Burning Questions: Hands On With the First Blu-ray Disc Player

The next stage in the battle to be the high-definition successor to DVD has begun, with the debut of the first Blu-ray Disc player for the living room, Samsung's BD-P1000, as well as the first wave of Blu-ray movies, from Sony Pictures Entertainment and Lionsgate.

Rival format HD DVD has been enjoying a head start: Toshiba shipped its first players--the $499 HD-A1 and the $799 HD-XA1--in April, and RCA shipped its $499 model in June. In comparison, Blu-ray Disc has stumbled out the gate. The Samsung player endured one delay before shipping in late June. Players from Pioneer and Sony that were originally due out around the same time have slipped off schedule to September and October, respectively. And at $1000, the Samsung player carries a hefty premium over the Toshiba models.

Stylish Finishes

As the first devices out, the Toshiba players and the Samsung unit are the torchbearers for their respective formats. Even if you remove the Blu-ray-versus-HD DVD component from the equation, however, these players still differ, namely in their usability and how they handle disc playback.

The industrial design of the Samsung is superior to that of the Toshiba HD-A1 and HD-XA1 in several ways. The sleek, piano-black box has a tapered look; a circular, pressure-based front navigation panel; a comfortable, lightweight remote control; a clearly readable front LCD screen; and a ten-in-two card reader for loading photos or MP3s. Inside, the player uses a proprietary Samsung processor and what the company describes as 64MB of system memory. Also, I found its fan and drive motor rather quiet in an environment with low ambient noise.

In contrast, the Toshiba HD-A1 and HD-XA1 essentially use PC components inside, including an NEC HD DVD-ROM drive, a Pentium CPU, and 1GB of memory. The less expensive HD-A1 doesn't even hide the fact that it uses a PC drive, while the more refined HD-XA1 does a better job of integrating the drive into the player. Both models' cases are a bit bulky, and the fan noise is more clearly audible in a quiet room (but if you have Pirates of the Caribbean blasting through your five-channel surround-sound system, you won't hear anything amiss). The front navigation panels are similar on both models, with the better-differentiated buttons of the HD-A1 having an edge over those of the HD-XA1 (though I still preferred the layout and touch of the Samsung's). The LCD screen on the Toshiba units reminds me of dot-matrix printer output, with its fine, harder-to-read text. However, the HD-XA1 has a nifty flip-down front panel that automatically opens and closes with a press of the remote's button.

The Samsung is ahead in disc handling, too. Generally it seemed faster than either Toshiba model (tested without the firmware update issued in June) at navigating a variety of standard-definition and high-definition discs. Though the Samsung's remote doesn't light up as the high-end Toshiba's does, it was more comfy in my hand, and its soft-mold buttons seemed responsive to my commands. Sometimes, the Sony BD discs I tried (including House of Flying Daggers and 50 First Dates) were a bit sluggish when I accessed chapters (a pesky Windows-like hourglass appeared), but this problem did not seem evident with standard-def discs.

The player even resumes disc playback where you left off, whether you press stop or you power the unit down--a nice touch. Another convenience: Upon rewinding within a scene, rather than starting precisely where I stopped the rewind, the player did an automatic backtrack for a few frames, so that I'd catch the frames just before the intended spot. The BD-P1000 also provides an on-screen cue telling you how fast you're scanning, whereas the Toshiba player does not.

For standard-definition movie playback, I found the differences between the players minute, but the Toshiba models seemed to deliver a slightly crisper image. High-definition playback was more difficult to judge. Both formats use the same video codecs (MPEG-2, VC1, and MPEG-4 AVC), and both are capable of producing stunning images. However, a slew of variables that have nothing to do with the format per se can affect how a movie displays in high definition, including the condition of the original film negative, the codec used to encode the video, the quality of the encoding process, the bit rate of the encoding, and, on the player itself, what chip set is being used to decode the video. Another critical factor: What were the intentions of the director and cinematographer? Some films are purposely shot soft, others are shot dark and grainy, and still more are shot oversharp and vibrant. (Stay tuned for more on this subject.)

Among the Sony and Lionsgate Blu-ray movies I watched, I observed a distinct trend toward images with more noise than I might have expected from a high-definition image; however, other titles, such as Ultraviolet, were sharp and eye-catching. (My experience with HD DVD was similarly mixed, with an opposite tilt.) Nonetheless, compared with their standard-definition versions, these high-def films generally showed a marked improvement. For example, during the Echo Dance scene in House of Flying Daggers, you can see more detail in the drums and in the dancer's dress and movements. In The Fifth Element, when Leeloo dives off a futuristic New York skyscraper, you can see more depth and detail as she plunges into the swarm of airborne cars. Later in that scene, Bruce Willis's facial hair is clearly visible, not a smudged shadow as you find in the standard-definition version of the film.

For as many consumer-friendly niceties as the Samsung player offers, the Toshiba models are better built, with future-proofing in mind. Toshiba's HD-A1 and HD-XA1 each have two USB ports up front, as well as an ethernet jack (for Internet access when titles offer it, as well as for downloading firmware updates). Although Toshiba has not specified how the USB ports might be used down the road, that the players have them built in is noteworthy. Samsung's player, on the other hand, has neither USB nor ethernet; any firmware upgrades will need to be on disc. And since the unit lacks ethernet, it will not support many of the advanced interactive features that supporters of the Blu-ray Disc format plan to incorporate in movie discs over the next few years.

Which One Will Win the War?

It's easy to critique the design of one player versus another, but what does this mean for the rival disc formats? On technical specs, Blu-ray has always had an edge (at 50GB for dual-layer discs due out later this year, it has a greater maximum capacity and a higher maximum bit rate for video encoding). HD DVD, for its part, is easier and cheaper to produce today.

Content providers' need for capacity--especially as more and more bonus materials are filmed in high-definition--will play a role, and that might translate into a better consumer experience (only one disc, for example, instead of two).

In the end, however, the content itself, and the quality of that content, will help drive demand for one format or the other. As the Blu-ray Disc Association's Andy Parsons admits, it's going to come down to "how many new titles are coming out on a regular basis, and how much we can convince people that this stuff is better than standard DVD."

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