Xbox 360 HD-DVD Review

Last year MS released the HD-DVD drive add-on for the Xbox 360 and after all the stock shortages and having sold my soul to pay for my M400 Tablet, I finally managed to get my hands on one from the local Argos!

Pictures – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Background

About 12 months ago I subscribed to SkyHD; I’d got a HDTV for my Xbox 360 so I thought I would actually make use of it. My TV is the Toshiba 32WLT58, I picked this at the time as it had two HDMI ports and I got a great deal from John Lewis. Then to get the 5.1 sound I got a Logitech Z5450 5.1 sound system with wireless rear speakers.

SkyHD offers varying quality in its HD material sometimes it’s outstanding, other times it’s not much better than SD material. Usually it’s all down to bitrates and what Sky transmits at. Overall I’ve been impressed with the quality on SkyHD and I wanted to look at HD on DVDs, the cheapest solution seeing as I already own an Xbox 360 was to get the drive add-on.

Over Christmas and the New Year they were in short supply and most online shops sold out straight away. I decided to look again earlier in the week and found them in stock at Argos, online reservation for a store pickup and I went and collected it. On the way home I thought I should get some films to try it on unfortunately the local Toy’s ‘R’ us, Comet or Curry’s had a single disc in stock so I had to order them online from play.com. I ordered: Batman Begins, Chronicles of Riddick, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and March of the Penguins. As usual they took a few days to arrive and I had to spend the bank holiday weekend waiting for them.

Hardware

No box shots or careful unpacking, I just had the patience to vacuum the shelf the 360 sits on before setting it up!

The drive is a pretty standard, matching colours with the 360 (though not the elite!). On the front of the drive is the button to open and close the tray which glows green when powered up and on the back are two USB ports and a recess to attach your 360 Wireless dongle. The unit also requires a mains connection which means another power brick behind the TV fortunately nowhere near as big as the 360 version! Finally there is a small vent at the rear which also appears to contain a fan should the drive get too hot. To connect the drive to the 360 you just plug in the included USB cable to the back (or front) USB ports.

The HD-DVD drive comes with 192Mb of internal memory, which is listed on the memory tab of the System blade. Don’t get your hopes up to use this to save games or other content on to as it is reserved only for the drive, the memory is used to store data about discs such as bookmarks

Software

If you use Xbox live then chances are you have the latest version of the dashboard software and the HD-DVD drive will be picked up automatically, if not then you can use the included disc to install the updates to allow the drive to work.
Once you have switched on the only visual difference to the dashboard is that you now get a reticule around the “Open tray” option that allows you to select either the 360 DVD drive tray or the HD-DVD tray. The drive doesn’t play games.
The model I got didn’t come with King Kong (ok so that isn’t such a bad thing) however I was pleasantly surprised to find it did come with the backlit remote control, not that I will need it as I have a Logitech Harmony 885 Remote control which I can use. It seems that the drive doesn’t integrate itself with the Xbox when it comes to remote control, if you want to play a DVD you have to scroll down the dashboard and select the HD-DVD drive and then play, this can be scripted on the Harmony but it’s still an annoyance. An odd thing I noticed; after the first time I plugged it in when I switched the 360 off the wireless remained on and the drive still operated, even now the drive seems to be on 24/7 although the wireless light now seems to go off.

Usage

I would just like to say I’m no audio or video obsessive so what I write hear is my personal opinion of what I’ve seen when playing the films!

The first disk I tried was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I’d heard that this was a good transfer to HD-DVD and I wasn’t disappointed. When I’d watched the DVD on my 360 I had found many of scenes extremely dark, to the point where you couldn’t see anything and I’d had to turn the contrast up which made the image look washed out. Also with the DVD being shown on a HDTV there was visible artefacts on the screen especially around the subtle areas where fog or cloud was blowing across the dark sky in the opening sequence. On the HD-DVD this is all gone and the shot is lighter but not washed out. The sound didn’t sound considerably better than a DVD but my 5.1 system only puts out Dolby Digital 5.1 so it couldn’t make use of the TrueHD Dolby soundtrack.

The next disk I tried was Batman Begins, I didn’t have time to watch the whole film but I did check out some of the darker scenes as well as the Batmobile chase scene, again the dark scenes looked excellent with no visible artefacts and the chase scene was very clear and sharp.

The last disk I tried was March of the Penguins, this was very disappointing. When you buy a HD-DVD the video quality is pretty much hinted in the title HD so imagine my annoyance when many of the shots in the film are SD! Some of the ‘scenes’ did look impressive but others looked no better than SD material, in the underwater scenes showing the female penguins feeding she image quality is atrocious even for SD quality, there is lots of noise on the screen and the video appears to have a defect with a line of even worse noise playing down the left hand side. Considering what the BBC did with Planet Earth and Blue Planet I thought this was a real let down.  I really think in the future if films that are sold as HD contain lots of SD footage then there should be a warning on the box, I could save myself a few quid and buy the standard DVD!

I’m still waiting for Chronicles of Riddick…

One of the first things I noticed when playing movies was there is no longer a menu at the beginning, instead the film starts immediately and you can then use the up directional button to show an onscreen menu along the bottom of the screen which gives you access to the Audio/Subtitle menus, Scene selection and Bonus Material, there is also an option to set permanent bookmarks. HD-DVD also supports picture in picture, I tried this out on the Batman disk and there were videos of interviews with the cast and crew which play in the corner, think Director Commentary but now with video! On some of the disks I tried there was a “Welcome to HD-DVD” at the beginning which gave a brief introduction of what’s new in HD-DVDs and how to access them.

One thing I often read are complaints about the 360s noise, during playback I didn’t typically find the noise distracting however occasionally the fan speed increases and if this is during a quieter scene you will probably notice it. It might also be worth mentioning that when watching a HD-DVD the 360 will still receive alerts of users signing on/off (unless you tell it not to) and it will continue to process downloads from Xbox Live.

It should be noted that the 360 only has an optical out and that Dolby’s TrueHD sound source which is lossless playback only works over a HDMI cable, TrueHD is backwards compatible with Dolby Digital 5.1. Microsoft have recently released an update which considerably improves the audio playback and gives the user options to configure the sound output to Dolby Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS, WMA Pro, if you select one of the options the Xbox re-encodes the sound to the selected format.

The HD-DVD Drive can be used on a suitably fast PC running Windows XP or Vista, if you are interested in doing this Kainz has written an article on doing this, so click through for more information!

Conclusion

Overall I am happy with the HD-DVD drive, the picture quality is excellent – source permitting – and the sound is good. The movie selection seems pretty weak, there are lots of re-releases of films such as the Matrix Trilogy to come but it would be good for the HD-DVDs to be released the same time as the standard DVDs.

Pros:

  • Price – £120 is a good price if you already own a 360 
  • Picture quality – As good if not better than SkyHD and much better than a standard DVD
  • Region Free – So yes you can import HD-DVDs and watch them on your player.
  • It’s HD!

Cons:

  • Format war – Will the HD-DVD or Blue-ray make it in the end? Too early to tell…
  • Film availability – On the UK websites there is a limited selection of films and in the local shops there were no films available. 
  • Sound quality – Nothing wrong with Dolby Digital but those looking for TrueHD will be left disappointed
  • No Sony films – I liked Casino Royale but there’s no chance of a HD-DVD version!

The ramblings of PR