When we looked at last year's TH-L1 from JVC, we were really impressed at the number of connectivity options the compact 5.1-channel home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) packed in its tiny chassis. While the device didn't come with a built-in DVD player, it still was able to switch between two 1080p-capable HDMI ports. Since then, JVC has released a sibling product, the TH-F3. The TH-F3 utilizes a 2.1 configuration--two speakers and a subwoofer--and includes a built-in DVD player to boot. Unfortunately, the F3 eliminates much of the flexibility of its predecessor, as it does not allow you to hook up any external video devices you may have--just two audio-only connections (one analog, one digital). The package does, however, come with an onboard USB port and an external iPod dock.
The system's main "head unit"--the amplifier/receiver that also houses the DVD player--seems a bit larger than it needs to be: it's an 11-inch square that's 3 inches high. It's covered in a black glossy finish with ridged sides. The front of receiver also boasts a blue light that's annoyingly bright--thankfully, it can be turned off using the dimmer switch. You can only select sources via the front display--all directional functionality (such as DVD navigation) must be done with the included remote control.
The two front speakers are what JVC describes as anisotropic diaphragm cone speakers. Basically, the speakers have two sets of wires feeding into them, which are meant to supply the virtual surround sound. The argument can be made that this makes the package a 4.1 system, but as you'll read below, we did not find the effect to be very impressive.
The remote control is a bit complex considering the limited amount of features the TH-F3 offers. There's also a manual shift switch on the right side of the remote that allows buttons to double their functionality.
The JVC TH-F3 can be used to play DVDs and CDs, AM/FM radio, an iPod, and a variety of digital media (photos, music, and videos burned to discs or pulled off of a USB flash drive). Standard Dolby Digital and DTS surround decoding is supported, as is Dolby Pro Logic II (for creating a surround-like effect from a stereo source). However, the JVC TH-F3 is fairly lean when it comes to offering inputs for external AV sources. Aside from the iPod and USB options, it can toggle between just two external audio devices--one digital (an optical SPDIF connector), one analog (standard red/white RCA jacks). That means you could, for instance, hook up a cable/satellite box and a game console--but that's it. All video-switching capabilities would have to be handled by the TV.
The DVD player offers the standard upconverting duties to 720p, 1080i, or 1080p resolutions via HDMI. It did the job, but with most of today's TVs already delivering satisfactory upscaling, you may want to leave it set at 480p. For TVs without HDMI, component and composite outputs are also available (no S-Video). The disc player also handles the increasingly obscure DVD-Audio format.