I managed to get hold of an Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive via Ebay for the very acceptable price of R1080 including shipping. It arrived last Saturday and I’ve been meaning to get my review done since then, and am only getting to it now. Anyway, better late than never, so here goes.
The drive unit itself is about the size of a medium sized hardcover book, and follows the Xbox 360’s “exhale” design. Sitting on top the console, it is the same length as the 360, and looks good. Included in the box is a power supply (which is disappointing, but the USB interface obviously couldn’t handle the power requirements), a Xbox 360 Media Remote, some manuals etc, a USB 2.0 cable, a disk you must insert in the console BEFORE connecting the drive, and a copy of the King Kong HD-DVD.
Inserting this disk in the console seems to install some software to enable HDDVD playback. Not sure why they couldn’t do this over Live with a dashboard update, as it seems pretty small, only taking a second or two to complete its process. One possible reason is that they couldn’t assume all consoles using this peripheral would be connected to Live. There was an update available over Live, which I got prompted for the first time I used it though.
The drive connects to the rear of the console (or the front, but it looks better in the back), which uses up your USB port back there. If you happen to have the Xbox 360 Wireless adapter currently running off that port, fret not, as the HD-DVD drive includes 2 USB ports on the rear of the unit, and the necessary clips for attaching your wireless adapter, so you lose nothing. In fact, you gain a USB port, so you can still connect your Live Vision Camera (review to follow soon) to the rear of the unit, and keep cables out of the way.
My 360 is connected to my Dell 2405FPW 24″ LCD screen via the Microsoft Xbox 360 VGA cable. This screen has a native resolution of 1920 x 1200, and I have it set not to scale, therefore I have small blck bars at the top and bottom of the screen in order to keep the proper 16:9 aspect ratio. My console is outputting 1920×1080.
I eagerly inserted the King Kong HD-DVD disk. As a quick aside, let me say that I really like the smaller cases HD-DVDs come in. They do make any DVD racks you may have obsolete, but they are much nice and way smaller. Anyway, back to King Kong………
I sit here struggling to think of how exactly to portray in mere words how good this movie looks in HDDVD at 1080p. The jungle scenes are absolutely incredible. King Kong himself is too good for words. Every hair on his body seems to be moving individually, and the detail you can see on his face is down right scary. I sat through the entire three and a bit hours in absolute awe, like I was watching my first ever moving picture. I was literally, blown away. The best analogy I can come up with is this: DVD is like watching moving photograph taken with your average camera phone, and HD-DVD (in 1080p) is like watching a moving photograph taken with a good quality 5 megapixel digital camera. It is mind-blowing! The only downside to this kind of spectacular clarity is that there were some scenes you could clearly see had been green-screened. The focus just looked ever so slightly wrong, something I very much doubt anybody would have seen in the movie theatre or on standard DVD.
After being stunned by King Kong, I quickly threw in Superman Returns. Superman Returns is a hybrid disk, with one side HD-DVD, and the other side standard DVD, which can be played in any DVD player. As mentioned in my HD-DVD vs Bluray article, this is one of the major benefits of the HD-DVD format, enabling people to purchase movies like this, and be able to use it as a standard DVD until they upgrade to HD-DVD. One of the main differences between DVD and HD-DVD is that the movie starts straight away, without going to a menu. The menu is available with a press of the Menu button, but comes up as an overlay while the movie continues to play. From this menu, you can pause the movie, so you don’t miss any while you’re fiddling around, change the sound settings, see extras etc. You can also activate the IME (In-Movie Experience). This is basically the next generation of director’s commentary. It brings up little picture in picture windows while the movie is playing to show special extras such as how they did the scene you’re currently watching, actor or director interviews etc. It’s pretty cool, and not nearly as boring as director commentary!
I looked at Superman Returns playing for a minute or two, then ejected the disk to make sure it wasn’t playing the standard DVD side by mistake. It wasn’t. I put the disk back in the drive, and skipped to the scene of the airplane / space shuttle accident, where Superman saves people for the first time in the movie. The picture was good, but not great. People’s skin looked plastic and a little fake, there was a lot of noise (speckles) on the picture, especially in darker scenes. Don’t get me wrong, it still looks MUCH better than DVD, but if I hadn’t just finished watching King Kong, I wouldn’t have been nearly as impressed with this whole HD-DVD thing. I removed Superman, and put in Batman Begins. Now this looked MUCH better. There is no noise in the scenes, you can see the pores on peoples faces, making them look a lot less like plastic mannequins, and the sharpness in the scenes of Gotham City is excellent. This not so super Superman made me do some thinking. The director of Superman obviously wanted a softer look to all the scenes, and it probably does look great in the movie theatre, but on HD-DVD, it’s disappointing not to be able to see every pore on the actors skin. Maybe it’s just me, and I am looking at the picture rather than watching the movie, but again I say, after King Kong, it looks rubbish. As for the noise on the picture, I assume that came in during transfer from film to digital. Not all transfers are equal, but Superman Returns looks quite bad. Or, maybe King Kong was just particularly good, which is why it is included with the Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive as a showcase? I don’t know, but I’ve seen what’s possible, so I now expect it everywhere!
I can’t comment on the sound of the movies. HD-DVD includes Dolby Tru-HD sound, which is essentially a lossless compression algorithm. This should allow much more detail in the sound track, especially in the bass, highs and little detail sounds you often hear happening behind you. Unfortunately, only very high-end home theatre decoders support this right now, and only via HDMI, so the Xbox 360, since it doesn’t have HDMI for now, has to down mix the soundtrack to standard Dolby Digital 5.1. It’s ok, but just ok. I also had to crank up the volume of my speakers, as the sound output of HD-DVD is quite soft for some reason.
In conclusion, I would like a new pair of eyes, as I think they’ll soon be the weakest link in my home theatre. Once decent sized 1080p screens start to cost less than small countries, and Tru-HD decoders are mainstream, the cinema is going to become quite obsolete. With HD-DVD, I get all the benefits of the movie house, and none of the sticky floors, people taking, blind projectionists who can’t focus the picture, cell phones going off etc etc. And, I can pause whenever I want. I LOVE the HD era.