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Blu-ray is a new high-capacity optic disc format designed for storage of high-definition video and data. Confusing matters, it is in currently fighting it out with an alternative (and incompatible) high-definition format called HD DVD -- remember the VHS and Betamax battle in the late 70s and early 80s? For more information on the two formats, including the pros and cons of each, take a look at our Blu-ray vs. HD DVD feature. While it is too early for anyone to predict the successor to DVD, we can still check out the merits of Samsung's first foray into high-definition players.
In line with other home theatre gear in Samsung's 2006 catalogue, the BD-P1000 comes in a glossy black case, offset with brushed aluminium accents on the front panel. It's about the size of a standard DVD player, but features elements backlit in royal blue such as the BD logo, which adds a sophisticated look while presumably reinforcing the Blu-ray brand.
Following this theme, Blu-ray Discs will also ship in blue cases. Spokespeople from movie studios Universal, Paramount Studios and Warner Bros recently told us that HD DVDs will be brought out in red cases; hopefully the distinction between the two incompatible formats will be clear for consumers in retail stores, as you won't be able to play a HD DVD in a Blu-ray Disc player, and vice versa. With the release of a hybrid Blu-ray and HD DVD player looking unlikely in the near future, early adopters for now will be forced to pick a side and hope that it triumphs in the long run.
An angular flip down panel on the front of the BD-P1000 reveals an integrated 10-in-2 memory card reader for viewing photos on your TV. Compact Flash, SD and Memory Stick PRO are some of the popular cards supported, but you'll need an adaptor for others such as Mini SD and Memory Stick Duo. Basic playback controls are also on the front panel, next to a button which cycles video output through the HDMI, component or composite/S-video connections.
The bundled remote control is nice and thin, fits comfortably in your hand, but we were left wanting more on such a high-priced player. It isn't the easiest remote to use as some of the regularly used buttons like fast-forward and rewind are very small, and it gets even trickier at night as the remote isn't backlit -- there are, however, four glow-in-the-dark buttons for adjusting volume and changing channels on compatible televisions.
The most appealing feature of the BD-P1000 for home entertainment enthusiasts is that it plays back high-resolution video at up to 1920 by 1080 pixels with progressive scanning -- currently the highest video quality available in the industry and up to five times the resolution of current DVDs. While you can hook up the BD-P1000 to almost any TV to play DVDs, you'll need a HD-ready set that can handle 720p, 1080i or 1080p signals for Blu-ray Discs. Ideally you would want a display that's capable of showing 1080 horizontal lines onscreen simultaneously to get the most out of the new high-definition format. There's only a handful of 1080p models available Down Under so far: Samsung's F7 Series, the Sony KDL-46X2000, Panasonic Viera TH-65PV600A and the Pioneer PDP-5000EX.
While the BD-P1000's component connection supports playback at 720p or 1080i, you need to use HDMI for 1080p. The composite and S-video connections don't support Blu-ray Disc playback at all and can only output DVDs at their native 576i or 480i resolution. For testing, we paired the BD-P1000 up with the AU$5,499 40-inch Samsung F7 Series LCD using the HDMI cable provided with the player.
Samsung BD-P1000 supports a range of formats include 25GB and 50GB Blu-ray Discs, DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, DVD-R, CD-RW, CD-RW, Audio CD, MP3 and JPEG discs. It is also backwards compatible with regular DVD movies and uses upscaling technology to output them at 1080p -- more on this in the performance section below. Blu-ray Discs feature a new region coding system, with Australia falling into Region B, a zone we share with Europe, the Middle East, Africa and New Zealand -- so some international purchases from places like Amazon.co.uk should be fine. For regular DVDs, the BD-P1000 is locked to Region 4. Unfortunately, burned Blu-ray Discs (BD-R and BD-RE) cannot be played.
The other half of the home cinema experience is sound quality. While HDMI is designed to carry both the audio and video signal in the one cable, there are seperate coaxial and optical digital outputs, as well as 5.1-channel and stereo analog connections. The BD-P1000 supports new mutichannel surround sound formats Dolby Digital Plus and lossless DTS HD, which offer improved fidelity.
A handy feature implemented on the BD-P1000 -- and most likely all Blu-ray players we'll see -- is the interactive pop-up menu accessible via the remote, which uses Java to superimpose the special features, scene selections and language options onscreen during playback of a movie, allowing you to change subtitles on-the-fly and skip ahead to certain points in the title with the assistance of thumbnail images.
As the Blu-ray Disc format is in its infancy, there isn't very much content available at the moment. Samsung bundled two discs with our review unit: action flick S.W.A.T and a music video clip compilation Legends of Jazz: Showcase. While we had some issues with the black levels during dark scenes in S.W.A.T, we think it was more of an issue with the Samsung LCD we tested the BD-P1000 with rather than the player itself. Picture sharpness, however, lives up to its reputation as being far superior to DVD. During playback of a Blu-ray instore demo disc we managed to get our hands on, we were blown away with the clarity and sharpness that the format provides. In particular, the animated feature Chicken Little looked nothing short of spectacular, with vibrant colours and detail appearing in places that simply looked grainy and blurred on DVD in comparison.
We were also impressed with the BD-P1000's ability to upscale our existing DVD collection -- while the quality wasn't nearly as good as the Blu-ray discs we tested, DVD content appeared less blocky and jagged on the 1080p Samsung TV. There also seemed to be finer detail to elements such as water reflections, hair texture and detail on people's faces, but again, these types of images on Blu-ray content was far more stiking.
Photos stored on memory cards look magnificent output through the BD-1000 to high-definition TV, with incredible detail shown when set to 1080p. It's a good thing that they look so good, as you need to be mesmerized to withstand the load time between shots -- we found it took around 20 seconds to skip between 10-megapixel photos and about 10 seconds to display 5-megapixel images, even with the slideshow speed set to its fastest mode.
Although those passionate about high-definition probably won't be deterred by a format war or a lack of Blu-ray titles, we'd recommend waiting until it becomes a little more clear which format is going to be widely adopted so you're not stuck with an expensive player that could be obsolete in a couple of years. An additional cost to factor in is the price of an HD television with HDMI if you want to get the most out of this $1,599 player. Mass production of Blu-ray players is expected next year, which should see the asking price drop significantly. Stay tuned to CNET.com.au as we'll soon be comparing Toshiba's rival HD DVD players, the HD-EX and HD-EX1, to see how they stack up against the Samsung BD-P1000.