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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Despite the death of their HD DVD format, Toshiba offers consumers a new, more affordable alternative to Blu-ra

Talking to the folks at Toshiba about high-definition video players is like talking to a guy whose girlfriend cheated on him, stole his money and then left him for his best friend. And took the dog, too.

It's a touchy topic. Toshiba was the major backer of HD DVD, the high-definition DVD technology that faced off in a bitter struggle against the competing Blu-ray disc format. And lost. Lost to the tune of about a billion dollars, according one Japanese business newspaper.

But even though Blu-ray won the high-definition disc war, Toshiba isn't out of the game yet. They're back with a new disc player technology -- and they're calling it ... DVD.

Well, technically it's XDE, which stands for eXtended Detail Enhancement. Untwist your knickers, because it's not a new disc format, but rather a new kind of DVD player that Toshiba says produces sharper images than your run-of-the-mill DVD device.

So-called upconverting DVD players have been around for years, and now cost so little that you can get one for about the same price as a week's worth caramel macchiatos. They work in concert with an HDTV display, taking your ordinary DVD movie image and giving it a boost so that it looks nicer on your high-end, high-def TV.

Toshiba says its new XD-E500, due in stores next month for about $159, takes upconverting DVD players to a new level with three separate viewing modes that boost sharpness, colour and contrast, pumping out a 1080p signal that matches the highest resolution most HDTVs can handle.

While Toshiba admits the XDE image quality can't rival a Blu-ray player or a high-definition TV broadcast, it is supposed to improve upon basic upconverting DVD players, selling for less than $100.

And does it? Toshiba of Canada sat me down this week with a side-by-side demonstration of the XD-E500 versus their $79 SD-6100 upconverting DVD player, both playing a scene from Casino Royale -- Daniel Craig, best Bond EVER -- on identical Toshiba Regza HDTV sets. I wasn't told which was which.

I thought the player on the right, which turned out to be the XD-E500, had a richer image, albeit slightly grainier. Perhaps the XD-E500 was doing a better job of showing detail in the image, flaws and all, although I felt neither was dramatically better or worse than the other. Flipping to the contrast mode, the XD-E500 did do a slightly better job of showing detail in dark scenes than the other DVD player.

A second demo consisted of three identical HDTVs side-by-side, all showing the same scene from Spider-Man 3, but with one connected to a Blu-ray disc player while the other two were hooked up to the XD-E500 and a standard upconverting DVD player. I wasn't told which was which.

I immediately picked out the Blu-ray player, because there's just no mistaking the sharpness of a true high-definition image. But I also thought the TV in the middle had a noticeably better image than one on the right, showing finer detail in the lines in Thomas Haden Church's hangdog face. Themiddle TV turned out to be the one hooked up to the XD-E500, so make of that what you will.

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This whole thing is an interesting -- and perhaps necessary -- approach for Toshiba in the wake of their HD DVD defeat. Toshiba of Canada product manager Kate McCarthy says the company still has no plans to start making Blu-ray players, and that the vast majority of consumers are still very happy with DVD and unwilling to move up to the pricier, next-generation Blu-ray format right now.

Which does make sense. But since the XD-E500 is has to be used with an HDTV display to take advantage of the DVD player's hi-tech capabilities, it begs the question: If you just dropped $1,500 or more -- sometimes much, much more -- on a fancy new HDTV, why wouldn't you go the extra mile and get a $400 Blu-ray disc player, which can also play all your DVDs, instead of spending $159 on a DVD player? A nice and full-featured DVD player, sure, but still just a DVD player.

Beats me. Maybe Bond has the answers. He seems to be something of a gadget guy.

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