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HD Disc Players: Toshiba HD-XA2, Panasonic DMP-BD10, Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1, Sony Playstation 3

HD DVD and Blu-Ray players have been available to the consumer for a little less than a year. And while the first-generation players worked, they were plagued with quirks and bugs that made the viewing experience less than ideal. Now, under a year later, the second-generation equipment is hitting store shelves, and the improvements are myriad.

We recently got a chance to bring several of these second-generation players in-house at the same time, as well as two identical Epson 1080p video projectors. Using these, we were able to find what makes each player unique, as well as some unexpected similarities. From the Toshiba HD-XA2 to Panasonic's DMP-BD10 and the Pioneer BDP-HD1 and Sony's unique Playstation 3, there's a high-definition disc player out there for everyone.

HDMI 1.3 and 1080p/24

Before we get started, there are two issues to address. If you recall, the buzzword for the last batch of high-def disc players was 1080p/60 output -- Blu-Ray had it, and HD DVD didn't. In truth, it made little to no difference in image quality, but people were drawn to Blu-Ray in part because of the hype surrounding 1080p/60 output. This time around, 1080p/60 is old hat, and the new buzzwords are HDMI 1.3 and 1080p/24 output.

HDMI 1.3 is supposed to be the next big thing in home theater, promising better color, better sound, and better bandwidth. Specifically, HDMI 1.3 advertises the xvYCC color gamut and Deep Color, which are supposed to improve the color depth and accuracy of a display to "beyond what the human eye can detect." They also advertise the ability to send Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD tracks to an HDMI 1.3-compatible receiver natively, for decoding and output to your speakers. In theory, these improvements are extremely desirable.

In practice, the whole thing is much less exciting. As of now, there are few HDMI 1.3 A/V receivers or processors on the market to take advantage of the improved sound streams, though they are slowly becoming more and more available. And as far as video is concerned, we saw no difference between Deep Color and non-Deep Color on two identical projectors. Deep Color is in fact somewhat misleading as a marketing term, for it leads consumers to imagine they will get deeper, richer, more saturated color. But we already get plenty of deep, rich color saturation without it.

What Deep Color will do is enable displays to define a greater number of colors. The practical consequence is that it will provide smoother gradations between very subtlely different tones. While that is nice, the typical consumer is not likely ever to notice any difference between pictures being driven by Deep Color vs. non-Deep Color. HDMI 1.3 may prove to be valuable in the future, when compatible A/V receivers are available and xvYCC-enabled content hits shelves. For now, though, it's not delivering any tangible benefits.

The other big buzzword, 1080p/24, has been around for quite a while. HD DVD and Blu-Ray film content are encoded to the disc at 1080p, 24 frames per second -- the same frame rate as film. Having this content output natively at 24 frames per second should eliminate motion judder that is introduced in the 2:3 pulldown conversion of 24 fps sources to 60fps display. In theory this should make panning sequences cleaner and more stable.

Despite our excitement to test 1080p/24, and our eagerness to report on the improvements thereof, we could not visually identify any advantages that 1080p/24 held over the same movie being played in 1080p/60. Side by side the pictures look identical, with 1080p/24 offering no reduction of motion judder. There could be several reasons for this, and we are not in a position to speculate at this time. We will continue to look into it and see what the issues are. Meanwhile, if you buy an HD disc player with 1080p/24 output, and you feed that into your new 1080p projector and find no discernable reduction in motion judder, don't be surprised.

This is not to say that 1080p/24 and HDMI 1.3/Deep Color are snake oil. In the future, it is likely that these two features will produce some noticeable benefits for home theater. However, they are still in their infancy, and it will be some time before we see these technologies become advantageous to the end user.

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Toshiba HD XA2
Review Contents: Introduction Toshiba HD XA2 Panasonic DMP BD10 Pioneer Elite BDP HD1
  Sony Playstation 3