[Player version list now moved to separate post]
As of 2am this morning, the latest software for the Xbox HD DVD player is now available via Xbox Live (and will be posted on xbox.com in due course). The three teams involved (HD DVD, Xbox and the Codec folks) have all been hard at work for the last six months or so to produce this important update. This is not to be confused with the Xbox Dashboard update that went live last week: that effected the dashboard itself, but the HD DVD player is not a part of that: it is a separate application that lives on the HD DVD drive. You can tell which version of the HD DVD player you have by running any title, getting the Player UI up and clicking on the ? button. This post refers to the 2.0.4629 release.
What's new? In summary superb Title Compatibility, Audio Improvements, and New Features. Plus a myriad of bug fixes and performance improvements.
The main area of Title Compatibility improvement as been Standard Content titles (aka CAT1 titles). The CAT1 engine can handle everything that is thrown at it now, including all of the Discovery titles, the burn-at-home discs that the ULead and other tools create, and a particularly interesting forthcoming title I can't name, but should be called "CAT1 Torture Test Disc".
For Advanced Content titles (aka CAT2) the player is now the most spec-compliant player available, and has had some areas re-written for performance and specification-compatibility. Plus we had to make sure the Matrix Trilogy played perfectly of course!
A big improvement has happened for Dolby Audio. The original versions used DRC (dynamic range compression) on Dolby sources but this could produce muddy sound on occasion: the DRC defaults to off now, with a notable improvement in some titles. In addition the ability to re-encode all audio as DTS over S/PDIF was added, which further improves audio quality (assuming your receiver can handle DTS of course). My workmate Raj spent an inordinate amount of time on audio/video sync issues, the most famous being the hammer scene in Batman Begins. That, plus every other reported sync issue has been addressed with this update: critical measurements indicate we have a closer AV sync than another other player. (Raj never wants to watch Batman Begins ever again: I have the same feelings for Bourne Supremacy, as I worked on an AV sync issue for the CES 2006 HD DVD demo which featured that title).
Note that the issues with trouble reading a few Universal discs (like Children of Men and The Good Shepherd) has not been addressed by this software update: that was a manufacturing problem and if you have an effected disc you can get a free replacement.
There are two New Feature areas: the first is improved Network support. Soon you will see titles appearing that will start to show what is possible when your HD DVD player has access to additional content via its mandatory ethernet connection. Blood Diamond has been announced with networking features, something that the Blu-Ray version lacks (because of course Blu-Ray players cannot do networking, or picture-in-picture, or a bunch of other things). If you want to try these new features out, be sure to enable Network Support in the player first (and you'll need an Xbox Live connection) via the new button in the on-screen UI. The other new feature is asynchronous video playback. Hard to explain succinctly what this is (and even harder to implement!) but it will allow content authors to make even better content on HD DVD.
I have to confess that my personal participation in this release was minimal: I was working on something else that hasn't been announced yet. I am psyched for the team though: this is a truly great release.