The silver DVP-NS315S isn't any slimmer than most players, and its relatively shallow 10-inch depth lets it fit easily atop most TVs. An angled panel comprises the majority of the front plate, creating an overall look that's classier than that of most entry-level players. The panel is composed of two identical-looking rectangular pieces of glossy black plastic that are actually the drawer and the display--although you wouldn't even know the player had a display until you turned it on.
A prominent play/fast-forward/reverse knob is mounted to the right of the face. The knob looks cool, but it makes scanning and chapter-skipping a tad bothersome. Front buttons that engage the picture and surround modes are convenient, although the lack of front-panel menu access could be a pain if you misplace the remote.
The skinny controller is missing some important keys, namely, numbers and a setup button. Granted, many people won't be changing the setup too often, but numerical keys are essential for jumping directly to CD tracks and DVD chapters. The remote's basic layout should appeal to novice users, but the rows of similar-shaped buttons are easy to confuse with one another in the dark. One other annoyance: the same buttons are used for the scan and slow functions, so you have to cycle through them to get to 2X and faster scan speeds.
Sony's user menus are generally very good, and the DVP-NS315S offers intuitive controls for major functions, all reachable via a single Display button. Full-sentence onscreen explanations, such as "Operation currently prohibited by disc," make more sense than the cryptic icons most players employ.
As entry-level players go, the DVP-NS315S packs a few unusual extras. Foremost are the five picture modes: Standard, Dynamic 1 and 2, and Cinema 1 and 2. They aren't adjustable, but people who don't want to bother with making painstaking picture tweaks to their televisions may appreciate these one-touch options. A quartet of simulated surround-sound modes provides some flexibility for those who don't have full-fledged 5.1-channel surround systems.
The player passed our test disc gamut, playing CD-Rs, DVD-Rs, DVD+Rs, DVD+RWs, and VCDs (the lone exception was DVD-RW). It also handled our MP3 CDs and displayed an onscreen menu that made finding songs relatively easy. The menu listed a whopping 32 characters of each track's filename. Unlike many MP3-capable DVD players, it won't play MP3s at random.
A zoom control and an optical digital output are both missing from the features list. Digital audio comes via a coaxial jack, which is generally less common than optical ones among A/V receivers. The rest of the output complement includes jacks for component video, S-Video, standard composite video, and analog stereo audio.
The first thing we noticed after slipping the Video Essentials test disc into the tray was the player's quick load time; it took less than two seconds to recognize the DVD. MP3 discs loaded slower, which is to be expected.
Entry-level players are most often mated to nonwide-screen 4:3 analog TVs, so anamorphic conversion performance is critical. Anamorphic conversion is the process DVD players use to convert enhanced-for-wide-screen DVDs for display on nonwide-screen sets. We checked out the player on a Philips 50P8341, a 50-inch analog 4:3 TV, and the large screen really revealed the difference between the NS315S and the Toshiba SD-4800 (set to interlaced mode).
The opening to the Robin Williams/Al Pacino thriller Insomnia follows a seaplane as it wings over a complex Alaskan terrain of snow-covered hills. On the Toshiba, we saw unnatural movement in some of the lines of the hills, which is a result of overly sharp conversion. The DVP-NS315S rendered the hills cleanly and without artifacts, although it traded a tiny bit of sharpness and made some of the outlines softer. We'd gladly swap a small amount of sharpness for an artifact-free image. Note that smaller televisions will not reveal conversion defects as readily as large ones.
We were a little disappointed in the somewhat jerky motion of the fast-forward and reverse scans; previous Sonys were much smoother. The NS315P includes two Block Noise Reduction settings, but we didn't notice that they had any effect in cleaning up noisy scenes. Video performance was otherwise quite solid, and audio sounded fine.
The DVP-NS315S can be found online for about $105, although most brick-and-mortar stores won't discount it below the $130 (list) price. Either way, it's one of the more expensive entry-level decks on the market by a margin of $20 or so. Comparable major-brand units, such as Panasonic's DVD-RV32, can be found for about $100 online, but we don't consider that player's Windows Media Audio playback as important as the Sony's anamorphic-conversion performance. That factor makes the Sony worth a few extra dollars, as long as you don't need numerical buttons on your remote or on an optical output.