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DVD Players
While two high-definition DVD formats battle it out, progressive-scan DVD players add pseudo-HD.


The transition from standard DVDs to high-definition Blu-ray and HD DVD discs is clearly under way, and more models have arrived over the past year. But many consumers aren’t ready to buy a high-definition player, given their relatively high prices and dueling HD formats. That means that many of us may still be in the market for a standard DVD player--probably our last.

DVD players are one of the electronics industry’s biggest success stories. The vast majority of U.S. homes have one or more players, and prices have dropped so low--into the $25 range for some models--that these devices are sold almost everywhere, even in supermarkets and drugstores. You’d be hard-pressed to find any other home-entertainment product that gives you more bang for the buck than a DVD player.

 Despite their low prices, most standard DVD players typically have numerous features and connections, including HDMI and component-video output. In addition, many standard DVD players can play a variety of disc types, including recordable DVDs and CDs with music and photos. 


WHAT’S AVAILABLE

Sony, Magnavox, Philips, Panasonic, and Toshiba are among the best-selling brands of regular DVD players. In the high-def category, Toshiba currently has the only HD DVD players on the market, but Onkyo is expected to sell an HD DVD player soon. Blu-ray enjoys broader hardware support from companies including LG Electronics, Panasonic, Pioneer, Samsung, and Sony, among others.

Standard players. Almost all new standard players models are progressive-scan models that can convert (or deinterlace) the interlaced video (480i) contained on DVDs and output it to your TV as a 480p video signal.

A growing number of progressive-scan DVD players are “upconverting” models that can convert the 480i video on all regular DVDs to simulate 720p, 1080i, or even 1080p. These pseudo-HD resolutions more closely match a fixed-pixel HDTV’s native screen resolution. (This feature will not work with standard-definition TVs.) These players analyze the lower-resolution video, guess what pixels would be present in a higher-resolution image, and add them to the picture, although our tests have shown this feature doesn’t necessarily provide better picture quality. 

Progressive-scan models come in single-disc and multidisc versions. The few nonprogressive-scan models now on the market are mostly single-disc models; they tend to be the cheapest type.

  • Single-disc consoles. Even low-end models usually have all the video outputs you might want, although it’s possible the cheapest units could lack a component-video or HDMI output. Price: about $25 to more than $300.

  • Multidisc consoles. Like CD changers, these players accommodate more than one disc at a time, typically five. DVD jukeboxes that hold hundreds of discs are also available, and many can automatically sort discs by content type: movies, music, and photos. Price: under $100 to over $400.

  • Portables. These DVD players generally come with a small, 16:9 wide-screen-format LCD screen and batteries that claim to provide three or more hours of playback. Some low-priced models don’t have a screen; they’re intended for users who plan to connect the device to a television or other display. Some portable models designed for car use are tablet-style players, and some of these have two screens that can be mounted behind headrests. You pay extra for portability either way. Prices start at less than $100.

High-def players. Toshiba’s HD DVD players sell for about $250 to $700. Blu-ray players range from $500 to more than $1,000. LG’s dual-format player sells for about $1,000. We expect prices to fall as the holiday season draws closer.


IMPORTANT FEATURES

DVD-based movies often come in various formats. Aspect-ratio control lets you choose between the 4:3 viewing format of conventional TVs (4 inches wide for every 3 inches high) and the 16:9 ratio of newer wide-screen sets.

A DVD player gives you all sorts of control over the picture. Picture zoom lets you zoom in on a specific frame. Black-level adjustment brings out the detail in dark parts of the screen image.

If you’ve ever wanted to see certain action scenes from different angles, multiangle capability gives you that opportunity. Note that this feature and some others work only with certain discs.

A DVD player enables you to navigate the disc in a number of ways. Unlike a VHS tape, most DVDs are sectioned. Chapter preview lets you scan the opening seconds of each section or chapter until you find what you want. A related feature, chapter gallery, shows thumbnails of sections or chapter opening scenes. Go-to by time lets you enter how many hours and minutes into the disc you’d like to skip. Marker functions allow easy indexing of specific sections.

To get the most from a DVD player, you need to hook it up to the TV with the best available connection. A composite-video connection can produce a very good picture, but there will be some loss of detail and some color artifacts such as colors bleeding into each other. Using the TV’s S-video input can improve picture quality. It keeps the brightness and the color portions of the signal separated, producing more picture detail and fewer color defects.

Component-video improves on S-video by splitting the color signal into three separate signals, resulting in a wider range of color and improved clarity. If you connect a DVD player via an S-video or component connection, don’t be surprised if you have to adjust the television-picture control when you switch to a picture coming from any of these sources: an antenna, a VCR, or a cable box that uses a radio-frequency (RF, also called antenna/cable) connection or a composite connection.

Most new DVD players also have an HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) connection, which is intended for use with digital TVs with corresponding inputs. They may be used to pass digital 480p, upconverted higher-resolution video signals, and HD signals, along with digital audio. These connections, which include digital copyright protection, potentially allow content providers to control your ability to record the content. In many unconverting players, upscaled video from prerecorded movies is sent only through the HDMI outputs because of concerns about piracy.

