I've been meaning to write this column for a while, but hadn't been able to pull the trigger until a couple of comments related to HD DVD's demise--and the apparent rise of upconverting DVD players--raised my ire. Perhaps you've noticed that a lot of HD DVD owners have been commenting on how they don't regret their purchases because once the studios soon stop releasing HD DVDs, they'll be left with a good upconverting DVD player that didn't cost them too much. Also, in exiting the format war, Toshiba's chief executive, Atsutoshi Nishida, suggested that Toshiba would combat Blu-ray by selling upconverting DVD players that cost less than Blu-ray players and are just as good.
The Oppo DV-983H
To call Toshiba's entry-level HD DVD players (the ones that could be bought for $99 or less at the end of HD DVD's run) "good" is an exaggeration. In our tests, we found them to be mostly average in terms of their upconverting capabilities (the high-end Toshiba HD-XA2, however, is very good). As far as Mr. Nishida's suggestion goes, while I've never been one to oversell the picture quality of Blu-ray or HD DVD, I've also never seen an upconverting DVD player that could match the image quality of a high-definition disc player, particularly when you're outputting to a larger TV.
Clearly, when it comes to upconverting DVD players, there's plenty of misinformation floating around. With that in mind, I thought it'd be a good idea to sort through some of frequently asked questions I've gotten over the last couple of years as these types of players have gone from being high-end enthusiast products to mainstream players.
1. Just what does an upconverting player do?
The elevator pitch behind upconverting (or upscaling) DVD players is that they can make your standard-definition DVDs look like they're in HD--or at least look more HD-like. However, as any critical consumer knows, there's often a big gap between marketing lingo and reality, especially when you're talking about using a microchip (or two) and fancy software algorithms to magically turn one thing into something it isn't.
An upconverting DVD player is designed to do two things well to help enhance picture quality: Deinterlace the incoming source (the DVD) and scale the image "up" to the higher resolution of the TV.
Explaining how deinterlacing works in a complicated affair, but for the sake of simplicity, let's just say that an interlaced image (the i in 480i or 1080i stands for interlaced) is made up of odd and even lines of pixels that are alternately scanned or painted onto your television screen. The problem is, most of today's TVs--including LCD and plasma--are progressive-scan displays, so things can get screwed up in the exchange from DVD player to TV; those screw-ups are exhibited as little tears in the image (jagged edges or jaggies) and dancing pixels. A good upconverting DVD player properly processes those images and creates a smoother picture that can look sharper on your TV.
2. Can an upconverting DVD player really make a DVD movie look like a Blu-ray movie?
No. Compare a DVD to a Blu-ray movie on a TV that's 32 inches or smaller and the differences aren't huge. However, it's pretty easy to tell the two apart when you're watching on a larger set.
The basic issue is that the maximum resolution of DVD is 720x480 while Blu-ray is 1,920x1,080. The Blu-ray image is much larger and made up of more information than the DVD image, which is one reason your typical full-length high-definition movie just doesn't fit on a DVD disc and requires at least double or triple the storage space (some space is taken up by the audio).
I sometimes tell people it's similar to megapixels on a camera. If you take a picture that was shot on camera with a low-megapixel count (3 or 4 megapixels) and try to blow up (aka scale) the image to print out at 8x10 or larger, the resulting print can look soft or even fuzzy, no matter what sharpening tools you're using in Photoshop. (In fact, sometimes the sharpeners make the image look worse.)
We recently set up the highly rated Samsung PN50A550 50-inch plasma next to a Panasonic TH-46PZ80U 46-inch plasma and our Editors' Choice Pioneer PDP-5080HD 50-inch plasma. We hooked up a top-notch $400 Oppo DV-983H upconverting DVD player to the Samsung and had our PlayStation 3 Blu-ray player outputting video to the other two sets. For the test, we used the DVD and Blu-ray versions of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl and synced them on the TVs so they were virtually on the same frame.
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While the DVD version looked great for a DVD, it didn't measure up to the Blu-ray version. The Blu-ray exhibited significantly more detail and better color-saturation. In close-ups of character's faces, the differences in detail level and sharpness are smaller, but when you get into any scenes involving big depths of field (such as wide shots with sweeping backgrounds), the DVD images appear soft and less three-dimensional by comparison.
Obviously, as you increase your screen size, the differences will seem even more noticeable. Go to a 58- or 61-inch plasma--or a front projector that takes you into the 100-inch range--and you'll quickly realize having a high-definition source (Blu-ray) is essential if you're a stickler for image quality.
3. Which has more impact on image quality, my DVD player or my TV?
This is where things get interesting. Here's the problem: Your TV is also equipped with video-processing chips that deinterlace and scale images. And sometimes, particularly with higher-end sets, the TV's internal processing does a better job than your DVD player.
There tends to be less variance with scaling (most TVs do it well enough) but some sets are blessed with better deinterlacing skills than others. For instance, you'll potentially see more of a benefit from letting your basic sub-$80 upconverting DVD player do the video processing if you own more of a budget brand set such as a Vizio or Insignia. However, if you own a higher-end HDTV with good standard-def processing, you'll want your TV to do the work--unless you have a high-end upconverting player (the Toshiba HD-A2 or HD-A3 HD DVD players don't qualify--sorry).
4. All upconverting DVD players have an HDMI connection. What are the benefits of connecting via HDMI?
Currently, you can only upconvert DVDs via HDMI; upconverting is not supported via component video. While HDMI is an all-digital connection and component video is an analog connection, it's usually very hard to tell the difference between the two.
In my book, the biggest advantage to connecting via HDMI is the convenience of a having a single cable for both audio and video that hooks up to either your TV or AV receiver. It's just a cleaner setup. The downside to HDMI is that it's finicky (random incompatibilities can exist between certain products, although the problem is more acute with cable boxes than anything else) while component video is much more reliable.
5. What's the benefit of spending more on an upconverting DVD player?
I personally wouldn't spend more than $75 on an upconverting DVD player. In fact, I wouldn't spend any money at all on a DVD player because the PS3 I own does a decent job of upconverting DVDs, and I now play both my DVDs and Blu-ray discs on my PS3. But that's just me.
There are plenty of enthusiasts out there who have large DVD collections and care deeply about video quality. They're the ones who buy something like the aforementioned Oppo DV-983H. It's a great upconverting DVD player and has a few extra features--such as SACD and DVD-Audio playback--that the vast majority of the world doesn't care about.
If you're really serious about DVD quality, you want a DVD player that puts out a raw 480i stream over HDMI that you can send to a $2,000 external video processor. I personally would use all that money to buy a PS3 and replace my favorite DVDs with Blu-ray versions as they come out. But again--to each his own.
6. What settings should I have my upconverting DVD player set to?
If you have an HDTV with good video processing, set your upconverting DVD player to 480i (if your TV can accept it) or 480p, and let the TV do the heavy lifting. If your 1080p HDTV isn't that good, set your upconverting DVD player to 1080p so the TV doesn't do any processing. If your 720p HDTV isn't that good, set your upconverting DVD player to 720p, so the TV doesn't do much processing. The best advice is to experiment and see what combination works best with your gear. There's no wrong answer--it's what looks best to you.
7. What settings should I use if I have just a standard DVD player and use component?
If you have an HDTV with good video processing, set your DVD player to interlaced (480i) mode. If your HDTV doesn't have good processing, set your DVD player to progressive (480p) mode. Again, experiment with both if you aren't sure which to use.
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