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Up close and personal with Toshiba’s new HD DVD player (the HD-A1)

Upon hearing rumors that Toshiba put a 2.5 GHz Pentium 4 CPU and a gig of PC2700 DDR RAM in their new $500 high definition set-top DVD player, I was intrigued.  When I heard that they also put in a standard desktop HD-DVD reader, I had to buy one and see if these wild accusations were true.  So I called around and found that just about the last one available in Phoenix was to be had at a Best Buy on the edge of town.  $560 later it was mine, and on its way to the surgery table for close inspection.

I quickly cracked open the box and without even taking time to plug it into a high def set conveniently located only 20 feet away, started taking it apart to see what was under the hood.  Soon a friend of mine, Scott Cate, came over, screwdriver in-hand, to help out.  We found out that sure enough, all the rumors were true.

Here’s complete video coverage of the irreverent dismantling:

Click to see the 6 minute video of us taking apart the HD-A1! (20 meg WMV)

The HD-DVD drive we pulled out of the thing has a standard 40-pin IDE interface, and when connected to an XP machine identifies itself as “_NEC HDDVD HR1100A“, which is a recently-released HD-DVD reader that also reads normal DVDs and CDs.

When I put a HD-DVD movie in to try to see what’s on the disc it just says “D:\ is not accessible.  Incorrect function.“.  Even under Vista Beta 1 same story.  Perhaps a later beta will have a driver and allow us to see what’s on these HD-DVD discs.  Is it still VOB-ified or now something different under the new AACS copy protection?  Or perhaps the new protection restricts you from even reading any data at all!  Wouldn’t that be a kicker.

At the very end of the video I got a little curious about the daughter card stuck on the motherboard, and pry it up for a closer look. Definitely that’s where some interesting file system discoveries are to be found:

Overall it looks like it may be easier to get at the actual data than I had originally thought. The card is apparently a USB 2.0 device made by “M-Systems”, and should be able to attach directly to a normal PC and act as a 256 meg flash disk.

The code on the M-Systems controller chip is “DOK T5” which stands for “Disk on key, 5th generation”. It has a USB 2.0 interface. J101 on the bottom of the card looks just like a 9-pin motherboard-style USB connection, and once connected would probably be recognized as a USB flash drive.  (Sure enough it is, and this post gives the details!)

An idea: Wouldn’t it be cool to put whatever is in this USB key on a USB-connected hard drive instead, and then see if the unit will boot and run that way?  That’s probably how they tested the thing during later phases of development when the AACS code was getting its kinks worked out.  Note that there’s a covered opening seen in the case next to where a USB connector was probably placed, and that opening would now make it very easy to run a cable into the unit and have a true USB connection hanging off the back side of this thing. Perhaps I’ll connect a hub to it and try attaching a keyboard and mouse and see what happens.

Here’s a forum post from a Danish guy who also cracked open his HD-A1.

Lots of fun experimentation to be done here.  Well worth the price of admission.  But honestly I’m still holding out for what the Blu-Ray camp has to offer because HD-DVD maxes out at only 30 gigs using its upper limit of 2 layers, and at 2 layers Blu-Ray is just getting started, offering 50 gigs of storage.  100 gigs is not too far away on the horizon in their 4-layer version, and in their back room a couple years ago they had tested up to 8 layers for 200 gigs on a disc.  Would be interesting to know how far they are now with experimental versions of Blu-Ray.  Now if Sony would only be wise and price the first players at $500 rathar than $900 then I think they would win hands-down in this new format war. At least they will be rolling one into every forthcoming PS3 which will be priced around $500.

UPDATE 1: I was able to successfully connect the flash disk to XP and analyze the individual sectors.  In the process I discovered that internally the unit runs on Red Hat.  It looks like it was originally formatted as FAT32, and then repartitioned with ext2fs.

I was able to get access to another HD-DVD player, and after reading the image on its flash disk it’s different in a couple places.  Also when trying to put the daughter card from my unit in this other player it would reference the disk for a little while, but then halt partway through the boot process.  So it looks like there’s probably a serial number stored in the firmware, and a check performed during boot to make sure it’s the right firmware for that specific unit by serial number.

UPDATE 2: I had a little more time to take a deeper look into the firmware, and found some additional tidbits.

UPDATE 3: There was a question sent in about the video and audio decoding chips, and I did some research and posted a little video talking about them.

Much thanks to the 40,000 people who have strolled by to take a look at this post.  Hope you enjoyed your stay.  I’m very thankful for these sites which each featured this post on their front page: (in the LinkXchange portion)

Also thanks to sites around the world that have written quick little articles about me.  I can’t read what you’ve written, but thanks for hanging a link out there over to me!  Here’s an example in either Czech or Slovak:  Groovy!  (Thanks to Propediotika and SeeJey for pointing out that the foreign language site is probably Slovak, and not Russian.)

Also thanks to C-Net for posting the video.  My hoster is groaning to try to keep up with all the traffic!

Finally, thanks to Daniel Eber for setting up a bittorrent of the video:

This article is part of the GWB Archives. Original Author: Lorin Thwaits

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