Archive for the ‘Bluray’ category

Funai announces Blu-ray player for less than $300

January 22, 2008

The major gripe against Blu-ray has always been that the hardware is just too expensive, especially when $99 HD DVD players were flying off the shelves at Wal-Mart a few months ago. While videophiles on a budget could opt for the $400 Sony PlayStation3, there hasn’t been a real alternative for those looking for a cheaper standalone unit. Funai is looking to fill this gap with its latest announcement of a Blu-ray player slated to come in the second quarter of 2008 for less than $300–which is the lowest price we’ve seen on any Blu-ray player. 

Other than the price, the Funai didn’t release many other details about the new Blu-ray player, which it is referring to as the NB500 series. Like all other Blu-ray players released this year, it will be fully compliant with Blu-ray Profile 1.1, which means it can handle “picture-in-picture” video commentary tracks available on some new Blu-ray discs coming out in 2008. Like all other Blu-ray players, it will also be capable of upconverting standard DVDs to 1080p over its HDMI 1.3 output. The NB500 series also includes an SD card slot, which Funai claims can be used to display digital video from a camcorder or digital camera.

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Sony bows $200 Blu-ray player

January 22, 2008

Funai announced a standalone Blu-ray player that will dip below the $300 mark when it’s released next quarter, but if you’ve got a PC that’s up to the challenge, Sony’s got an internal Serial ATA Blu-ray drive that will do the trick for even less. The BDU-X10S drive will cost $199.99 when Sony starts shipping it next month (pre-order it here). This BD-ROM (that’s read, not write) drive comes bundled with CyberLink PowerDVD BD Edition for playing Blu-ray discs in MPEG-2 or H.264 format. It’ll also play DVDs and CDs and will work with XP and Vista PCs.

LG’s new combo HD DVD/Blu-ray player

September 12, 2007

LG was the first company to come out with an HD DVD/Blu-ray combo player–the LG BH100–which made a big splash at CES 2007 and won CNET’s “Best in Show” award. At CEDIA today, LG announced its second combo player, the BH200, which looks to improve on many of the shortcomings of the BH100. The most significant failing of the BH100 was its limited support for the interactive features available on HD DVD discs, also known as HDi. According to the press release, the BH200 will support HDi functionality, along with network-enhanced HD DVD features, available on some discs such as Blood Diamond. On the Blu-ray side, it should also support BD-Java functionality (as seen on the newer Pirates of Caribbean discs), as well as picture-in-picture functionality. (While picture-in-picture functionality is standard on all HD DVD players, it is not required on Blu-ray players until October 31.) 

LG BH200’s key features

  • Full HDi support on HD DVD discs
  • Picture-in-picture support for both HD DVD and Blu-ray
  • 1080p output at 24 frames per second
  • Onboard decoding for Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD
  • HDMI 1.3 output, with Deep Color support
  • Ethernet port
  • $1,000 list price, mid-October release date

Of course, with a $1,000 list price, you can buy both the PlayStation 3 and Toshiba HD-A2 for less than the BH200, but you won’t get the convenience of a single player. The price is definitely too high for the average consumer, but the BH200 could be popular in the enthusiast community, depending on the specifics of its functionality. For example, the press release doesn’t mention support for Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio–either via onboard decoding or bitstream output–but we have to imagine there will at least be two-channel Dolby TrueHD support, since that is required in the HD DVD specification and the BH200 features the official HD DVD logo.

The BH200 will also have to compete with Samsung’s combo player, the BD-UP5000 ($1,000), which has a very impressive feature set including HQV upconversion (which can improve both DVD and high-definition disc playback performance), 1080p/24 output, and what looks to be support for all of the high resolution audio formats, including DTS-HD Master audio–although it will take a firmware update before DTS-HD Master Audio is enabled.We’ve contacted LG regarding some technical questions about the BH200’s high resolution audio capabilities, whether it meets Blu-ray profile 1.1 and its exact connectivity, and we will update this post if we receive more information.

