I decided some time ago that I was going to wait for Blu-Ray since I believe that in the end it will win, but on Friday when others started to discuss their thoughts about picking up a HD-DVD players I decided I had to have one. I went to Best Buy yesterday, but like many others I was not able to buy the movies. I went back today and bought the first of three units that the Lakeland Best Buy received. I also picked up The Last Samurai and Serenity, as well as the DVD versions for comparison.
Best Buy had the HD-DVD players on a shelf near the DVD players and TiVo's. The movies were right above the player but I didn't see a demo. I didn't look very hard because I knew I was already going to buy one. I grabbed two movies and the huge box and headed to the counter. The guy in front of me in line was buying a super cheap DVD player and I found it ironic that I was buying the most expensive player. A few employees made comments about the fact that I was an early adopter which I thought was odd especially because I felt like they were calling me brave.
When I got home and unpacked the player, I couldn't get over the size of the box or the size of the player. I connected the player via component and Toslink using the cables that my DVD player was using. After going through the setup I got stuck and I hate to admit it but it took me and my friend Frankie five minutes to figure out where the setup button was. After consulting the manual I found it under the sliding door and I was ready to start enjoying HD movies. I loaded an HD-DVD into the player and found it interesting that the drive was obviously a standard PC drive with a door covering the sliding tray. The remote is just like the player; big, but works well enough. The player takes a little time to turn on but not intolerable and the menus are also not super quick, but easily faster than my HD TiVo.
The interactive menus are everything I remember from CES. They are pretty quick and overlay over the video. They might be the most noticeable difference to some people over regular DVD. It is easy to change to a scene or change settings mid movie without having to wait for the clunky DVD menu's that we have all grown to live with over the years. It is very easy to jump chapters or see where you are on a time line like many DVR's. You can even mark your favorite places in the movie so you can go straight to them later. The special features were about the same as a regular DVD and just as disappointing because they were all SD which is not a surprise, but still disappointing.
I connected the Toslink cable to my Pioneer Elite VSX-33tx receiver and the sound was great as expected. The movies were both Dolby Digital Plus, but are detected as DTS on my receiver. I thought might be a problem with my receiver, but Warren indicated that he witnessed the same thing. I had the output set to bit-stream which seems to be the correct setting. I have not tried the multichannel outputs yet, but I plan to and will report back.
The picture quality is excellent, with NO noticeable artifacts, great colors and depth. It isn't 100% apparent at first, but it is noticeable after popping in the DVD versions of the same movie on the same player. Since I am connected it via component to my Mitsubishi ws55813 I am unable to try out the up-conversion capabilities of the player, but I don't think it would look that much better since my TV displays both 480p and 1080i natively. I have never been a big fan of up-converters so it may just be me. I had the output set to 1080i and my TV had no problem displaying the image with no problems with anything including geometry. When doing a side by side comparison between the two formats it is actually pretty amazing to see how much better the color is and how everything just looks focused especially scenes shot from a distance. As good as the movies looked it didn't look that much better than HBO-HD except for a few issues with HBO, which not everyone will recognize. It actually looks alot like the HD movie channels, except that the sound is much more dynamic and not narrow like alot of DD sound tracks on cable or satellite. The movies are not cropped, cropped movies drive me nuts. There are no compression artifacts and no signs of digital compression even during the fire scene of The Last Samurai. The dark scenes are where HD-DVD really shines, the detail without artifacts is unbelievable, especially compared to DVD which almost looks grey in comparison. I am not sure how many people will notice this since most newer HDTVs don't do well with blacks.
It is very enjoyable to watch a movie without any annoyances, which is something I have not been able to do since I bought my HDTV. As great as HD is, it has a way of bringing out the worst in the content you watch on it; If there are imperfections you can see them. I am very excited and hope that movies continue to be released, my biggest fear is that some people won't be able to tell the difference (they don't know what to look for) or decide that DVD is good enough. I think HD-DVD is currently the reference standard and I look forward to Blu-Ray because I believe they will have a better selection of movies. I also can't wait to see what HD Video looks like via HD-DVD, this typically gives most people that WOW effect we have came to love from HD.net and DiscoveryHD.
Bottom line is that HD-DVD is great, but will you notice? If you can't tell the difference between DVD's and HBO HD than you might be just as well off with a upconverting DVD player. If you never noticed HBO-HD's cropped movies, non-dynamic sound and compression artifacts you may be better off sticking with HBO-HD. If you do notice these annoyances you won't be disappointed with HD-DVD or Blu-Ray. The only way I will return it, is if the studios don't deliver with the titles.
**Edit** Added TVs model number and resolution capabilities for clarity, due to comments.