High Definition (HD) has been the buzz word in digital entertainment for a while and has become a reality with the emergence of set-top Blu-ray and HD DVD players in the market. However, technology doesn't come cheap as these first generation players alone command exorbitant market rates anywhere between US$500-1000. For all but the hardcore early adopters, a more inexpensive solution comes from an unexpected angle - gaming. Sony's PlayStation 3 gaming console is arguably the cheapest and most feature filled Blu-ray player you can get your hands on and Microsoft is just a heartbeat away with their much anticipated accessory for the Xbox 360. Yes, we're talking about the external Xbox 360 HD DVD drive. A recent firmware upgrade unlocked full 1080p capabilities on the Xbox 360 and now, the gaming console finally has HD DVD support.
Setting up the Xbox 360 HD DVD drive is a breeze since it connects to the Xbox 360 via USB. For most people, the gaming console is already hooked up to their HDTVs and sound systems, so there is no additional setting up to do except plugging the player into an unused USB port on the Xbox 360. Those who have not updated their Xbox 360 with the latest firmware might be required to perform an additional step of installing the software that comes with the unit. Once the Xbox 360 has detected HD DVD drive, you will notice a slight change in the Dashboard with additional HD DVD options. On the downside though, the USB connection will not power up the drive - it requires its own power adapter to function.
As mentioned, data connection is based on USB to the Xbox 360. Audio and video streams are passed through, then decoded and processed in the console itself. The only disadvantage of the system however, is that it does not feature HDCP support nor HDMI outputs. Of course, HDMI is not really needed today as full 1080p output can still be realized with VGA and component connection for all HD DVD media, but if and when the industry decides to enforce the Image Constraint Token (ICT) for HD DVD media, the Xbox 360 will be severely crippled.
In defense, Microsoft is confident that the ICT will not come into effect within the lifespan of the Xbox 360. It also seems that they're already working on an updated version of the Xbox 360, codenamed "Zephyr" that will indeed feature native HDMI/HDCP, among other improvements, but we're digressing, so back to the HD DVD module.
The packaging of the Xbox 360 HD DVD drive is quite impressive as it comes bundled with the Xbox 360 Universal Media Remote. As a launch incentive, Microsoft is also throwing in a full copy of Peter Jackson's King Kong on HD DVD*. This bundle is only available for a limited period, but there is no word yet as to when it will end.
The Xbox 360 will automatically start playing content when a HD DVD is inserted into the drive. Users can maneuver the menus through the bundled remote or through the Xbox 360's controllers. All the advanced features of HD DVD discs are accessible through the Xbox 360 HD DVD drive as well, such as interactive menus and Picture-in-Picture playback (when available).
One significant issue with standalone HD DVD players today is their long start up and response times. The Xbox 360 with its HD DVD player feels very snappy in comparison. Not only that, a notable mention about the drive is its quiet operation.
The most amazing thing about the Xbox 360 HD DVD drive is its low price of only US$199. With a very attractive bundle and everything else going for it, the drive is the most affordable way to hop onto the HD DVD bandwagon - even if it has no HDMI. Remember, the Xbox 360 is a full fledged HD gaming console and media center, so you're getting a whole lot more bang for your buck. Microsoft has really done themselves proud with a very well designed accessory that will surely become a must-have add-on to any Xbox 360.
*King Kong bundle is a limited offer and may not be available in all regions.