Another benefit of DVD players is the ability to enjoy movies with multichannel surround sound like you’d experience in a theater. To reap the full sound experience of the audio encoded into DVD titles, you’ll need a Dolby Digital receiver and at least six speakers, including a subwoofer. (For 6.1 and 7.1 soundtracks, you’ll need seven or eight speakers.) Dolby Digital decoding built-in refers to a DVD player that decodes the multichannel audio before sending it the audio receiver. Without the built-in circuitry, you’d need a decoder built into the receiver or, in rare instances, a separate decoder box. (A Dolby Digital receiver will also decode an older format, Dolby Pro Logic.) Most players also support Digital Theater System (DTS) decoding for titles using 5.1-, 6.1-, or 7.1-channel encoding format. Some players have a virtual surround function that simulates surround sound when using just a pair of stereo speakers. When watching DVD-based movies, dynamic audio-range control helps keep explosions and other noisy sound effects from seeming too loud.

DVD players often support playback or display of many other formats. They include CD-R/RW recordings of standard audio CDs; the recordable DVD formats DVD+R/RW, DVD-R/RW, and DVD-RAM; Video CD (VCD); and DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD). They can also play CD-R/RW discs containing MP3 and Windows Media Audio (WMA) files and JPEG picture files. Make sure the one you’re considering plays the discs and formats you intend to use.


HOW TO CHOOSE

Buy a progressive-scan model unless the lowest price is your highest priority. Although you won’t see progressive-scan picture quality on a conventional analog TV, images may look smoother on a digital TV. You’ll have a wider choice of products as well, since almost all new players are progressive-scan, and it’s likely you won’t even have to pay more for this feature.

Don’t pay much more for an upconverting model. A standard-definition TV is unable to display video that’s upconverted to pseudo-HD, so there’s no reason to buy a DVD player with this feature. Depending on the HDTV, this feature may or may not improve picture quality.

With an HD picture-tube TV, it’s unlikely that upconverting will improve picture quality. In our experience, 480p signals typically yield the best combination of smoothness and fine detail, and you can get that from a regular progressive-scan player.
 
With LCD, plasma, and rear-projection microdisplay HDTVs, the story is a little more complicated. These TVs are all fixed-pixel displays that have built-in upconverting capability. It’s possible that a specific DVD player might do the upconversion better than a specific TV, but it’s also possible the TV will do a better job on its own. If you decide to buy an upconverting DVD player to use with any fixed-pixel display, try setting the player to various resolutions--such as 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, or 1080p--nd use whichever setting produces the picture quality you deem best.

No matter what player and TV you’re using, there’s one point to keep in mind: While upconverted video can look quite good when done well, the quality is never the equivalent of true HD.

Wait to buy an HD player. Given the incompatibility of the two rival formats, we think it’s wise to wait until things shake out before committing to a purchase. At the least, waiting a few months could save you money. If you prefer to jump in sooner but are concerned about one format disappearing, consider LG Electronics’ BH100 combination player. It’s pricey, though, and has a few idiosyncrasies that keep us from recommending it without reservation. If you buy a single-format player, a Blu-ray player will offer you more choice in movies.

Choose a multidisc model if you want continuous music or easy access to a DVD library. A single-disc player is fine for movies and CDs one at a time. But if you want to use your DVD player to enjoy hours of uninterrupted music, consider a multidisc model. A DVD jukebox may also be handy, especially if you’ll be installing it in a rack that’s not easily accessible for changing discs. Note, though, that multidisc models are typically about 1 to 2 inches taller and 6 to 7 inches deeper than single-disc players, so make sure it will fit on your rack or in your entertainment center.

Make sure there are enough of the connections you want. Virtually all DVD players now have outputs for optimal connection to most TV sets. All but the least expensive models have both component-video and HDMI connectors that are compatible with new digital TVs, though these don’t necessarily offer improved picture quality.

HDMI cables can send both digital audio (including multichannel) and video via a single cable. If you want to use digital-audio connections from the DVD player to a receiver, make sure the DVD player’s digital-audio outputs match the receiver’s inputs. Some receivers use a coaxial input; others, an optical input. Some players will include multichannel analog audio jacks for sending 5.1-channel Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound to older receivers.

Consider which, if any, special playback formats matter. Most DVD players can play recorded DVDs and CDs. Most models also play several types of discs you can record yourself, such as DVD-R, DVD+R, and CD-R/-RW. Most can read DVD+RW, but the ability to read DVD-RW discs depends on how they were recorded. Some can also play DVD-RAM discs. Most models also play CD-audio and MP3 music files recorded on discs you burn yourself. You’ll need to shop around more if you want to play Windows Media Audio (WMA) files, video CD, and high-resolution SACD and DVD-Audio discs in their original format.

Do you want to present slide shows on your TV? Then choose a model that can read JPEG image files that you’ve captured with a digital camera and burned onto a disc. Some models have built-in card readers that accept various memory cards.

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