Sony VAIO FZ180

June 22, 2007

The midsize Media Center laptop is a hard concept to get one’s head around. Those interested in playing movies, especially via Blu-ray, are likely to want a 17-inch or larger display, while mainstream users often turn to 15-inch laptops for their mix of portability and pricing–not a surfeit of media features. Still, there’s no denying the appeal of a well-designed laptop, and the $1,999 Sony VAIO FZ180 is, like the rest of Sony’s line, head and shoulders above the competition in that regard, second only to perhaps Apple. If the design and features appeal, but you don’t want the added expense of a Blu-ray drive, the FZ160 knocks $500 off the price by subbing in a plain-Jane DVD burner

Price as reviewed $1,999
Processor 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300
Memory 2GB, 667MHz DDR2
Hard drive 160GB 5,400rpm
Chipset Intel 965
Graphics Nvidia GeForce 8400M GT
Operating System Windows Vista Premium
Dimensions (WDH) 14.0 x 10.0 x 1.4 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 15.4 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter [pounds] 5.9/6.9 pounds
Category Mainstream

 Like much of the Sony VAIO laptop family, the FZ180 has a large VAIO logo embossed on the back of the lid, while the sharp, angular case eschews the recent trend toward soft, rounded edges. At only 1.4 inches thick, it’s slimmer than other recent 15-inch media-friendly laptops, such as the HP Pavilion dv6500t and the Dell Inspiron E1505.  Sony’s flat-key keyboard is among our favorite laptop keyboards, but we wish the tiny touchpad mouse buttons were a little more substantial. Keeping with the multimedia theme, there’s a four-way click-wheel above the keyboard that acts as a media-control hub, offering fast-forward, rewind, play, and volume controls.  The 15.4-inch wide-screen LCD display offers a 1,280×800 native resolution, which is standard for a screen this size. Showing off a little corporate synergy, Sony uses the same LCD technology found in its Bravia line of HDTVs, which the company calls Xbrite, promising higher contrast and richer colors. The screen indeed looks excellent, especially when playing back a high-definition Blu-ray movie–although at 1,280×800, it’s not really true 1080p resolution. You’ll need the HDMI output into your big-screen TV to get the full Blu-ray experience.  But the system’s generally excellent design and features are marred by some annoying “extras.” At a time when other vendors like Dell and HP are making conscious efforts to declutter their systems, removing desktop come-ons for Internet access and music subscription services, the VAIO FZ180 is one of the most egregious offenders we’ve seen in recent memory. Not only is the default desktop background image an advertisement for Sony’s Spider-Man 3 movie, the system comes thoughtfully preloaded with full-length copies of both Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. Unfortunately, you’ll have to pony up $8.99 each to unlock the protected film files via an Internet connection, and even then, they’ll only play on the original laptop. Together, the two films take up around 2.6GB of hard drive space. Other conspicuous partner applications include GameTap, Napster, and a Travelocity desktop widget. Clicking the AV Mode button above the keyboard pops up a toolbar with links to a Sony Webcam utility, Intervideo’s WinDVD for playing back Blu-ray discs, and Sony’s much-maligned SonicStage music application (which pales in comparison to iTunes or Windows Media Player).   

Sony VAIO FZ180 Average for mainstream category
Video VGA-out, S-Video, HDMI VGA-out, S-Video
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 3 USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, multiformat memory card reader 4 USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, multiformat memory card reader
Expansion ExpressCard/34 slot PC Card slot
Networking Modem, Ethernet, 802.11 a/g/n Wi-Fi Modem, Ethernet, 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi, optional Bluetooth
Optical drive Blu-ray BD-RE DVD burner

