I recently got the chance to spend about three hours with Samsung's BD-P1000, the first set-top Blu-ray player to hit the market, at the company's New Jersey HQ a few days before the product's official U.S. launch on June 25. During that too-brief time, I took a few preliminary observations (and some blurry photos), so here they are.
Details in the Blu-ray Memento looked spectacular across the board. For example, I could make out the fine wrinkles between Leonard's (Guy Pierce) thumb and index finger; the telephone wires above the old industrial lot where he commits his crime; the texture in the bottom of the Polaroids he uses to piece together his life; and the license plate of Leonard's Jaguar after he parks at the hotel, where even "The Silver State" motto was visible in small print below the number.
Although the footage of watches looked crystal clear, with details as fine as those of any 1080p demo I've ever seen, it wasn't perfect. During one zoom-out from a watch face that happened to have numerous fine concentric circles, I saw the lines slowly disintegrate into a crosshatch mess as they reached the limits of the disc's--or perhaps the TV's--resolution. I also couldn't help but notice some video noise in Memento and in other material, which appeared as wispy motes mainly visible in backgrounds. Of course, such noise is present in nearly all digital video, and in this case, it was much less noticeable than on the DVD, for example.
Toward the beginning of the film for example, when Leonard looks at his Remember Sammy Jankis tattoo after washing his hands, I could clearly read the writing in the Blu-ray version; on the DVD, it looked fairly blurry. When he emerges from the bathroom, there's a shot of the interior of the cafe with decent depth of field. The DVD version appeared markedly softer along the edges of the chairs and booths; the Blu-ray version's details were crisp and sharp.
The story was the same in every scene I compared, and after flipping back and forth for a while, I became used to the Blu-ray's superior picture, which made the DVD look that much worse. Of course, the differences were more obvious on the large, 1080p HDTV, and I was paying close attention from a close seating distance of about 7 feet. Change any of these factors, and the difference between DVD and Blu-ray will narrow.
Using the same two players hooked up in the manner described above, I put a Memento Blu-ray disc in each and set one to 1080i mode and the other to 1080p. I chose one of the few scenes with a lot of motion--Leonard's final drive back from the vacant lot to the tattoo parlor--where interlaced artifacts from 1080i, such as jagged or moving lines, should be more visible. Bouncing back and forth between the 1080i and 1080p versions, I could see no differences whatsoever. From the white lines dividing the street to the buildings and the parked cars alongside the road flashing by, to close-ups of Leonard and his wife (Jorja Fox), the two looked identical. I can imagine material that might show more of a difference, such as sporting events with lots of camera movement, but it wasn't there in the scene I watched.
- Load times aren't much faster. From a standby state, it took 24 seconds from the time I pressed Open/Close until the disc drawer actually opened to accept a disc. After I inserted Memento, it took 58 seconds from the time I closed the drawer for the disc's menu to appear. During much of that time, an all-too-familiar Windows or Linux-style hourglass occupied the screen, along with Samsung's load screen; happily, there was no unskippable promotional stuff on the disc. We timed the Toshiba at 90 seconds to load most discs after being turned on, but that was before a firmware upgrade that reportedly cuts load times down quite a bit.
- Responses were livelier. While the Toshiba occasionally wouldn't respond to commands or would take a long time to provide feedback that I'd issued one, the Samsung's responses were as quick as I expect from consumer electronics devices.
- HDMI seemed more stable. Take this with a healthy helping of salt since I had only three hours with the unit, but even with the complex HDMI setup described above and my constant unplugging and replugging of the HDMI cables, the Samsung, unlike the Toshiba, never displayed an error message or needed to be restarted. Again, Toshiba's firmware upgrade may have addressed some of those problems.
- I liked the Samsung's design better. Its cabinet is smaller (16.9 by 3.1 by 12.8 inches) than the Toshiba's (17.7 by 4.3 by 13.4) and--although this is purely personal taste--more attractive to my eye, with a higher-tech, less boxy look. I preferred Samsung's medium-size remote, and while I did feel cheated by the lack of illumination and found the closely spaced transport keys easy to confuse, it's much easier to use than Toshiba's clicker.
- Video quality? It's just too early to tell, and both decks produce beautiful pictures. Ideally, I would want to compare the same movie released to both HD-DVD and Blu-ray, and that's just not going to happen anytime soon. Failing that, I could talk about one title vs. another, the fact that Blu-ray uses MPEG-2 encoding for initial releases versus HD-DVD's MPEG-4, the relative capacities of the two formats, and so on, but that's all pure speculation, and ultimately what matters most is the way the individual titles are authored.
That's it for the initial tests. We should receive a review sample of the BD-P1000 next week, soon after which we'll post a full review. We intend to look at other displays, connections, and, most importantly, Blu-ray movies. While I love the film, Memento isn't the best choice for video-quality evaluation; it's half black-and-white, and it features too many close-ups and not enough action. Thankfully, the June 20 releases also include a couple titles that made reference-quality DVDs, namely The Fifth Element and House of Flying Daggers.
I'll reserve value judgments and a rating for the final review. It's worth remembering that this player costs about $1,000 in stores and online, twice as much as the Toshiba. At those prices, most of us will want to wait anyway.