The ongoing format duel is just one reason to put off buying a high-def player; over time, these early players will be eclipsed by lower-priced and more-capable models. But if you're itching to start your high-def movie experience now, you'll find more choice among Blu-ray players than HD DVD models. We evaluated seven stand-alone units, two HD DVD and five Blu-ray, in the PC World U.S. Test Center. Toshiba's US$500 HD-A2 and US$1000 HD-XA2 are that company's second generation of HD DVD players. The Blu-ray models in this story are all first-generation products: Philips's US$800 BDP9000, Panasonic's US$1300 DMP-BD10, Pioneer's US$1500 Elite BDP-HD1, Samsung's US$800 (AUD$1699) BD-P1000, and Sony's US$1000 BDP-S1. (LG Electronics declined to submit its BH100 for this roundup; the BH100 is the first player that can handle both Blu-ray and HD DVD movies.)
In addition, we looked at two gaming consoles that double as next-gen video players. Sony Computer Entertainment's US$600 (AUD$1000) PlayStation 3 (with a 60GB hard drive) has an integrated Blu-ray drive that handles both game and movie play. Microsoft's US$400 (AUD$650) Xbox 360 (with a 20GB hard drive) requires the US$200 Xbox HD DVD Player add-on to show HD DVD movies.
To determine the best players of the group, we looked at the same scenes from the Blu-ray and HD DVD versions of Corpse Bride, Good Night and Good Luck, Mission: Impossible III, The Phantom of the Opera (2004), and Rumor Has It. To gauge how well these players upscale standard-definition movies to 1080p, we also viewed selected scenes from the DVD versions of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Seabiscuit.
We viewed the movies side by side on two calibrated 50-inch Pioneer Elite PRO-FHD1 1080p plasma TVs. The TVs match the 1080p resolution used by most Blu-ray and HD DVD movies, including the ones we used in our testing. They also have a Pure/Dot-by-Dot aspect-ratio setting that let us pipe the raw video feed from the player to the display without any scaling. (The term 1080p refers to 1080 lines of progressive-scan video--double the content of 1080i, or interlaced, video.) We tested all but two of the players by outputting images at 1080p over an HDMI connection to our TV; we assessed the Toshiba HD-A2 and the Microsoft Xbox 360 combo at their maximum output of 1080i over HDMI and component video, respectively.
Since the filmmakers weren't there to tell us which images were truer to their visions, we used our own judgments when evaluating variables such as background objects, color saturation, skin tones, and shadow detail. The race was a close one; our picks for image quality reflect not a preference for Blu-ray over HD DVD, but rather how these specific players rendered movies. The Samsung BD-P1000 earned our Best Buy for its balance of great image quality and a midrange price of US$800.
Players' Image Quality
Two Blu-ray players, Pioneer's Elite BDP-HD1 and Sony's BDP-S1, gave us the best images: Each scored in the top two for image detail, color quality, and brightness and contrast across both our high-definition and our standard-definition tests. In Rumor Has It, we could almost count the hairs in the stubble on Kevin Costner's face. Both players rendered fine details, which in turn added depth--in the crowded backstage scene of Phantom's chapter 3, for example, and in Mission: Impossible III, chapter 7. In the latter, when the camera pulled back in the Vatican, hallways and staircases appeared three-dimensional, and cobblestones rendered clearly. Shadow detail in the black-and-white Good Night and Good Luck was so sharp we could see the costume details on extras who weren't positioned in the light.
Our Best Buy Samsung and the second-ranked Philips rendered these scenes very nicely as well, though a shade less distinctly (still other players reproduced the scenes just a tad more blurrily than even the Samsung and the Philips did). Sony's PlayStation 3 performed comparably to the Samsung and the Philips with Blu-ray Discs but disappointed in its handling of standard-def DVDs--not surprising, as it can't upscale them to 1080p, a capability Sony says it will offer in a firmware update.
Toshiba's HD-XA2 produced strong image quality as well. With a score of Very Good from our judges, its output was the best of the HD DVD players. But colors looked slightly muted compared with those generated by the best players, and background details were a little less sharp and deep.
Panasonic's DMP-BD10 handled detail, brightness, and contrast very well, but the unit faltered on color quality. A mild reddish tint marred skin tones.
Toshiba's HD-A2--the least-expensive player in this group--suffered from subpar color handling, brightness and contrast, and detail. Only the Xbox 360 combo did worse, and by a significant margin. The Xbox 360's component-only output produced images that were less sharp and crisp than those output over HDMI. Both players top out at 1080i resolution, which could explain the interlacing artifacts we saw in Mission: Impossible III's chapter 7, where a brick wall showed a distracting moire pattern and vibrating bricks. Viewed on competing players at 1080p, the bricks were solid, distinct, and motionless.