By Dustin Sklavos
PCs have been able to play back DVDs for roughly a decade but there's always been a nagging issue: playback quality. Oh, over time hardware acceleration for DVD playback standardized in video hardware -- to the point now where even the anemic GMA 3150 strapped to Intel's Atom can handle it -- but the actual quality of that video playback has varied, with the results usually being a frank "not good."
I had avoided using my media center for watching DVDs up to this point, preferring to use my standalone (and region free) player. Then 3am came around, I wanted to watch an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation before bed, and my player decided to spew pretty colors on the screen instead of an actual image. So I was forced to watch it on my media center.
Thus I decided it was time to round up the three major software applications in DVD/HD playback and see whether the situation has improved.
AMD Athlon II X2 240 (2.8 GHz dual core processor)
2GB Corsair XMS2 DDR2-800
Powercolor Radeon HD 4670 512MB GDDR3
LG HD-DVD/Blu-ray Combo Drive
None of the video playback settings on the 4670 were altered in any way.
For DVD playback testing, I used the first disc of the seventh season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Trying to make amazing footage look more amazing isn't very impressive, but testing the upscalers in these programs on a show from the early nineties that was shot on 35mm film but edited and mastered on NTSC video...well, let's just say I happily gave the software some work to do.
HD-DVD playback testing was done using Clerks II. This HD-DVD actually has a remarkable picture, and if you're a fan of the film the upgrade to high definition is well worth it.
Blu-ray playback and BD-Live testing was done using the third disc of the just-released (and unfortunately underwhelming) fourth season of Dexter.
I watched the episode Next Generation "Interface" using PowerDVD, and I have to say I was very unimpressed with Cyberlink's TrueTheater HD scaler. The scaler's defaults introduce a painful amount of macroblocking to the image and the adjustments to the video's color palette just result in black crush on the darker details. You can adjust sharpness and other fine details, and the scaler is able to use CUDA on Nvidia graphics cards and Stream on ATI graphics cards, but the quality is easily the worst of the three players. PowerDVD also allows you to substantially smooth the motion of the video playback but I may be in the minority when I say this isn't a desirable feature. Video is shot at a very specific framerate and interpolating the frames to bring it up to sixty results in the whole thing just looking...off. We're used to seeing movies run at 24fps (frames per second) and television at 30fps; the jump to 60fps is definitely noticeable and actually makes the whole thing look cheaper.
For my WinDVD test, I watched the episode NextGen "Gambit, Part I" along with rewatching parts of "Interface." WinDVD's Trimension All2HD upscaler produced a notable improvement in image quality but required too much tweaking and, worse, would produce stutters during scenes with intense action. In addition, All2HD isn't enabled by default. The stuttering wasn't a tremendous irritant, and the image quality improvements didn't include any artifacting, but it's not a spectacular improvement, either.
Finally, for the TotalMedia 3 test, I rewatched parts of "Gambit, Part I" and "Interface." The Normal setting for their SimHD -- which like Cyberlink's TrueTheater HD scaler uses CUDA or Stream depending on your video card -- produced what I would consider the best playback results of the three. While every player was able to minimize combing artifacts from interlacing, TotalMedia 3 also seemed to produce an image that was extremely close to the source video but also much cleaner given the scaling up to 1080p.
HIGH DEFINITION AND BD-LIVE PLAYBACK
Since we're dealing with a 1080p source, basic playback differences between the three players are minimal at best, though the gamma on PowerDVD did seem slightly high compared to the other two. Each program was able to produce quality, stutter-free playback.
The only program to include HD-DVD playback was TotalMedia 3; older versions of WinDVD and PowerDVD supported it. I'd hoped it would've persisted in this most recent version of WinDVD since it had remained so long after the death of the format but WinDVD just told me my drive was empty. Yes, it's a dead format, but it's a very cheap dead format, and the discs themselves haven't turned into pumpkins.
To test BD-Live functionality, I tried to stream the first episode of the third season of Californication from the opening splash screen. In each program, the episode eventually started streaming but when I chose Full Screen from the splash only ArcSoft's solution actually scaled the streaming video up. The other two left it running in the same tiny window with the rest of the screen just going black.
Please note: I was unable to test the 3D playback abilities of either WinDVD or PowerDVD (TotalMedia doesn't support Blu-ray 3D) as I don't have the necessary equipment and the idea of 3D only appeals to me when the word Tron is involved (thus completely solidifying my standing as one of the biggest nerds writing for this site).
If this were a test for basic functionality, just about all our participants would've failed at some point.
Cyberlink's PowerDVD is the biggest offender. TrueTheater HD actually degrades image quality in its own way by introducing artifacting where there was none before. The BD-Live scaling issue also gives me pause. And one of the most irritating things about PowerDVD is something I haven't touched on yet: when you install it, it makes itself the default for all video playback. If you put a disc in the drive, it automatically runs, and there's no prompt during installation that lets you change this. And if you don't register the program, it incessantly nags you to every time you run it.
Corel's WinDVD 2010 is unexciting but a reasonable budget choice. Trimension All2HD looks pretty good at its defaults, but the stutter during heavy action gives me pause. The issue with BD-Live it shares with PowerDVD is also a minor irritant.
And then there's the incumbent, ArcSoft's TotalMedia Theatre 3 Platinum. Frankly, the program is easy to set up and use, plays anything except Blu-ray 3D, and SimHD made me a believer. It isn't perfect -- I've seen it stutter now and again -- but it's pretty close. This is what I chose before Corel and Cyberlink did their major updates and this is still what I'd choose for my own media center.
For what it's worth, you can test-drive any one of these programs by downloading them from their respective companies' sites, but none of the demos allow for Blu-ray playback. If you don't want to tweak and just want something that works, go with ArcSoft's solution.
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