Although the Xbox HD DVD drive add-on beat it to launch by a few weeks, the HD-E1 is to all intents and purposes the UK's first HD DVD player. Hook this up to a high-definition TV or projector and you'll be able to watch movies in 720p or 1080i format.
HD DVD has a rival in Blu-ray Disc, but this player has a couple of immediately obvious advantages over the two existing BD players. First, there's the issue of price: the HD-E1 costs around £400, while the Samsung BD-P1000 is around £800 and the Panasonic DMP-BD10 £1,200. Second, thanks to HD DVD's non-use of region coding, there's a huge range of movies available already -- Blu-ray's current UK library, on the other hand, is spectacularly unspectacular.
We should also mention that this is the cheaper of two Toshiba HD DVD players. The high-end HD-XE1 should launch very soon, priced at around £550.
This is a slim, compact player. Toshiba's first stab at an HD DVD deck (the US and Japan-only HD-A1) was ugly, enormous and weighed a tonne, so it's nice to see something a little more living room-friendly, not to mention better-looking. The build quality is solid, if not up to the tank-like standards of top-drawer DVD decks -- it's similar to what we've seen on the two Blu-ray players which, considering the price disparity, isn't too shabby.
The front panel is pretty straightforward. There's a disc tray and LED display, and a flap opens to reveal a pair of USB ports. These don't do anything at present -- according to the manual they will be used for future expansion, but there is no indication of what this might be.
All the other connections are located at the back. For video, you have a choice between HDMI, component video, S-Video and composite. The latter two are standard definition, so are only really useful when you're setting up the player. Audio-wise, there is a digital optical output, a stereo line output and, of course, the HDMI. There isn't an analogue surround-sound output, so you'll need an HDMI-equipped home cinema receiver to take advantage of HD DVD's lossless Dolby True HD sound, which cannot be carried by optical.
The final socket is an Ethernet port, which allows you to connect the HD-E1 to your home network and subsequently the Internet. As with the USB ports, it isn't much use at the moment, but in the future we'll see HD DVDs that offer access to online content, and this port means you'll be able to get to it. It's worth noting that neither the Samsung nor Panasonic Blu-ray player has any form of Internet access, despite the format having similar online capabilities.
The HD-E1 is simple to set up. It lacks the tweakable image enhancement and noise reduction features of the Blu-ray players (and some standard DVD players), so all you have to do is choose an output resolution for the video and decide what sort of audio connection you want to use. The high-definition resolutions available for HD DVD are 1080i and 720p (plus standard-def 480/576p and 480/576i), and if you use the HDMI input, the player will also upscale regular DVDs to these resolutions.