The format war between Blu-ray and HD DVD was always going to be ugly, but its Hiroshima moment might well have been the launch of the Sony PlayStation 3. Overnight, half a million Blu-ray players had homes, even if the homeowner didn’t know what a Blu-ray player was.
Microsoft knew the PS3 was coming. Having had its feet firmly in the HD DVD camp virtually since day one, one of the globe’s mightiest companies brought all its know-how and marketing prowess to bear – and delivered an add-on HD DVD drive. As a cost option.
To 1080p, or not to 1080p?
The ‘premium’ Xbox 360 package (fundamentally a regular 360 with 20GB hard drive) costs £280 – add the HD DVD drive and you’re up to £410. One the one hand, that extra £130 buys you the UK’s least expensive HD disc source; on the other, the drive only works when connected to the 360 USB and utilising its component video or VGA outputs.
Ah yes, the VGA output. According to Microsoft, the HD DVD drive offers 1080p video (the Holy Grail of image quality) when connected to an HD screen via the VGA output. We’re here to tell you that the damned thing doesn’t work.
We tried TVs and we tried projectors. We tried products from manufacturers great and small. Not one would accept a 1080p signal from the 360.
Naturally, we contacted the manufacturer in order to resolve the situation and properly appraise the 360’s full-HD picture quality. Beyond suggesting that we might turn the console off and on again a few times, Microsoft had no solutions.
Trumped by the PS3
Fortunately, the HD DVD drive was able to send 1080i images via the 360’s component video outputs. In isolation, the results are impressive – colours and contrasts are vivid, textures are convincing and images are highly detailed – but don’t bear comparison with the PS3’s Blu-ray ability. The Xbox introduces too much video noise and doesn’t handle motion with any certainty.
The 360 also suffers in comparison to the PS3 where HD audio is concerned. Where the Sony is able to output some (but not all) of the deeply impressive new high-def audio codecs, the Xbox’s lack of HDMI output means that Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD and the like are off the menu. Its digital optical output can cope with nothing more than Dolby Digital or DTS.
Our review of the Xbox 360 ‘premium’ package enthused about the gaming aspects of its ability, and that’s all still true. If you’re trying to decide between a 360 or a PS3 on the basis of their HD disc abilities, though, we can’t help but have a bit of a downer on the Microsoft machine.