Summary: JCal looks over the HD DVD drive for the Xbox 360, and answers the burning question: how can you get 1080p without HDMI?
However, companies are always looking to that Next Big Thing, the format that they believe the consumer really wants to get their hands on right now (or the format the hardware manufacturers and movie studios want to sell once the market is saturated -ed.) So in 2006 two competing formats were launched that are intended to be the next step beyond DVD. Sony is backing the Blu-Ray format, as evidenced by costly support seen in the Playstation 3. The next-gen console has an included Blu-Ray player built into both their $499 and $599 models and the PS3ís high price is attributable at least in part to having the included Blu-Ray disc.
Microsoftís Xbox 360 console launched a year earlier and used the current DVD format for both its games and movies with Microsoft saying that the DVD format would be fine with them. However, Microsoft didnít want to get out of the next-gen disc format completely. They decided to offer Xbox 360 users an add-on hardware disc that supported the competing HD DVD format (the disc drive does not play Xbox 360 games). HD DVD players launched a few months before Blu-Ray and at the moment itís still a toss-up as to which format will come out on top or if indeed both are ignored by the majority of consumers.
Microsoftís HD DVD drive for the Xbox 360 costs $200 at the moment (you can likely get it for slightly less if you look hard enough) and while thatís an expensive price for a movie only disc player itís currently the cheapest route to take for high definition home cinema if you happen to already own an Xbox 360 console (some people have found a way to make the HD DVD drive work on a PC as well). The size of the disc drive is fairly large; itís even bigger than the Nintendo Wii if you donít include the Wiiís vertical stand. The disc itself is designed to sit naturally in a vertical position and you can lay it down in a horizontal position as well. The add-on driveís color and shape are clearly made to mimic the Xbox 360 console itself.
Along with the drive Microsoft also gives you a free Xbox 360 Universal Remote Control (the big one, not the smaller version that was included in the first Xbox 360 consoles shipments). The first shipments of the HD DVD drive also pack in a free HD DVD movie, the recent Peter Jackson remake of King Kong. Considering that the remote control has a retail price of $30 and the HD DVD King Kong disc retails for around $25, getting the HD DVD add-on disc is somewhat of a bargain.
Once you hook up the power and USB cords, you then turn the Xbox 360 console on and insert the included HD DVD install disc in the main Xbox 360 disc drive (not the HD DVD drive). The console installs the software quickly. If you have Xbox Live it will ask you to download another quick update. Once that is done the familiar Xbox 360 dashboard comes up. However the disc icon is changed slightly with the circle on the left side now split horizontally down the middle. When you use either your Xbox 360 controller or the Xbox 360 TV remote controller (included with the purchase of the HD DVD drive) to scroll through the main dashboard you highlight the top portion of the disc icon to select the main Xbox 360 game-DVD movie disc drive. The bottom portion of the disc icon circle is activated for the HD DVD add-on disc.
The biggest advantage for having the HD DVD add-on is realized only if you have an HDTV that can go beyond the typical 480p resolution for a normal TV. HD DVD movie discs have the capability to show movies on TVs that support up to 1080p resolution. However, the add-on has to use the Xbox 360ís connection to display the image. In order to get the full 1080p resolution on your TV (assuming it supports such a display) you have to buy another cable, the recently released VGA cable for the console for $39.99. Component cable set-ups max out at 1080i/720p. Much has been made about the fact that since the Xbox 360 does not have HDMI support HD DVD movies wonít be able to handle the more advanced audio features like Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby True HD. If you are an audiophile please keep this in mind. HDMI connections also tend to offer better picture quality although Microsoft reps have gone on record as saying they donít believe there are significant differences.
For this review, the HD DVD add-on was used on a 42 inch Toshiba plasma TV with 1080i resolution with the component cable. Boot up time for stand alone HD DVD players have sometimes been clocking in at over one minute but thatís not the case with this disc drive. Booting up the drive with the console took less than 30 seconds and starting HD DVD movies was almost instantaneous. We played several HD DVD movies including the included King Kong disc along with Batman Begins and Serenity. In every case the picture quality was much better than the standard DVD images for those movies with crisp colors and deep blacks. While some HD DVD movie discs simply replicate the extra features on their DVD counterparts, there are a few extra features on some of the HD DVD movies like the included King Kong disc which allows for some picture-in-picture commentary on how the film was made. Some HD DVD discs have been released as combo discs that can also be played on an ordinary DVD player; naturally these combo disc tend to be more expensive ($30 or more). A regular HD DVD disc usually costs between $20 and $25, somewhat more pricey than the average DVD disc.
Unfortunately the war between HD DVD and Blu-Ray is a rather bloody one at the moment. Disney, Sony, Lions Gate and Twentieth Century Fox have all pledged their support exclusively to Blu-Ray which means you wonít be seeing movies like the Star Wars series, the Spider Man films or the Pixar CGI films on HD DVD anytime soon, if at all. Universal has pledged its support for HD DVD exclusively while Paramount and Warner Brothers are supporting both formats.
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