It's telling that despite all the flat-screen TVs we've reviewed here at CNET.co.uk, ais still our top-rated display. In this transitional period before high definition arrives (a period that will last for several years), there's no doubting that traditional television and DVD sources don't look as good on an HDTV as they do on a normal old CRT. Luckily, there are some halfway-point solutions that help fill the gap between low resolution DVD and high-definition TV panels -- and Samsung is the first mainstream company to release an 'upscaling' DVD player.
When it first launched, the DVD-HD850 sold out everywhere, and stocks have been in short supply ever since. Flat screens may finally be approaching that magic price point of £1,000 for a 32-inch set, but that's still a big chunk of change. If the purchase of a flat-screen TV has left your pockets a little draughty, the Samsung DVD-850 could be your best-value purchase of the year. It has HDMI video out -- the very latest digital video format -- plus it supports DivX video and wraps it all up in a slinky and easy-to-use package.
The Samsung DVD-HD850 is available for around £90, but you'd think it was double that from the design. It's very classy and sits along Samsung's with inspired and clean design on a budget. The main unit is thin, but the brushed silver fascia is the most impressive part of the construction, with a gorgeous blue backlit LCD screen in the centre. The only thing it could have done with is a multimedia card reader, but that might have spoiled the clean design.
Connectivity-wise, the back panel looks basic, but it includes a number of very modern additions. Let's start with the star attraction -- the HDMI output may be tiny, but it is the very best video connection available to home users. It can carry a digital audio and video signal down one thin wire, which is much more attractive in this miniature-obsessed age than the Scarts of old. HDMI's technological specification preserves the signal when it's sent through to your display and AV amplifier, meaning the only real degradation occurs when it's played through your speakers or television. Essentially, you're giving your system the very best starting point. People who buy vinyl and claim to be analogue junkies may disagree, but if your TV is digital then it's the sensible option. You also get an HDMI connector cable included in the package -- generous, as they tend to be expensive when bought separately.
Sensibly, Samsung has not neglected CRT owners -- after all, they might be buying the DVD-850 specifically so they don't have to change DVD players when they upgrade to a flat screen. In the meantime, they can make use of the RGB Scart, composite or S-video outputs, just like the majority of standard DVD players on the market. There are also two sets of digital audio outputs, one coaxial and one digital. No matter what setup you have at home, there's no doubt that the DVD-HD850 will fit into it.
The major selling point of the DVD-HD850 will only really appeal to flat-screen owners, so we'll assume that you're one of them for the purposes of the review. Whether you're using the component outputs or the HDMI socket, this DVD player can 'upscale' video from its lowly DVD video resolution (480 lines for NTSC and 576 lines for PAL) to that of your high-definition display. Most current plasmas, LCDs and projectors have a resolution of 1,280x768 pixels, so they're perfect for the 720p mode, but ultra-modern (and particularly expensive) TVs from Sony and Phillips have begun to offer full 1080i resolution. Either way, both formats are supported by the Samsung, which is a very impressive feat for such a cheap player.
Video resolution issues can be a perplexing area even for reviewers, so don't be confused -- the player won't magically turn your DVD films into high definition. What it will do is process the video stream and convert it into a higher resolution, effectively filling in the gaps before the signal is sent to your display. This means that standard DVDs look more natural, with less smeared detail and a greater overall sharpness. True HD movies will look far better, but that isn't Samsung's job -- the DVD-HD850 will simply make all your existing movies look more presentable on a digital display.
If your TV isn't a flat screen, or it belongs to the group that aren't high-definition compatible, then you might still find some use in the basic progressive-scan functions. Using the component video outputs, the Samsung will output DVD movies in their native resolution, but via progressive scan. Normally over lower-quality connections, video is interlaced, which means that odd and even lines of video are sent at intervals, which can result in a flickery image. Progressive scan sends the odd and even lines together, meaning the picture is cleaned up considerably as well as being much smoother. Another good reason to make the upgrade.
DivX playback is a nice little bonus on the DVD-HD850, as it was missing from the higher-end Denon DVD-2910. DivX is a compression technology that's commonly used for video transferred across the Internet. Unofficially, the attraction will be for users who download TV shows that have been broadcast in America before they are in the UK, but the format is picking up support from other Web sites and the DivX Web site itself has plenty of legal content that can be downloaded for free. You can also burn your JPEG pictures and MP3/WMA music to CD and DVD for direct playback, and the drive supports both DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW formats. In fact, it will even play VCDs and SVCDs, but the inherent quality of these formats is very low, so they are disappointing for those of us who are growing increasingly tired of standard DVDs after sampling so much hi-def.
Bear in mind that the next model up in Samsung's range, the DVD-HD950, will also play back DVD-A and SACD discs. This makes it a high-definition player on both video and audio fronts. We found the player was available for around £40 more than the 850, so it might be worth the upgrade if you're serious about your hi-fi. Both models are apparently easy to 'remote hack' to make them multi-region, but this will require some online research.
Compared to the other upscaling players we've had in for review, the DVD-HD850 fared very well. Up against the -- a cheap player whose main selling point was wireless networking -- the difference was substantial. Samsung's player had much better colour reproduction over component, and using HDMI made an even more noticeable improvement in fine detail areas.
Predictibly, it loses out slightly to the high-end prowess of Denon's mighty DVD-2910 when it comes to contrast reproduction. We've seen the car chases in Ronin more times than we care to recall and Samsung's player didn't pull out the finer shadow detail. Then again, Denon's player is nearly three times more expensive than Samsung's. The differences that are likely to affect everyday viewing are minimal, meaning the Samsung is much better value.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide