Review: Toshiba HD-A20 1080p HD-DVD Player

When I bought my HDTV in February, I paid extra for 1080p so I could brag about having a higher resolution than my friends who all have 1080i TVs. But my ability to brag was theoretical until I could plug in a source that produced a 1080p signal. Naturally, that source was a HD-DVD player.

I bought Toshiba's 1080p player for $399. I could have also bought a 1080i version for $299 instead. Since I paid $100 more for 1080p, I would have expected the device to play movies at 1080p resolution out of the box. But playing 1080p content requires a HDMI cable which isn't included in the box. Instead, it comes with cheap RCA cables that don't do 1080p. I dashed out to Target to pick up a $40 HDMI cable.

I started up the player tried to configure it using its setup application. To my horror, one dialog showed my player was factory-configured to output a 1080i signal. Toshiba's really trying to prevent me from getting the high-end signal that I paid extra for! If the person setting up this system was anyone other than an AV-nerd such as myself this option would likely never be found and the player would never output its full potential.

Most of the setup app is nice but there are some screens that really need polish. Some of the advanced setup dialogs look like gross DOS applications. Yuck.

Inside the box there was a printed warning, "Install firmware updates before playing any movies". Fine - the player has an ethernet port so this should be easy. After fiddling with it for 20 minutes and getting repeated "Server not found" errors I gave up on the online upgrade. I followed the alternate instructions and downloaded an ISO from Toshiba's website onto my Mac and burned that to a blank CD. I restarted the HD-DVD player with the disc inside, causing it to apply the update. This took 30 minutes with very little feedback about what it was doing. I'm used to my Wii and my powerbook, which all provide convenient progress bars and throbbers whenever they're performing a long job. The HD-DVD player just makes me wait.

Eventually the update completed and it was time to watch movies! My wife Jodie bought Planet Earth which is a visually stunning nature documentary. This movie is beautiful and it really makes my TV shine. It really made the expense and hassle of my new toy seem justified.

While watching Planet Earth I needed to pause it with the included remote control. What a trainwreck. This is the worst remote I've ever owned. There's way too many buttons in a giant grid making it nearly impossible to find the one I want in the dark! Remotes should be tactile!

After that movie I watched a bit of Children of Men which looks awesome in hi-def. In one scene, there's newspapers in the background, and you can actually read them! The special features are cute and the menus overlay the playing movie, which is slick. Instead of stopping the movie to turn on spanish subtitles, I could do that while it's playing. I'll never do this but it sure is cool!

After the movies were watched, I needed to mail in the included rebate for 5 free HD-DVDs. Unfortunately, I can't pick any 5 free DVDs; I need to choose from Toshiba's list. I'm getting Apollo-13 and Dukes of Hazzard, films I probably wouldn't have bought or watched otherwise.

Overall, the HD-A20 is a mild let-down. The user-experience is terrible: the out-of-box experience, the remote, the setup and the rebates all suck. But the picture is absolutely beautiful and my movies look and sound of perfect. Hopefully in their next generation of players, Toshiba gets the details right.
That sucks man, you got ripped off by all that 1080p propaganda, the human eye can't even tell the diference between the two (1080i/1080p). The only way you MIGHT possibly be able to see any difference between an interlaced image and a deinterlaced, is if you had the image outputting onto a 110 inch screen or bigger.