With the Microsoft add-on HD-DVD player now available for purchase at a mere GBP 99 from certain outlets, the Xbox 360 add-on is surely the cheapest way to get "into" high definition movies without the worry of sinking untold hundreds of Pounds Sterling into a format that may not last the course.
When combined with the classic 360, the drive certainly does a great job - 1080i via component provides an excellent picture, and 1080p over VGA is marginally better still (some shots can be found in our original HD-DVD player test.
The introduction of HDMI adds another 1080p-capable output, and one that works with far more displays than VGA. HDMI also allows for 1080i digital output - something the 'classic' 360 has yet to offer and a signal that in theory offers the optimum quality level that's compatible with all displays featuring the "HD Ready" badge.
As soon as the HD-DVD spins up, HDCP digital copy protection is enabled on the HDMI port, so only the more recent widescreen LCD monitors, and of course HD-ready HDTVs, will work with it.
HDMI Quality Tests
First up is the movie we received bundled with our HD-DVD drive, King Kong. Many months after its release, it's still held aloft by HD-DVD fans as 'reference quality' - a turn of phrase that's meant to suggest that the movie is virtually identical to the quality of the original master.
As you'd expect, the picture is virtually flawless - to the point where the huge resolution combined with the pin-sharp clarity shows up just how artificial much of the CG is in the movie. Check out the screenshot gallery here and spare a quick thought for the aggravation we had in defeating the HDCP copy protection to get these genuine 360 grabs. Also note that as with gaming, the quality is barely a touch better than the VGA output.
Next up is the more controversial Batman Begins. It's an altogether softer movie than Kong, and while it still looks great, it's definitely not the picture quality showcase of Peter Jackson's good-looking but ultimately tedious effort. Check out our Batman Begins 360 HDMI screenshot gallery for more.
While a digital 1080i/p output is a clear advantage, the bottom line is that whether you're comparing HDMI to component or to VGA, once again it's the quality of your display that is far more significant than the 360's output.
What is perhaps of more interest to HD-DVD fans is that the Elite doesn't solve any of the 360's existing HD-DVD audio shortcomings. There is no provision for transmitting undecoded surround sound through the HDMI cable, and all audio is still internally translated into a format the console can output via Toslink SPDIF. Despite this internal conversion having been recently upgraded to support Dolby Digital, DTS and WMA Pro output, it's still some way short of the full-fat uncompressed audio experience. You have to wonder why Microsoft couldn't have added improved audio support to the HDMI output, or just added six or eight phonos on the rear of the unit for direct connection to an amp. I can only conclude that despite its premium price-point, Microsoft doesn't take HD-DVD that seriously.
Therefore, despite its pretensions as a high-end HD device, I can't help but feel that HD-DVD owners are going to feel a little short-changed by opting for an Elite. It's essentially addressing an issue that wasn't a problem in the first place (picture quality) and completely ignoring the key area where the HD-DVD experience disappointed.
I guess I just expected more - Sony is doing everything in its power to make the PS3 the best Blu-ray player money can buy. It's clear that Microsoft doesn't have that same level of commitment to HD-DVD.