 We were pleased to see the inclusion of 802.11n Wi-Fi technology, and the HDMI port is a no-brainer in a system with a Blu-ray drive. The lack of a Bluetooth antenna was disappointing but won’t be a deal breaker for most.  As a fixed-configuration system, you’re stuck with the default specs of the FZ180, but with a fast Core 2 Duo T7300 CPU running on an 800MHz frontside bus from Intel’s new Centrino Duo lineup along with 2GB of RAM, Nvidia’s new GeForce 8400M GT graphics card, and a decent-sized hard drive, we have no complaints. The similarly configured VAIO FZ160 costs $500 less and leaves out the Blu-ray drive and HDMI output.  The Sony VAIO FZ180 performed in line with other recent multimedia-friendly 15-inch laptops. The HP Pavilion dv6500t and the Gateway E-475M were marginally faster, on account of their T7500 CPU being one step farther up the Core 2 Duo ladder, but in real-world terms, you’re unlikely to see any performance difference, even under heavy multimedia use. We were able to, for example, play a Blu-ray movie, surf the Web, and work on an Excel file at the same time with no slowdown or stuttering.  The FZ180 ran for 2 hours and 2 minutes on our DVD battery drain test, using the included lithium ion battery. Two hours from a 15-inch laptop isn’t especially impressive but falls within acceptable parameters and was better than the HP dv6500t. Our DVD battery drain test is especially grueling, so you can expect longer life from casual Web surfing and office use. Sony includes an industry-standard one-year parts-and-labor warranty with the system, which included on-site service. Upgrading to a three-year plan will cost an extra $199. Support is accessible through a 24-7 toll-free phone line and an online support Web site, which helpfully gives you a custom page of links to manuals and drivers for your specific model.   

Toshiba HD-XA2

April 17, 2007

When the first HD DVD player, Toshiba’s HD-A1, came out last April, the general consensus was it put out excellent-quality images but was crippled by some major operational quirks. Although Toshiba improved the performance of the HD-A1 significantly with a few firmware updates, many prospective buyers were still holding out for a second-generation player that would fix these basic problems. Toshiba’s HD-XA2 is the flagship version of that second-generation HD DVD player, complete with fancy features like HDMI 1.3 and 1080p output. Of course these extras don’t come for free; the XA2 carries a hefty $800 price tag, although we’ve seen it going for about $700 online.

The
Toshiba HD-XA2 is much improved over the HD-A1 in terms of boot times–they’re less than a minute now–and we only had some minor operational quirks. That, combined with its superb image quality, is enough to make the HD-XA2 a worthwhile purchase for early adopters willing to gamble on HD DVD, a format that might not succeed in the long haul. We’re still not ready to give any standalone HD DVD player an unqualified recommendation–there are too many signs that Blu-ray may have an insurmountable lead–but for well-heeled enthusiasts, the XA2 is easily the best HD DVD player currently available. For everyone else, it’s still best to wait until the format war shakes out.  

 

Design
The XA2 has an understated black exterior with the HD DVD logo placed toward the bottom of the face plate and the LED display toward the upper right. It’s about half the size of the giant HD-A1, coming in at 17.2 inches tall by 2.9 inches wide by 13.6 inches deep. To the far left is an illuminated power button that glows blue when turned on, a glow that unfortunately cannot be dimmed. The nice-sized, white LED display, on the other hand, can be dimmed or completely shut off via the remote. To the right of the disc tray is the open/close button, and along the bottom of the unit is a flip-down panel that reveals some important buttons like play and chapter forward/backward–which are handy for when the remote goes missing. Also under the flip-down panel are two USB-like “extension ports,” although Toshiba hasn’t made it clear what they’re used for yet.

 Unfortunately, the remote is largely unchanged from the HD-A1, which means it’s pretty awful in everyday use. The shape is long and slender, which feels fairly good in the hand, but the buttons are all slim, raised rectangles, which makes navigating by feel nearly impossible. On the upside, at least there’s backlighting, which can be activated by holding down the backlight button for a few seconds. A panel toward the bottom slides down to reveal a few extra buttons, most notably a numeric keypad. Considering how widely criticized the A1’s remote was, it’s surprising Toshiba didn’t give the XA2 an update. In the meantime, the best tactic is to replace the XA2’s clicker with a good universal remote.

 

Features
The most important feature of the HD-XA2 is its ability to play HD DVD discs, and it can also handle standard-definition DVDs as well. For audio, it can play standard CDs, but it can’t play either of the niche high-resolution audio formats, DVD-Audio or SACD.

