Continuing the 2003 trend of major-brand progressive-scan DVD players priced at less than $100, Samsung's budget DVD-P231 can tempt even those who haven't yet bought an HDTV. It competes with the likes of Panasonic's DVD-S35S and Toshiba's SD3900, and it includes a versatile aspect-ratio control that the others lack. While we were underwhelmed by this player's video processing, people on a budget with smaller 4:3 TVs may find it appealing. The charcoal-gray DVD-P231 looks about as distinctive as a cinder block. Its semislim profile matches that of most inexpensive DVD decks, measuring 2.5 inches tall and 9.4 inches deep. Construction seemed adequate, but the drawer did make a relatively loud noise when opening and closing. Along with the drawer and an uninformative blue-lit display, the modest front panel sprouts a few transport buttons, a power button, and an EZ View button for aspect-ratio control (see Features). It's impossible to access the menu without the remote control.
Samsung's medium-sized remote looks cooler than those of many entry-level versions, and it has a good heft and some unique button shapes to help your thumb find its way in the dark. The prominent cursor control has a nice feel, and we liked the little notch on the underside--a perfect place for a right index finger. Too much space is given to the 10-second forward and reverse-skip buttons, but that's a minor quibble.
Unlike most DVD players we've seen, the DVD-P231 doesn't have a separate setup menu or key for items such as TV shape and digital-audio-output mode. Instead, a Settings tab within the main menu system contains setup options. Progressive-scan video playback is the biggest draw here, although naturally you'll need a digital TV to take advantage of it. A close second is the DVD-P231's aspect-ratio control--a real boon for people who dislike letterbox bars or own the kinds of wide-screen HDTVs that cannot resize progressive-scan sources.
The versatile EZ View Letterbox Eliminator--Samsung's wacky name for the aspect-ratio control--works differently, depending on whether you have a 4:3 or a 16:9 television and whether the disc is anamorphic Enhanced For Widescreen. If you're watching a normal 4:3 set, you have four choices, including two that remove the letterbox bars by zooming into or vertically stretching the picture. With wide-screen 16:9 sets, you can display 4:3 and nonanamorphic letterbox discs correctly, as well as stretch and/or zoom in to eliminate the bars from 2.25:1 discs. Note that zooming or stretching always reduces picture quality.
The DVD-P231 can handle MP3, Windows Media Audio (WMA), and JPEG files stored on CD-Rs. You can view JPEGs as a slide show, zoom in on them, and rotate them onscreen.
A switch on the back panel is the only way to choose between the different video outputs. When it's in the Progressive position, the S-Video and standard video outputs are disabled. This might be annoying in some setups, but usually it's not a big deal. The DVD-P231 adds a coaxial digital output and stereo audio jacks to the selection of component-video, S-Video, and composite-video outputs. The DVD-P231 played most of our DVD-Rs but not our DVD-RWs, and it had no trouble playing DVD+Rs and DVD+RWs. All of our MP3 CDs worked fine, and the DVD-P231 was able to play tracks at random, but the onscreen display of MP3 files could've been better. Navigating the file tree wasn't intuitive, and only eight characters were displayed for each filename.
JPEG picture playback worked fairly well, although one of our discs wouldn't load. Our 200K test images from a 1.3-megapixel camera displayed in less than a second each. The interface is pretty slick, but unfortunately there's no file tree, so you can't jump to different folders easily--a real problem when you have hundreds of pictures on one disc.
In our routine video tests, the DVD-P231 didn't fare very well. We didn't find any evidence of proper 3:2 pull-down detection when viewing the opening of Star Trek: Insurrection, which was plagued by unsubtle moving lines. The DVD-P231's video de-interlacing was also below average, leading to stair-step patterns in moving images. These scenes looked much cleaner on the Panasonic DVD-S35S.
We looked at The Transporter next to see how these issues manifested in the real world of oil-soaked fights and 100kph car chases on the boardwalk. After the initial chase, the camera moves over a parked car, and the racing stripe grew obvious jagged edges against the white paint.
When we switched the player to 4:3 output, the results were a little better than we expected. A pan over the protagonist's clifftop villa takes in a railing and some Spanish tile roofing, both of which looked relatively solid. When we viewed the same scene using the DVD-S35S in 4:3 mode, individual rails winked in and out of existence, and the tiles undulated. The Samsung does a fairly good job of converting anamorphic Enhanced For Widescreen discs for display on standard, nonwide-screen TVs.