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Toshiba HD-A20 review

Ben Drawbaugh

With the first year of the format war under our belt, the second generation hardware is starting to hit the streets and we had a chance to spend some quality time with the new Toshiba HD-A20. The A20 fits nicely in the Toshiba HD DVD player lineup, offering 1080p60 output, the Silicon Optix Reon chip Anchor Bay ABT1018 chip and HDMI 1.3 without the price of the HD-XA2.

It has been a year since we have had an HD DVD player to play with, and that was before all the firmware updates were released, but we won't let that stop us from comparing it to the A20.

The A20 really feels like a consumer electronic device; very different than the A1. The remote is an improvement over the A1 as well, but we still wish it was back-lit like the XA1/XA2's. We're not sure why they even bothered to include composite cables, what is the point of composite cable on a HD movie player anyway? Lucky for us we had all the cables we needed to get things connected.

HD-A20 Remote
After we got it connected, we were impressed that the component outputs defaulted to 1080i, this only makes sense considering almost every HDTV with component inputs supports 1080i. Our test TV is getting long in the tooth and doesn't have HDMI, so we used component for all of our tests.
HD-A20 Resolution
We used toslink for audio, since we don't have one of those new Onkyo receivers with HDMI 1.3 yet. One thing that is missing on the A2 and A20 is a coax digital output and discrete analog outputs. Considering there are so many receivers without HDMI, not having discrete analog outputs makes all that great codec support useless. The conversion process for toslink devices works well, and considering we weren't able to enjoy the next-gen audio formats; the audio sounded great.
HD-A20 rear
The only adjustments that we needed to make during setup, was to enable DHCP, and download the latest 1.5 firmware update. It's great when manufacturers continue to try to improve the hardware even after it's shipped, but it does get in the way of our fun right out of the box. The update took a very long time -- we considered rebooting -- but instead heeded their warning and waited it out.
HD-A20 firmware update
We picked up a couple titles from Universal, including Children of Men and The Good Shepherd. We hit the eject button to load our disc, and although the player turned on, it requires a 40 second pause, than a second push of the button to actually open the tray. We're not sure if anyone else uses the eject button to turn on their player, but it would be nice if it ejected regardless of if the player was already on or not. When the power button is pressed the display reads WELCOME and takes about 40 seconds to recognize that there isn't a disc loaded, then it displays NO DISC, at this point it takes about 6 seconds after pressing the eject button before the tray opens. After inserting a HD DVD it takes about 25 seconds of LOADING before the disc is identified and finally starts to play. While this is about 10 seconds faster than our BD-P1000, and much faster than the A1, it is still far from the speed we have come to expect from our DVD players. With a disc loaded in both players, from a fresh startup, the A20 takes about 55 seconds to start playing, an extra 10 seconds longer to start the movie when compared to the BD-P1000.

Now that we have our movie loaded and we start to watch, we get to enjoy the interactive menus we have come to love about HD DVD. Each title's user interface can vary, but the one thing that seems to be consistently better about HD DVD movies than Blu-ray movies is the scrub bar. On Children of Men the scrub bar shows you a very nice graphical representation of where you are in the movie, as well as the current chapter number, time and the total length of the movie. Even the the worst cable DVRs have a scrub bar and maybe Blu-ray will add it in October. Both players have an info button and while the A20 info screen isn't much better looking, it does include additional information such as video and audio codec, sub audio, output resolution and audio output. While the BD-P1000 opens a blue box that looks like circa 1997 and only displays basic information like chapter number and run time. Also a big improvement over the BD-P1000, is the screen saver -- you know, the phone rings you pause the movie -- on the Universal discs, there is a very nice Universal screen saver that turns on compared to the BD-P1000 which just turns off eventually. If you leave either long enough they do shut off, but the HD DVD doesn't take you back to where you were when you turn it back on. Blu-ray's real interactivity layer isn't out till October, but we can certainly appreciate the features on the A20 including PiP and other U-Control features. HD DVD has a big head start in this area, but we're not sure how many people will really consider these features a huge advantage. There were a few times when the A20 wasn't as responsive as we would have liked, but we have seen worse on HD gear. The menu buttons caused us a bit of confusion, it seems to us that the top menu button should bring up the overlay menu and the regular menu button should take you back to a menu like a DVD, either way it is something that is easy to get used to.
HD-A20 Shepherd
The picture and audio quality delivers as expected. We have said before and it still holds true, a difference in picture or sound quality won't decide this format war.

If HDMI 1.3 and 1080p60 are on your list of what you want in a HD DVD player, then the A20 fits the bill. It is a solid player that is a nice improvement over the first generation hardware, but we do miss the discrete analog outputs and the coax digital output. Toshiba continues to improve its players and keep the pressure on the Blu-ray camp to improve theirs. While the A20 doesn't seem like enough of an improvement over the A1 to entice owners to upgrade, it is most certainly a solid offering and comparable to any next-gen player from any manufacturer.

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