HD-DVD is better, but they like the Oppo just fine and if I show the Oppo first, rather than last, they indicate that it is “adequate” (ignorance is bliss) enough.
But, part of having a premium experience with a product is how the product looks and presents itself. The Oppo players (yes I have two Oppo DV-981HD sets) aren’t particularly interesting to look at and the remote control is, well, kind of ugly. Oppo clearly invested in the technology and not the appearance of the product. This is what Toshiba addresses with the XDE.
Form AND Function
Most technology and CE vendors compete on features, but few seem to get that products must be attractive. One of the reasons the Apple iPod is so successful is because Apple turns the function-over-form practice upside down. So while the iPod often lacks things like an FM radio that other players have, it is very attractive. What you want, ideally, though is a balance where the device is both capable and attractive. With one exception the XDE does that.
The exception is that the device is not full-depth so stacking it any place but on top is a problem. Now if this is the last device in the stack this is kind of handy because it actually helps you cable the device and on top of some half depth theater in a box systems this probably would be OK.
From the front, the device looks high quality. The XDE logo is lit up in big letters telling the room the player is something special and the resolution (including the 24 frame setting that my Sharp HD TV wouldn’t accept) is displayed. This last feature is rather handy because if the TV doesn’t auto resolve the resolution, you can’t see anything and figuring out what is wrong can be really painful. Many of the HD products, particularly the game systems, don’t have such a display and if someone hits the wrong button you could easily think it is broken when it isn’t.
The remote is a typical Toshiba black remote, it is intuitive and looks good with other remote controls and should (though I didn’t try this myself) program well with any of the major universal products.
When testing the Toshiba XDE, DVD movies, similar to the Oppo, were amazingly sharp and HD-like. Yes you could still see where the Blu-Ray and HD-DVD movies were sharper (particularly up close to the screen, at a normal 8’ viewing angle) and the picture was, in fact, good enough and appeared to my eye sharper than the up-conversion in any of the real HD players I currently have including the Toshiba HD-DVD player.
I can’t picture anyone with a Blu-Ray player abandoning it for the XDE, but I can see people struggling with the trade-offs of Blu-Ray deciding to get an XDE instead and I doubt Toshiba will be the only vendor who will see this opportunity.
The reality is that there are far more DVDs in folk’s libraries than Blu-Ray discs and far more movies available to rent or purchase in standard DVD than Blu-Ray. In addition, regular DVDs are substantially less expensive to buy. Also, recall that regular DVDs play in some cars, inexpensive portable DVD players, and on most new notebook computers (and many of those that do have Blu-Ray drives, for some strange reason, don’t have enough battery life to complete a movie).
Finally, and I’ve noticed this with Netflix, the Blu-Ray discs seem to be particularly fragile. I have three Blu-Ray machines now and often have to polish the disc (which initially looks unblemished) and then search for a machine that will actually play it, while regular DVDs seem to be much more tolerant of abuse.
The problem for this industry is that manufacturers just want to sell hardware and make money. Most, other than Sony (and here strangely it appears to work against them), don’t have any interest is selling movies in any resolution. If they can sell and make more from upconverting DVD players they will do just that.
DVD is the current standard and the XDE player (in my view) is good enough. And if others follow Toshiba and market these types of players, Blu-Ray will have substantial difficulty ever replacing DVD before the market moves to HD on-demand. However, having said that, Oppo is planning on moving to Blu-Ray themselves which suggest a player that can do both great upconversion and Blu-Ray is coming and, if it arrives at an affordable price, might be worth waiting for. Until then I’ve been impressed with the XDE and it has replaced my Oppo as my primary DVD player.
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