One of the more important features on HD DVD and Blu-ray players is their support, or lack thereof, for the new high-definition soundtrack formats, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD. While Blu-ray players have been hit and miss with their support, Toshiba’s HD DVD players have been consistently strong in this area (the LG BH100 combo drive excluded). The HD-XA2 is no exception, offering onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus, and the ability to play back the “core” soundtrack of DTS soundtracks (“core” DTS soundtracks offer slightly higher quality than standard DTS soundtracks). This means it can decode these soundtracks in the player and then either output the analog signal via the multichannel outputs, or output multichannel linear PCM via the HDMI output. We really like this flexibility because, at the time of this writing, there are no receivers available that can decode these soundtracks themselves. In other words, conversion at the player itself is currently the only way to take advantage of the higher quality sound.

While the HD-XA2 can decode these new soundtracks internally, the fact it has a HDMI 1.3 port means it should also be able to send these high-resolution soundtracks via encoded bit stream to future A/V receivers that will be able to decode them. This is a nice way to future-proof the product, because eventually we’ll see receivers that can decode DTS-HD, and the HD-XA2 will be able to take advantage of the higher sound quality by sending the receiver the encoded bit stream.

HDMI 1.3 also allows for “deep color” and expanded color gamuts, two other features associated with HDMI 1.3 that should improve picture quality (more info). As a device with an HDMI 1.3 output, the HD-XA2 is compatible with these features, but for now they’re strictly marketing hype. To fully take advantage of these features, they need to be present not only in the player, but also in the display and the content itself. To see the benefits of deep color, for example, it has to be present on the HD DVD disc and your HDTV–and as far as we know, no such discs or displays are currently available.

Connectivity is above average for the HD-XA2, with the highlight being the HDMI output, which can handle both high-definition video and audio. The rest of the video connectivity is completed by a component video output, as well as an S-Video output and a composite video output. For audio, there are also both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, plus stereo analog outputs and 5.1 analog multichannel outputs. Rounding the connectivity is an RS-232 port–which is useful for those with home automation systems–and an Ethernet jack that can be used to update the firmware. Being able to update the firmware via Ethernet is a nice convenience, but do note it took more than a half hour for the process to complete.

 

The XA2 supports 1080p output via its HDMI output, although it doesn’t support 1080p output at 24 frames. While some have claimed this feature can reduce judder with compatible displays, we haven’t seen an increase in performance with the 1080p/24 Blu-ray players we’ve tested. Therefore, it’s not a big missing feature as far as we’re concerned.

HD DVD Performance
The picture quality of the

Toshiba HD-XA2 is excellent overall. HD DVDs deliver vastly superior image quality to DVDs, especially when viewed on large TVs. To be clear, we feel that the performance is essentially identical to the HD-A1–which isn’t a knock, since they both put out a stunning image. For example, on Swordfish we could easily make out very fine details of
Hugh Jackman‘s face on closeups, and the colors really popped on our reference display, the Pioneer Pro-FHD1. We also looked at the The Hulk, which is also extremely sharp, and saw very few flaws in the image quality.

We’ve seen some reports (including High-Def Digest’s review) regarding an issue with “video stutter” on certain discs, including MI: III and Serenity. After watching scenes from these movies several times, both on the XA2 and the A1 (the latter supposedly does not suffer), we had difficulty seeing it. We feel that all but the most demanding videophiles will probably not even notice it.

 A big difference between the HD-XA2 and its predecessor is operational speed. The HD-A1 was extremely slow, taking more than a minute to boot up and play a disc. The HD-XA2 definitely improves on this–it only took us 50 seconds total to load the unit and start playing a movie, and it only took 32 seconds to load an HD DVD when the unit was already turned on. That’s not as fast as standard DVD players, but it was fast enough to not be a major issue.

We did, however, experience some operational quirks with the unit. For instance, there were several times when we hit the “Eject” button and the HD-XA2 just shut off. On the other hand, many of the troublesome issues with the HD-A1 have been fixed–we didn’t run into any “HDMI errors” while testing the HD-XA2. One thing we did notice that was surprising, though, was that we felt the HD-A1 was more responsive when fast-forwarding and skipping chapters than the HD-XA2. This was probably more noticeable to us since we use those functions frequently during testing, but anyone who likes to search around movies may be a bit frustrated.

