Upscaling DVD players have been around for a while now -- they offer a better quality of picture to people who aren't quite ready to make the jump up to a Blu-ray player. DVD is a great format, and unlike its analogue predecessors there are plenty of things you can do to make it look good on a flat-panel TV.
Toshiba, fresh from its defeat on the next-generation HD format, has sworn to shift its focus into a different area. Which is where the XD-E500 comes in. An upscaling DVD player, it's designed to eke out the very best from your existing film collection. It uses a few tricks to achieve this, so let's take a look and find out if it's worth 120 of your hard-earned pounds.
When you take the E500 out of its box, the first thing you think is, "Cripes, that's light." In fact, it's so light you might actually think someone's having a laugh, and it's just an empty metal case. It's also petite, and while it has the height and width of a standard DVD player, its depth is seriously reduced, giving it a slightly stumpy look. It's fair to say that this doesn't feel like a high-end piece of kit, despite the price tag.
The front of the player is pretty standard looking, with an illuminated Toshiba logo, which is the current 'must have' for electronics manufacturers. There's also a set of resolution lights, indicating what the E500 is upscaling to. The options are 480/576p, 720p, 1080i and 1080p, and they're back-lit in an old-fashioned green. So kudos to Tosh for avoiding blue LEDs.
The remote for controlling the player is pretty basic, but everything works well. One of the things that rally rattles our cage is how slow Blu-ray players can be. Because DVD is a long-established format, the hardware deals with it brilliantly and the player responds quickly to any button presses.
This player's main selling point is its upscaling modes. There are three different settings: sharpness, colour and contrast, and each is optimised for different types of material. More on that later -- we tested out the modes on some of our test discs. In any case, you might think it would be handy to have all three of those picture modes engaged at once, but regrettably this isn't an option and we don't know why.
A DVD player these days would be nothing without DiVX playback. The E500 includes this feature, but sadly doesn't back it up with network connectivity, or a memory card or USB socket.
Some things about this player irritated us, the first being that sometimes we just couldn't get it to behave properly. For some time, it refused to let us select anything but 1080p or 576p. It was a small point, but our Philips TV refused to accept the 1080p signal it was sending, so we wanted to drop it down. In the end we got the TV to accept the 720p signal.
Then, during playback it refused to let us switch between the picture modes, claiming it was prohibited. After a fashion, we realised the player was only going to let us use its picture modes if we were in 1080i or 1080p modes. The Philips was having none of it, despite being a 1080p TV, so we drafted in a Panasonic LCD to help, which worked fine.
Irritations out of the way, we stuck X-Men in the disc tray and we were off. The picture was very good indeed. X-Men is a well-encoded DVD with a decent bit rate throughout, which helps, and during our test we noticed no major picture problems. Everything looked sharp and detailed, although we didn't think there was as much colour in the picture as there should have been.
We also tested our Twister disc. This film is a pain for all DVD players because, despite having a very high bit rate, the picture looks soft and of low quality. The E500 wasn't able to do much to help, and even the sharp mode didn't improve the experience. Helen Hunt still looks hot though.
With Jurassic Park we noted that everything looked great with picture enhancement off. As soon as we turned the player to 'sharpness', we could see more pronounced MPEG compression noise. Colour mode was our favourite here, but this disc is incredibly well-encoded, so little can be done to improve it beyond what the movie studio has already done.
So, what do we make of the picture modes? Well, sharp mode adds edge detail selectively where the player thinks it's needed. This looks okay, if slightly artificial at times. The colour mode gives a boost to the greens and reds, which makes the films look more cheerful, but it might not be what the director intended.
On the other hand, contrast mode seems to make the film look like it was shot when colour movies were just starting out. For each film you watch, you're likely to find a mode you like, but to be honest you could just turn the thing off and enjoy the E500 as an upscaling DVD player without the trickery.
Ultimately, this player lives and dies based on the quality of the DVDs you put into it. If they aren't encoded well, there's nothing any hardware can do to cheer them up. If they have a good bit rate, you should be in for a decent experience. Just don't feel forced into turning the picture mode from the 'off' position.
If this player were £80 it would be a more attractive deal for us. We hate to say it, but if you can still find a Toshiba HD DVD player, snap it up, as they did a pretty amazing job of upscaling video -- even the entry-level E1 made DVDs look amazing.
It's noteworthy that Toshiba has some TVs on the horizon that feature a more advanced upscaling system, and the early samples we've seen have been brilliant. So perhaps this is a good time to wait and see what arrives on the market in the next few months.
Edited by Marian Smith