Back in November, Wal-Mart was running a few pre Black Friday holiday sales that included an awesome deal on the Toshiba HD-A2 HD-DVD player. As a supporter of HD-DVD, and now both formats, I was lured in based on the $98 price tag. Given that the player had been going for well over $200 just weeks before, I figured it was an impulse buy that saved me quite a bit of money and gave me a reason to justify the large sum of money I spent on that HDTV set a few years back. I mean, it’s not like all the channels in your cable lineup are coming through in crystal clear HD yet. So how did the HD-A2 measure up? Let’s take a look

The HD-A2 is the second generation entry level player from Toshiba and has already been replaced with the HD-A3. This “sale” was probably a calculated effort to push sales of HD-DVD players as well as clear out the remaining stock of HD-A2 units. Regardless, I got a nice player on the cheap.

There is nothing particularly fancy or exciting about the HD-A2. It’s got a nice glossy black finish and has a fold down cover hiding the front panel buttons and USB ports. The power button is situated on the far left side of the front panel and glows red around the edges of the button while off and a brilliant blue when powered on. The unit’s display is fairly basic and can be dimmed from the device’s setup menu.

Powering on the unit takes some time and I haven’t quite figured out why. My standard DVD player comes right on and ejects the tray when I press the open button, but the HD-A2, and all HD players I am told, take between 20 and 40 seconds to power on and open the tray. This is a constant source of irritation that I work around by opening the tray before I go off and figure out what movie I am going to watch.

Movie playback of HD-DVDs is absolutely stunning. I tested the player out using component and HDMI connections and they both delivered a crisp picture. The HD-A2 supports upscaling of standard DVDs, but only when used in conjunction with an HDMI connection. DVD playback over a component connection is limited to a 480p signal and the player notifies you in these instances. Of course, if the display and player haven’t completed the HDMI digitial handshake your player will tell you, in 720p, that it is limiting playback to a lower resolution when it really isn’t.

In one instance recently, my home had a brown out that surged and caused the TV only to lose power. When powered back on, the HD-A2 had downgraded the signal from 720p to 480p and refused to correct itself until powered off and back on. I assume this is a design feature to protect the content.

The HD-A2 has a very robust Menu and Setup that includes tons of options. I won’t go into them all here as you can look up the player on the Toshiba website, but the one feature I wish was included was the ability to disable sound output over HDMI. In my setup, I have my audio handled by a receiver that accepts an optical audio signal while the video is sent directly to the display over HDMI. Of course the problem is that audio is being sent with both streams and unless I mute my TV, I hear duplicate audio signals. I’ve yet to figure out how to disable the HDMI audio without having to turn my TV down to 1 as mute leaves a stupid symbol up on the screen.

Since HD-DVD players have updatable firmware and mine shipped with a very old version, v1.2, I decided to go ahead and upgrade to the newest firmware, v2.7. My first 2 attempts were by downloading and burning the ISO of the update to a CD and updating that way. Both were met with dreaded 200700cf error, which is somehow indicative of a bad burn. Suggestions on the net are to use ImgBurn or ISORecorder to burn at a very low speed like 2x. I was unable to get that to work so I ended up updating directly via the ethernet port on the device. Very simple and was done in 20-30 minutes with no hiccups. I haven’t noticed any real change since the update, but having a net connected device enables many of the advanced HD-DVD features so it was worth the setup time.

My one real complaint about the HD-A2, and this seems to be widespread among all HD-DVD and Blu-Ray players, is the “boot time”. If I hit the “Open” button on my device, it takes anywhere from 20-40 seconds before the tray is open. This is a stark contrast to the 3-5 seconds for my standard DVD player. I haven’t figured out what the cause or reason is for this, but I assume it’s necessary. If the device is already on, pressing the Open button is almost an instant action. Regardless of the reasoning for this, it’s irritating. I suggest powering on your device well before you have movie in hand ready to drop it in the tray.

In all, the HD-A2 is a stellar player. It plays HD-DVDs and DVDs wonderfully over the HDMI connection, it’s easy to use, and the interface for HD-DVDs is slick and “next gen” looking. The device is pretty basic itself, but it performs like I expected. The lag issue when it powers on is quite annoying, but since it’s a technology wide affliction I can look the other way.

When the dust settles you might expect me to give you the green light to run out and pick up an HD-A2 of your very own, but I just can’t do that. With the recent news that Warner Bros has flipped to Blu-Ray only and the pending news that Paramount and New Line Cinema may follow suit, it looks like the last hand for the HD-DVD group. Your best bet is to just wait this one out for now. My player was an impulse buy at $98, but I’d give serious thought to spending $200 or more on a technology that may have just had it’s fate sealed. If you just have to get a next gen player, and trust me when I say that I get that, the PS3 is still the best value around in the Blu-Ray market. For people with no need for PS2 compatibility, the 40GB PS3 is a sweet deal at $399. For those of you with large PS2 libraries, good luck finding a 20GB or 60GB model or you can always settle for emulation with the 80GB model.

Final Verdict: Skip HD-DVD for now