We really liked last year's Panasonic DVD-RP62, so we were excited to check out its successor for 2003, the DVD-S35K. It's one of the first progressive-scan players with a list price of less than $100. That's only a few dollars more than name-brand nonprogressive players, so even shoppers who don't own compatible digital TVs may want to consider a DVD-S35K for the future. That budget pricing, plus great MP3 functionality and the ability to display JPEG files, makes this the new entry-level progressive-scan deck to beat. Now that most inexpensive DVD players have thin cases, the 2.5-inch-tall DVD-S35K doesn't really earn the badge ultraslim. It seems solid enough, though; the drawer isn't too noisy, and the disc spins quietly during play. The plain black face won't raise many eyebrows; owners of silver TVs may want to go for the otherwise identical DVD-S35S. The main Play, Stop, and Search buttons join Open and a couple of other keys on the front, but there's no way to access the menu when you lose the remote. A dial to the left is for switching between the different zoom modes. We prefer the dial on last year's DVD-RP62, which worked for forward and reverse searches.
An informative blue display can be set to dim after 5 seconds of play, but you can't turn it off completely. The setup menus are straightforward, and a Quick Setup option is included for those who want to avoid the more advanced process.
The remote is the same generic-looking, many-buttoned affair included with last year's DVD-RP62. It gets the job done, and you can differentiate the main keys by feel, but there's no illumination. We also would have liked better placement of the zoom control as well as a couple of other useful keys. Aside from progressive-scan playback, which requires a digital television to work, the DVD-S35K's main claim to fame is its ability to play CDs filled with JPEG, MP3, or WMA files.
You can navigate a disc of both digital stills and music using a familiar Windows-like file tree. MP3 functionality is impressive; a big menu displays filenames up to 32 characters long, and the deck can randomly play an entire disc of MP3 tracks. The search function will comb a disc for whatever filename you enter. The unit's ability to play JPEG stills is among the best we've seen. It defaults to a slide show that you can adjust to display each picture for 1 to 30 seconds. Shots take only 2 to 3 seconds each to load, and MP3 and JPEG discs themselves take 10 to 30 seconds to load.
The DVD-S35K doesn't have aspect-ratio control; players that do (such as the JVC XV-S502SL) will better serve wide-screen sets that can't resize progressive-scan material, especially nonanamorphic and full-screen 4:3 video. The DVD-S35K's zoom function includes three levels of magnification for 16:9 TVs and five for 4:3 sets. It's designed to help viewers eliminate letterbox bars, but the trade-off is that zooming cuts the left and right edges off the picture and reduces image quality.
A couple of other bonuses are on hand, such as very useful subtitle brightness and position adjustments. Three picture presets are provided, along with a 6-second Quick Replay and a feature that remembers your custom resume points for up to five discs.
On the back panel, you'll find the now standard selection of jacks, including composite, S-Video, and component-video outputs; a stereo analog-audio output; and an optical digital jack. To switch the component-video output between interlaced and progressive-scan mode, you must stop the disc and delve into the menu system. In our tests, the DVD-S35K proved compatible with a wider range of test discs than any other player we've seen to date. We were pretty surprised when it played one of the more problematic DVD-RWs we have. It also plowed through every other disc in our library, including DVD-Rs, DVD+Rs, DVD+RWs, DVD-RAMs, and various discs filled with JPEG and MP3 files.
We moved on to the trusty Video Essentials test disc to evaluate the unit's progressive-scan playback, and we came away generally impressed. Resolution measured out to the full extent of the DVD format, and 3:2 pull-down worked well to eliminate interlaced artifacts. The one problem came when we looked at the waving American flag to test video de-interlacing ability. The DVD-S35K didn't perform this feat quite as well as the older DVD-RP62, and we saw slight stair-stepping patterns along the flag's edges.
The DVD of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial provided more evidence of the DVD-S35K's video capability. The scene in which Elliott and the kids confront E.T. in the closet looked good, and there was lots of three-dimensional detail on the alien's skin as it stretches toward the light. The stuffed animals' fur had plenty of realistic depth. A view out over the town was rendered cleanly, with no movement in the rooftops.
Like most players we've seen, the DVD-S35K didn't do the best job converting anamorphic or Enhanced For Widescreen DVDs for display on normal televisions. A pan over some haystacks revealed subtle movement artifacts and a crawling effect. But this won't be a problem if you're watching on a wide-screen TV or a 4:3 TV with vertical compression (a.k.a. 16:9 mode on some sets and 16:9 Enhanced mode on Sony sets), and the trouble is much less visible on smaller TVs.