Microsoft had a swanky little event in a penthouse overlooking the Thames this morning and one of the many bits and bobs on show (check back soon for the games) was the Xbox 360's HD DVD drive.
This does exactly what it says on the tin: it's an add-on to the next-gen console that plays HD DVD movies at 720p resolution (games will continue to come on standard DVDs). It looks a lot like the Xbox's runty little brother, and indeed it leans on big bro for most of its video-processing gubbins. It has its own power supply (what? That massive brick can't power this too?), plugs in via USB, and shoves its hi-def video goodness out through the Xbox's component out.
Hang on a sec. Hi-def? Through component? Isn't that like eating Beluga caviar on Mighty White? Well no, apparently. According to a Microsoft technical bod we spoke to, the "urban myth" that you need HDMI for hi-def video is "complete rubbish". Sadly, they didn't have a working HD DVD drive to prove this, just some US version that wasn't compatible with their TVs. Hmm.
The MS techie did admit that not using HDMI would mean that HD DVDs wouldn't run if the movie studios enabled a copy-protection feature. But, he was quick to add, the studios have agreed not to do this until at least 2012, if ever. Phew. So any HD DVD released between now and then is guaranteed to play on the Xbox 360 drive.
The best thing about the drive -- until we see the video output for ourselves -- is the price point: £130. If you've already got an Xbox 360 and an HD Ready TV, that's a steal -- a dedicated HD DVD player will set you back about £500. You could buy a premium Xbox 360 and the drive for £410 (less than the Blu-ray equipped PlayStation 3 when it comes out), but we would hesitantly speculate that, as the video will have to be converted to analogue and back because it uses component, the video quality won't be up to that of a devoted player. That's only guessing, mind.
The drive will be out in time for Christmas, and will be bundled with a remote control and an HD DVD copy of Peter Jackson's King Kong. -NH
Update: This is a complicated old business that needs clarification. In response to some of the points Gadget raised below, the drive doesn't record, so you can't plug in a PVR and record to HD DVD. We don't know why we haven't seen a working version. As Gadget suggests, there may be manufacturing difficulties: HD DVD drives use the same blue laser that has caused Sony so much trouble with the PlayStation 3. But that wouldn't make any difference to prototypes. As an aside, the Microsoft spokesman we talked to did not rule out a Blu-ray/HD DVD combi drive for the Xbox 360 in the future, but we don't think Microsoft will make an Xbox 360 with an integrated HD DVD drive. But never say never.
Another reader emailed us to point out that the Xbox 360 will output video in the 1080p resolution, as well as 720p, after a software update sometime this autumn. This will affect the HD DVD drive as well as games. Hope this all helps.
Update 2: A full review of the Microsoft Xbox 360 HD DVD drive is now live.