To the far left is a power button, with the disc tray to the right. Further right is the open/close button followed by the LED screen, then the Play and Stop buttons. We would have liked to have seen front panel chapter-forward/backward buttons--in case the remote goes missing--but they're not essential.
One gripe we have with a lot of DVD players is the bright lights that are often sprinkled across the front panel. While some may think they enhance the way the product looks, home theater purists often lament that they can distract from the movie watching experience. The DV-981HD offers the best of both worlds--it has the blue lights, but it also has the options to turn them off. Not only that, but the options are extensive--you can keep everything on, just turn off the blue LED lights, turn off the LEDs and dim the display, or turn everything off. With everything off, there is still a very small LED light on the power button, but sticklers can cover it up with a piece of tape if it's still too much. This is the kind of flexibility and attention to detail that has given the Oppo such a sterling reputation among home theater enthusiasts. The only nitpick we had was that the DV-981HD didn't remember the All Off setting when we turned the unit off--when we turned it back on, all the LEDs came on. This problem doesn't occur with Dim or LED Off selected--hopefully Oppo fixes the All Off issue in a firmware update.
One worry we had when we tested the DV-970HD was that the disc tray was a little thin and flimsy. The DV-981HD sports essentially the same disc tray, in black. While it still appears to be fragile, we have to admit we haven't had a single problem with our DV-970HD, nor have we heard any reports of the disc tray snapping off. While it still may not be the best choice for those with little kids, the bend-but-don't-break disc tray may be more durable than it appears.
The remote has the exact same layout of buttons as the DV-970HD--just a few of the button labels are different. Most of our gripes are the same: the buttons don't have enough differentiation, the labels are small and it's not backlit--although it does glow-in-the-dark. Having lived with Oppo's remote for a longer time now, we did come to appreciate the glow-in-the-dark buttons more--they're a good compromise between better-but-battery-hungry backlit remotes and completely nonbacklit models. And we always liked the large amount of functions that can be accessed from the remote. At first glance the Oppo DV-981HD appears more limited than the DV-970HD. There are no media card readers or USB ports--the DV-981HD sticks strictly to disc-based media. It is, however, comprehensive in the discs that it supports. On top of DVDs and CDs, it also handles DVD-Audio and SACD discs, as well as the even more obscure HDCD format. It also handles a wide range of digital media files burned on a CD or DVD, such as DivX, Xvid, MP3, WMA, and JPEG.
Video connectivity is sufficient, with an HDMI output, an S-Video output, and a composite video output. For audio, there are both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, as well as an analog stereo output and a multichannel analog output. Of course, HDMI carries both audio and video, so it can be used for audio as well. A really nice feature for fans of the dying high-resolution audio formats is that the DV-981HD's HDMI output can carry both multichannel DVD-Audio and SACD signals to a compatible receiver (it needs HDMI version 1.1 or later).
The big news in terms of connectivity is that there's no component-video output. In other words, if you don't have an HDMI-capable TV, there's really no reason to get the Oppo. The DV-981HD is the first DVD player we've seen in a long time that lacks a component-video output. To be fair, very few DVD players are capable of upscaling over their component outputs anyway, but it would be nice to have them, regardless.
Another feature we were happy to see on the DV-981HD is aspect-ratio control. Some HDTVs, such as the HP LC3760N and the Philips 42PF9831D, do not have aspect-ratio control when fed high-def sources, so it's nice to have the upscaling DVD player handle it. This is not an issue for most high-quality DVDs, which are anamorphic, but nonanamorphic wide-screen discs will look distorted via the Oppo unless you change the aspect ratio. To correct for this, engage the 16:9 Wide/Auto under TV Display on the General Setup screen. Then it will automatically detect nonanamorphic discs and squeeze them into the proper aspect ratio, leaving a small window-boxed (black bars on all sides) image on the screen. At that point, you can either zoom the image with the Oppo--which has discrete zoom points of 1.2x, 1.3x, 1.5x, 2x, 2.5x, 3x, 3.5x, and 4x--or zoom with your TV if it has zoom control.
We tested this using Carlito's Way on the Vizio GV47LF. The DV-981HD correctly squeezed it into the correct aspect ratio; we were then able to fill the screen using the zoom mode. It wasn't quite perfect--we would have liked a zoom mode between 1.5x and 2x because 1.5x didn't completely fill the screen and 2x chopped off a small part of the picture--but it was better than the Denon DVD-3910, for example, which can correctly squeeze the image into the correct aspect ratio but doesn't offer a zoom mode. Since many TVs don't offer adequate aspect ratio controls on high-def inputs--including the Vizio GV47LF we were using--this is a nice feature.