UPDATE: Thanks to tips from several meticulous readers, I’ve adjusted the 50GB playback verbiage to properly reflect assumptions made from the instruction manual.
Over the weekend I was fortunate enough to land a Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray Disc player in an exercise echoing the acquisition of Toshiba’s HD-AI HD-DVD player almost exactly two months prior. Unfortunately, store clerks are keen on upholding the June 20 street date for the seven launch titles, of which I applaud both their following studio wishes and having a clue about the new format launch. For now, these quick impressions images of the first commercially released Blu-ray Disc player and comparisons to Toshiba’s first HD-DVD player will have to suffice until Sony sends us our press review titles or Tuesday morning, whichever comes first.
At first glance the BD-P1000’s noticeably smaller and more colorful box accounts for a couple bucks of the dubious $500 price difference between the Samsung and Toshiba. Keep an eye out for this box design if you’re hoping to stumble upon a player before the official June 25 release date.
Inside the Box
Opening the box reveals a teaser board acknowledging the owner’s purchase, and underneath follows the player, instruction manual and a product kit housing the remote control with batteries and a component, analog and HDMI cable. No separate power cord is included as the cord is not detachable from the unit. The HD-A1’s cord is, therefore affording the opportunity to upgrade if a cleaner power feed is desired.
Samsung has elected to include their now familiar remote control design carried across a variety of product lines. It feels like a feather in comparison to the bulky Toshiba beast, and suffers from the same unintuitive button configuration issues. Only small bumps on Play and Stop make those buttons stand out, and backlight illumination is restricted to channel, volume and mute control. There is a button to change the video input selector; however, there is no button to change the video output resolution like there is on the HD-A1. More on that in a bit.
The BD-P1000 is noticeably smaller than the HD-A1 by a couple inches in both height and depth. Size matters not, right? Samsung wisely chose their signature black gloss piano finish with silver accents, pushing the unit’s aesthetic appeal far beyond that of the clunky 1970’s Toshiba design.
The rear outputs are identical to the HD-A1 and include one HDMI out, one component video out, one S-video out, one coaxial video out, 5.1 and 2.0 analog audio outputs, one coaxial digital audio out and one optical digital audio out.
Turning the BD-P1000 On
Much distress has come from some HD-A1 owners over the lengthy times required to turn the unit on, get a disc to play and eject a disc, while others ” including myself ” take the opportunity to settle in or grab a quick drink. The BD-P1000 cuts down on those times by anywhere between 10 and 15 seconds. I was able to navigate into the boilerplate setup menus in just over 30 seconds where it takes upwards of a minute on the HD-A1.
Within the menus are no real surprises. It’s comforting to finally see 1080p output as an option, even if few display devices support it at this time. Audio options include speaker size selection for 5.1 setups, digital output (PCM versus bitstream), and on/off selections for PCM down sampling (if the receiver can’t play lossless 96KHz audio) and dynamic compression.
Although I have the BD-P1000 hooked up to a Panasonic 1080i LCD projector, the player failed to recognize the best possible video feed and defaulted to 720p. Neither the remote nor the player’s face has a button to switch between resolutions, leaving the setup menu as the only option. Upon selecting 1080i, the following screen appears:
When finally completing the switch to 1080i, the menus substantially shrink in size and an annoying vertical flicker plagues all screen text:
The HD-A1 doesn’t have this issue when switching to 1080i. Is it a failed handshake between the projector and player? The DVI to HDMI converter I’m using? Bug in the menus? I’m not sure, and I don’t as-of-yet have a 1080p video device to test for the same issue. Flickering text in menus I can live with. Any flickering appearing during software playback is absolutely unacceptable.
How Does Up-conversion Match Up Against the HD-A1?
Since a Blu-ray Disc has alluded me thus far, I broke out Fox’s Ice Age standard DVD to do a direct comparison between the BD-P1000 and HD-A1’s 1080i up-conversion capabilities on a 118” Carada cinema white screen as well as confirm or deny the presence of additional flickering on the Blu-ray player. Thankfully, flickering appears to be limited to the BD-P1000’s setup menus in 1080i and does not affect software playback.
Next, I jumped ahead to Chapter 17: Firestarter for a nice balance of character close-ups, dark shadows and bright colors. The BD-P1000 offers a smooth, crisp albeit slightly soft image with no noticeable artifacts. While the fire’s color is alive with reds and oranges, the color of Diego’s eyes don’t seem as bright as they should be. I quickly switched over to the HD-A1 and the faint softness seems to subside a hair. Diego’s green eyes also appear a touch more saturated.
After switching back and forth between the two players several times, any minute differences became negligible to the point where I forgot which player was outputting video and which wasn’t. The average consumer not interested in scrutinizing every frame will find little to complain about from either player’s up-conversion capabilities.
Preparing for Blu-ray Discs
Early word on the initial wave of Blu-ray titles is the MPEG-2 codec chosen to fit the content on 25GB single layer discs has compromised video quality. This is the codec Sony prefers at the moment, though they are capable of either switching to VC-1 or putting out 50GB discs ” the latter of which is more likely to happen towards the end of this year. On the flipside, the PCM audio tracks sound stellar. If you recall, early word on HD-DVDs were the exact opposite: Warner Brother’s first wave was lauded for stunning 1080i video but lambasted for shoddy compressed audio.
Page 8 of the instruction manual contains a chart stating only single-sided discs will play. No mention of support for playback of 50GB dual-layered (not dual-sided) discs is included, but given the announcement of “Black Hawk Down” and “Bridge Over The River Kwai” several months ago in the 50GB format, it’s safe to assume the BD-P1000 will either have no issue playing the larger discs or be easily updated for support through firmware.
For costing twice as much as the HD-A1, Samsung’s BD-P1000 isn’t anywhere near twice the machine. The sooner dual-layer discs are introduced with improved video quality and a studio puts out a title on both formats concurrently, the sooner we’ll be able to properly compare and draw more informed conclusions. Right now it’s just too early to declare one format rules them all.
So was I really fortunate enough to stumble upon what will surely be a sold out Blu-ray player by this time next week? Only time can answer that question. What’s clear now is the high-def fight is officially underway and round one goes to HD-DVD.
– Dan Bradley