First reviews positive for Toshiba HD DVD as supplies sell out fast

Posted by Scott M. Fulton, III

Chicago (IL) - Easter weekend may as well have been Christmas for dozens of eager videophiles who have been anxious for months, perhaps years, to become the first owners of HD DVD equipment in North America. Reports across the US are that the first shipments of Toshiba's premiere, entry-level HD-A1 HD DVD player are nearly sold out at major retail outlets such as Best Buy, with the likelihood of replenishment maybe several weeks away.

Toshiba's HD-A1 entry-level HD DVD player

Toshiba's HD-A1 entry-level HD DVD player. (Courtesy Toshiba)

The manager of a Best Buy store in Chicago this afternoon showed TG Daily that there were exactly five HD-A1 units available in the entire city. Some stores, including his, only received three units for the entire shipment, with the next shipment slated for as far away as six weeks. Meanwhile, an Indianapolis Best Buy store reported two units on the shelves, with further availability not so much in doubt. Units still available are selling for the full retail price of $499.

Availability for the higher-end HD-XA1, the Chicago manager told us, is being held back for several months. However, new owners of the HD-A1 may be surprised to find that some of the features Toshiba had been holding back for the $799 HD-XA1 - at least, according to the company's own statistics - are showing up on the lower-priced HD-A1 anyway. For instance, photographs of new systems supplied by their proud owners clearly show an Ethernet jack, indicating that Toshiba did not limit Internet connection support to the high-end model after all.

A first-hand account of a newly purchased HD-A1 published on The Man Room includes close-up photos of all the system's outputs. There's support for Dolby 5.1 channel stereo and conventional two-channel stereo through RCA jacks, plus both coaxial and optical plugs for digital audio. On the video side, there's jacks for component video, RCA video, and S-Video, as well as HDMI. We have yet to find a negative account from a user, in our preliminary searches, connecting HDMI to a digital display; since the HDMI 1.3 specification is still in flux, this has to be good news for Toshiba. The forthcoming HD-XA1 supports all of these outputs for video and audio as well, though adds optional support for TosLink digital outputs.

In the connectivity field, the XA1 would add support for USB connections, though it's not clear at present how Toshiba plans to exploit that feature. Still, the fact that the HD-A1 has so much of the features to be shared by the more expensive HD-XA1, may be provoking customers not to wait for the high-end option.

Among members of the AV Science Forum, the favorite video thus far that shows off the HD-A1 appears to be The Last Samurai. The darker scenes are particularly revealing from a technical standpoint, members there report, due to the absence of "blocking" and other artifacts that typically appear in traditional DVD videos, with lower dynamic range. Also, one viewer noticed the distinct presence of spittle emerging from Tom Cruise's mouth during many of the more important speechmaking scenes, which some could interpret as reason enough to fork over the 25 bucks.

Thus far, the least favorite feature among the new unit's first adopters is the remote control, which from early photographs appears to be the length of a grown man's entire forearm (it's perhaps a little smaller), but with buttons smaller than on most BlackBerrys. Running a close second on the negatives list is fan noise, the level of which shocked some customers - one of whom estimated about 25 dB. The presence of what some are describing as a big honker of a fan, could be a clue that the system's built-in Intel Pentium 4M processor could be generating some heat along with those extra volts, as TG Daily reported earlier today.

Viewers are also noting the lack of depth in HD DVD movies' special features, which may be an indication that the fine art of iHD programming (the interactive layer for HD DVD) has yet to take off. But the quality and color and depth of dynamic range, viewers say, make up for the lack of special features in the new format's early going.