An A/B Comparison

January 16, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

I normally don't write ReelThoughts columns on Wednesday, but I performed an "unintentional experiment" last night and I wanted to report on the results because they could be seen as contradicting a recommendation I made on Monday. Read on if you're interested...

Last night, I sat down in my cozy home theater to watch two movies: one on HD-DVD and one on standard DVD. I watched the high def film first. As expected, the picture was crystal clear and the sound was well balanced. Whatever Toshiba's faults, the HD-DVD format delivers what it claims to and the HD-A30 is a nice piece of hardware. Then, since the HD-DVD player was already warmed up, I used it as my upconverting DVD player and stuck in the standard DVD.

Admittedly, the transfer was crappy but the HD-A30 did a terrible job with the disc. There were motion artifacts, stutter-stopping, and all sorts of other problems. After eight minutes, I turned it off. Then, for the hell of it, I put it in the PS3 to see if the Sony had any better success. To my amazement, the DVD played smoothly and without problems, and looked about as good as I could expect given the poor quality of the transfer. This got me wondering about how good the HD-DVD player's DVD upconversion process is. So I decided to perform a little experiment. (For those who are wondering, the TV and receiver are the same and all connections are HDMI.)

For my next "test," I pulled 300 off the shelf. I have already done an A/B comparison of this movie on Blu-Ray and HD-DVD and found there to be no difference. I popped the HD-DVD version into the HD-A30 player and, as expected, it looked great. No problems there. Then I went to work using the standard DVD version (which I purchased before going high def). Played in the PS3, it looked almost high-def. Not quite, but close. In the HD-A30, it seemed less impressive. Not bad to be sure, but to an untrained eye, not as good as in the PS3. So I dragged out an upconverting Panasonic standard DVD player (with an HDMI interface) and took a look at 300 in that. It looked similar to the HD-DVD presentation.

Admittedly, there's nothing scientific about this "study" but, as A/B comparisons go, it raised a few red flags. It makes me wonder about the quality of the HD-DVD's upconversion process, especially in comparison to that of the PS3. I have no axes to grind here. In fact, had I not noticed issues with the HD-A30's inability to effectively play a standard disc, I never would have put it in the PS3. Could it just be my player? That's a possibility, although there are no problems with the high def aspects of it. But if you're considering buying an HD-DVD player to use as an upconverting DVD player, this is issue that bears additional investigation. It re-enforces my belief that if you're considering buying a high def player, Blu-Ray is the way to go. (And, based on nearly everyone I have discussed this with, the PS3 is the best low-end Blu-Ray player available.) Even at an ultra-cheap price, I'm not sure I'd purchase a HD-DVD player if the DVD upconversion was a primary feature.

This surprised and disappointed me. I'd love to hear from others who have had similar or contrary experiences. If I get enough e-mails, I'll post a summary in a future column. But I won't be using the HD-A30 for watching any more standard DVDs. Doesn't make sense when they look better on the PS3.