The DVD-HD960's styling is highly derivative of Samsung's BD-P1000 Blu-ray player, which is a good thing. The top half of the front panel is glossy black, with an LED display to the right of the disc tray. Further to the right is a large black circle with front panel controls such as play, stop, and chapter forward/backward skip, which can also scan forward/backward if you hold them down. The bottom half of the player is silver and slopes inward, being distinguished by the power button on the far left with a surrounding blue glow. Home theater enthusiasts will bemoan that the blue light can't be turned off, but we think most others will dig the high-tech look.
The included remote is also well-designed. Although a lot of smallish buttons are on the remote, there's enough differentiation that it's easy to navigate. There's a good balance of functions on the remote. All of the functions we found ourselves wanting to use frequently--such as EZ View, instant replay, HDMI select--were on the remote, while more obscure picture setting were relegated to menu options. The menus themselves didn't look as slick as on some other players we've used--and they were a little sluggish--but it shouldn't be bothersome unless you plan on fiddling with the picture controls frequently.
The DVD-HD960 has a few extra options but not quite as many as we've seen on other players. Its main extra is the ability to upconvert to 1080p over HDMI--which is nice, but make sure your TV is capable of accepting a 1080p signal on its HDMI input if this is an important feature for you. There's also DivX support, so you can play CDs and DVDs with DivX files on them. What's missing is support for high-resolution audio formats such as SACD and DVD-Audio. (While there's not much current support for these formats, many home theater enthusiasts have accumulated libraries of SACDs and/or DVD-A discs, and an upscaling player that can play them is an attractive upgrade while Blu-ray and HD-DVD are still in their infancy.) The DVD-HD960 lacks a media card reader and a USB input. High-resolution audio support, a media card reader and a USB input can be found on the similarly priced Oppo DV-970HD.
We loved the EZ View button on the remote that let us cycle through three different aspect ratios. This was particularly helpful on nonanamorphic wide-screen DVDs, as the Screen Fit mode let us properly fill the screen while maintaining the correct aspect ratio, even when switched to HD outputs. That's a big bonus to those who have HDTVs that lack aspect ratio control on HD sources. While it's not quite as flexible as on the Oppo, it is considerably easier to operate since you just need to hit the EZ View button a few times.
The jack pack on the DVD-HD960 is highlighted by its HDMI output, which is able to upconvert DVDs to 720p, 1080i and 1080p resolutions. While almost all recent HDTVs can do this upconversion on their own, it's possible that the picture quality can benefit if the upconversion processing in the DVD player is superior to the processing in your TV. As we mentioned, this effect on image quality is very dependent on the display used, so it's worthwhile to try one of these units on your TV before buying. The rest of the connectivity suite is made up of the component-video output, standard A/V output with S-Video, and both digital and optical digital audio outputs.
For the most part, the DVD-HD960 performs admirably. We ran the DVD-HD960 through the Silicon Optix's HQV test disc, and it passed most tests easily in every resolution, although 480p seemed a little worse than the others overall. Resolution was sharp in every resolution but 480p, and it was mostly jaggy-free on test patterns with a rotating line and three shifting lines. It also demonstrated fine 2:3 pull-down processing on the race car test, kicking in about a half-second after the car starts to zoom by. We put it head-to-head with the Oppo DV-970HD and watched several scenes from Serenity. It was very difficult to spot any big differences between the two players, although we'd give the nod to the DVD-HD960 as it seemed to do a better job of noise reduction.
Although performance was overall pretty good, there is a significant issue that videophiles should be aware of: ghosting, which looks like trailing colors or smudging and is particularly apparent on high-contrast scenes with a lot of motion. We initially discovered this behavior while checking for the chroma bug error on the Windows DVD Test Annex. While it passed the chroma bug test, the animated fish left trails of color as they moved across the screen. While many of the nitpicks we have over video performance are subtle, the ghosting was obvious enough in this scene that we think most people would notice it.
The ghosting issue manifested itself in normal program material as well, although it was much less obvious than with the animated fish. In Star Trek: Insurrection, we could see trails at the end of one of the spaceships as it curved across the screen. We also noticed it in Toy Story, where a green toy army man's head streaked across the background. The Oppo exhibited no ghosting during these scenes. To be fair, we had to look pretty hard to find the ghosting error in most program material, and we didn't notice the ghosting in Serenity, despite looking hard at numerous scenes. That's why we still rate the Samsung's performance very good overall.
We also tested to see if 1080p upconversion made a big difference compared to the more common 1080i upconversion. After looking at several detailed scenes from Serenity, we felt the difference was almost imperceptible on the 1080p 46-inch Sharp LC-46D62U. While the difference may be more noticeable on very large TVs, most people might want to look at the Samsung DVD-HD860M, which is a slightly cheaper unit that does not offer 1080p.
Aside from image quality, we did run into a few operational quirks. Using our Gefen 2x8 HDMI distribution amplifier, we found that occasionally when we switched away from the DVD-HD960, it would fail to output a picture when we flipped back--requiring us to restart the unit. However, this might not have much of a real-world effect since even those with HDMI switching receivers probably won't be switching to another device frequently during DVD playback. On a more practical note, the load times were a little sluggish--about eight seconds slower than for the Oppo DV-970HD.