An Elegant Player for High-Def Movies
HD DVD movie players are no longer your only high-def DVD living-room option: Samsung has shipped its $1000 BD-P1000, the first living-room player that uses rival format Blu-ray, and Sony Pictures and Lions Gate have released high-def Blu-ray movies to complement it.
Which type is better? We found little difference in image quality, but you'll get a more elegant player with the Samsung Blu-ray device. However, it costs twice as much as one of Toshiba's HD DVD players.
We put the Samsung player through its paces and compared it with two HD DVD models from Toshiba, the $499 HD-A1 and the $799 HD-XA1. (For further details on the HD DVD players and on a Blu-ray burner for PCs, read "DVD Goes High-Def.")
We can't directly compare movies played in the two HD formats because, as yet, none have come out in both Blu-ray and HD DVD. But both formats use the same video codecs (MPEG-2, MPEG-4 AVC, and VC1), and the disc formats should have no effect on how they play movies. In informal tests, each approach showed itself capable of producing stunning images, with far greater detail and depth than standard-definition versions of the same movies offer. The players differed very little in SD playback quality, but the Toshiba models delivered a slightly crisper image.
A word of warning: Though high-def yields far better image quality than standard-def, HD movies aren't perfect. In the Blu-ray films I've watched thus far, some scenes exhibited more noise than I expected from HD; on the other hand, some titles, like Ultraviolet, were sharp and eye-catching throughout. My experience with HD DVD was similarly mixed, with more artifacts cropping up in certain movie scenes than I had anticipated.
Such visual hiccups probably won't go away. A slew of variables influence how any HD movie looks, including the condition of the original film, the codec used to encode the video, the quality of the encoding process, the bit rate of the encoding, and the player's decoder chip set. Also relevant are the intentions of the director and cinematographer. Some films are purposely shot soft, others dark and grainy, and others ultrasharp and vibrant. If you're concerned about these issues, read user reviews of specific HD titles before buying.
Even after you remove the Blu-ray versus HD DVD factor from the equation, these players differ significantly in usability and performance.
The tapered Samsung unit has a comfortable remote control; an easy-to-read LCD display; and a ten-in-two media card reader for viewing photos or listening to MP3s. In contrast, both Toshiba models are a bit bulky; the LCD display recalls a dot-matrix printer; and there's no media reader. The Samsung is quieter, too, though if you have Pirates of the Caribbean blasting over your five-channel surround-sound system, you won't hear any of these players whirring.
The Samsung was generally faster than either Toshiba model at navigating discs (the Toshibas were tested without the maker's June firmware update), and its remote responded quickly. It even resumes playback where you left off, whether you press stop or power it down--a nice touch. But sometimes the Sony Blu-ray discs were a bit sluggish at accessing chapters, prompting a pesky Windows-like hourglass to appear.
The Toshiba models may be a bit more future-proof than the Samsung. Both Toshibas have two USB ports, plus an ethernet jack for access to advanced interactive features when titles offer it and for downloading firmware updates. Samsung's player lacks both USB and ethernet.
Wait to Buy
The high-def DVD format war is far from over, and a slew of new hardware is due in the fall and winter.
Living-room recorders, however, won't arrive until next year. And both LG Electronics and Samsung have discussed producing multi-format players; Ricoh recently demonstrated optical technology that would make such players possible (see this month's Plugged In for more). If you can wait to see HD movies at home, hold off purchasing until you have more choices.
Melissa J. Perenson