Standard DVD performance


We also checked the XA2’s ability to upscale standard-definition DVDs high-def resolutions–not to be confused with watching actual HD DVD discs. Of course, real HD DVDs deliver noticeably superior image quality to standard DVDs, and no amount of upscaling can change that. That said, we were very impressed with the XA2’s upscaling performance. We started off with Silicon Optix’s
HQV test suite on DVD, and the initial resolution test was excellent, demonstrating the player’s ability to display the full resolution of DVDs. Other tests designed to produce jaggies looked smooth, with a waving flag exhibiting none of the jagged edges we see on lesser players. A 2:3 pull-down processing test was successfully passed, with the XA2 kicking into film mode in about a second. Considering the HD-XA2 uses Silicon Optix’s Reon video-processing chip, we weren’t surprised it faired so well on these tests, but it’s still a good indication of its performance.

 Using Windows DVD Test Annex, we did notice the chroma bug, although it should only show up on poorly authored DVDs. We followed up this test by taking a quick look at the introduction to Star Trek: Insurrection and again confirmed that the HD-XA2 has 2:3 pull-down processing as it smoothly rendered the curved lines of the bridge and boat hulls.

While the HD-XA2 was generally very good at upscaling, it wasn’t perfect. We also took a look at the introduction to Seabiscuit, which often gives players problems. We have to admit we were a bit surprised by this disc–we saw some significant jaggies in the black-and-white photos as the camera panned over them. We looked at the same sequence on the HD-A1 and the XA2 had the edge, although at some points the HD-A1 outperformed the XA2. We also compared it to the Oppo DV-981HD on this same sequence, and the DV-981HD had a definitive edge. So, while the upconversion on the HD-XA2 is very good, we still felt that the DV-981HD was significantly better.

We did notice some annoying playback issues on some homemade DVD copies we have. For example, if we tried to fast-forward the player would just hang and wouldn’t play back even if we tried hitting play. We had to stop the disc and hit play again to get it to work. We didn’t have any problems fast-forwarding or rewinding in standard commercial DVDs, but we did feel like it was less responsive than the HD-A1.

 The XA2 also has decent support for older, non-anamorphic wide-screen DVDs. Some HDTVs, such as the HP LC3760N and the Philips 42PF9831D, do not have aspect-ratio control when fed high-def sources, so it’s nice to have the player handle it. This is not an issue for most high-quality DVDs, which are anamorphic, but non-anamorphic wide-screen discs will look distorted on lesser players. While the HD-XA2 doesn’t give you control over the aspect ratio, it did automatically put our copy of Carlito’s Way in the correct aspect ratio, which left black bars on all four sides of the screen. Unfortunately, there’s no zoom option on the player, so you’ll have to watch a relatively small image unless your TV has a zoom feature. In terms of load time, the HD-XA2 was able to load a DVD in a speedy 16 seconds.  

Samsung announces “Duo HD” Blu-ray/HD DVD player

April 17, 2007

And then there were two: Samsung will join its archrival LG in releasing a combo HD disc player later this year. According to a brief press release, the Korean consumer electronics giant will bow the BD-UP5000 “Duo HD” player before the end of 2007. The release also specified that the player will “fully support both HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc formats and their interactive technologies, HDi and BD-Java.” No pricing or additional feature details on the Samsung BD-UP5000 were made available

The official announcement of the BD-UP5000 confirms rumors that have been percolating for months. Most recently, Home Theater Blog posted this tasty bit, which correctly pegged the model number. The Samsung player would join the LG BH100 as the only current video machine that can play both HD disc formats. However, the BH100 lacks HDi support, so it can’t fully display the interactive menus and features available on the most advanced HD DVD discs–something Samsung is promising to deliver. We’re hoping that Samsung also offers better support for next-gen audio soundtracks, which was the other big drawback of the BH100.  It could be months before we get a fuller picture of the BD-UP5000–including a complete feature list, a specific release date, and a price. In the meantime, the announcement alone is likely to depress the already anemic sales of Blu-ray and HD DVD movies and players. After all, with the promise of a full-service universal player in the near future, why rush to pay $330-$1,300 for a device that only plays one format? Samsung itself might want to answer that question: the company’s Blu-ray-only BD-P1200 (pictured) is just hitting stores now–for $800.