As soon as you pull it from the carton, you know that the Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD player means business. Its 17-inch rack-size width and 20 pounds of heft beckon to a day when men were men and DVD players were both taller and heavier than a slice of white bread. While the boxy design won't win awards, the player's motorized aluminum door and glossy black display panel give it a sleek modern look that should make any early adopter proud. There's a large power button with a backlit collar that glows green or red to denote On or Standby and two small buttons to operate the door and disc drawer behind it. Lowering the door also reveals transport keys and a pair of USB ports earmarked for game controllers to be called into play by future software titles - the first real indication that this is not your grandpappy's DVD player.
Around back are all the jacks you'd expect to find on any of today's better upconverting DVD players and a few things you probably haven't seen on this type of product. (See "Hook Me Up" for a full description of the player's connection options and some setup tips.) Among the latter is an Ethernet port that can be used with a broadband Internet connection so the player can link to Web-based extras from a disc, such as movie trailers, games, shopping, or other content. It can also allow Toshiba to add features going forward through firmware updates to the HD-XA1 from a dedicated Toshiba Web site (though this can also be accomplished by ordering a disc). I set up this connection on my test sample, but none of the first discs had any live links in their Extras menus, and Toshiba's upgrade site was not yet active.
Another unusual connector is the RS-232C port that enables you to control the HD-XA1 via fancy whole-house remote systems. This jack, along with the motorized front-panel door and a more substantial, backlit remote are the primary differences between this model and the $499 HD-A1 (which we did not test).
Perhaps the HD-XA1's most revealing back-panel feature is its full-height fan vent. Don't get me wrong - the fan was appropriately quiet for a viewing-room - not whisper quiet, but by no means objectionable or even noticeable during play. But its mere existence on a DVD player speaks to the architecture of the HD-XA1 and its "personality" that emerged.
As I said in my main review, this HD DVD player isn't so much a player as a computer. That's not hyperbole - inside the box there's actually a Pentium microprocessor. Which explains the HD-XA1's remarkably slow start-up and the general sluggishness I cited. The instructions for many functions that normally reside in hard-wired logic circuits in a typical DVD player are in software here. Every time you turn the player on, an equivalent of the BIOS program found in any PC tells the microprocessor where to look in the player's flash memory to boot up its operating system, which eventually instructs the player to perform all its other tasks, such as checking the disc drawer for a disc and then loading and playing it.
Toshiba technical experts I consulted with say the player's initial boot-up time - about 30 seconds with no disc in the drawer - can be improved somewhat with future firmware upgrades, though the 50- to 70-second disc load time is more closely related to the disc itself. We hope firmware upgrades will also address some of the HD-XA1's general sluggishisness and quirkiness. Pressing the Stop button for example, results in five annoying seconds of additional playback (with a "PLAYBACK STOPPED" flag on the screen) before things go dark. And calling up the Setup menu yielded a several-second delay and a short flash of the menu onscreen before it finally came up for good.
The handheld remote control supplied with the Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD player has a solid, 10-inch metal body and a slick vibration-sensitive backlight that turns on for about 10 seconds when you give it a little jerk or hit any button. Without illumination, though, the legends can be difficult to read - something bloggers have pointed out about the remote on the less expensive A1, which has the same layout and faceplate but no backlight.
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