Toshiba's XD-E500 upconverting DVD player

Toshiba's XD-E500 upconverting DVD player

Toshiba has been hyping the heck out of its new upconverting XD-E500 DVD player but has also been careful not to declare it an equivalent to Blu-ray, the high-definition format that beat out Toshiba's HD-DVD.

But the XD-E500's ability to upconvert DVD for up to 1080p resolution displays and a trio of special image-enhancement settings can add some HD-like zing to standard discs, Toshiba contends.

A "sharp" setting makes edges crisper; the "color" effect boosts blues and greens in an effort to provide an HDTV-like pop; and the contrast mode works to squeeze more detail out of dark scenes.

To put the player through its paces, I connected it via HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) cable to a 46-inch Samsung DLP (digital light processing) television with 720p/1080i resolution.

For testing purposes, I viewed "The Dark," a horror film released a few years ago. This standard DVD's image is so well-authored, it seems to approach HD quality at times on the several standard players I own. I wanted to see if the XD-E500 could make the gap in detail seem even smaller.

I also wanted to find out how the XD-E500 would handle more challenging material, so I popped in the gang-film classic "The Warriors." This 1979 movie is full of heavily shadowed scenes -- a good test for the XD-E500's alleged ability to render more detailed blacks -- and while the DVD's colors are balanced and strong, there is some softness in the image due to the film's age.

Toshiba says the XD-E500's sharp setting isn't applied to the entire picture. Instead, the player analyzes the image and determines where the sharpening effect could have the most benefit. In practice, this claim appeared to ring true for both test films, with the setting seeming to refine detail in areas such as grassy fields or hair. And impressively, it added little to no noise to the picture.

The color mode was less successful, in some cases pumping hues to garish, unrealistic levels, especially in "The Warriors."

Applying the contrast setting also had mixed results. Sometimes it revealed details in dark areas that added to the picture quality, but in other instances, it ended up highlighting grain and imperfections that were otherwise hard to see.

I compared the XD-E500 to the PlayStation 3, which along with Blu-ray support, can upconvert standard DVDs. In some cases, the XD-E500 clearly performed better on the test DVDs than the PlayStation 3. It often provided a greater range of detail in dark scenes, and the sharpness setting made images slightly more crisp. But in other scenes, the difference in image quality was negligible.

Also, the XD-E500 puts out a great DVD image, even with all the special settings turned off; although, overall I preferred to leave the sharp control on.

However, at no time was I convinced I was watching anything but standard DVD, even in the case of "The Dark." The XD-E500 delivers an extremely solid upconverted DVD image, but nothing that rivals the richness of Blu-ray.

As for its physical specifications, XD-E500 feels incredibly light, weighing only a few pounds, and has a sleek black case. The remote feels flimsy but is well-designed. The push buttons on the sample player's front faceplate were sometimes unresponsive at first.

Inside, the player is powered by a Zoran chip, contrary to rumors on hi-def fan forums that Toshiba was using its high-end SpursEngine chip, which is derived from the powerful Cell processor used in the Playstation 3.

Bottom line: The XD-E500 is a solid upconverting DVD player, even with the extra settings turned off, and the sharp feature definitely adds detail.

But due to the player's US$149 suggested price tag -- roughly twice that of other upconverting players but pretty close to enthusiast favorites sold by the likes of Oppo -- its value could be questionable, unless you haven't bought an upconverting player yet or are OK with paying a premium for an incremental improvement over cheaper models.

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