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HTPC Part III: Software DVD Players in Review

March, 2003

Sandy Bird


Introduction

Part III of our series on Home Theater PC (HTPC) was originally to be a review of specific hardware and software used in an HTPC. I have since decided to limit the scope of Part III to reviews of just the software DVD playback solutions on the market, and leave the hardware to Part IV.

Software-based DVD players, which for the remainder of this article will be referred to as just ‘DVD players’, are becoming more prevalent all the time. For instance I am currently writing this on a plane, and the person in front of me is watching "The Salton Sea" on his laptop playing in full screen mode. Although I have no way to tell which DVD player he is using, I can see it looks substantially better than any movie I have ever watched on the plane’s entertainment system. I too use the DVD player in my laptop when I travel. I purchased a season of episodes from the latest sit-com or mini series like Buffy or 24 and watch them while I am away. It is a great way to pass the time without flipping channels in hotel rooms or watching the movie offered on the plane for the fifth time this month.

However, Part III focuses on DVD players in their own right, rather than on the latest wiz bang features the vendor has incorporated to make your life easier when you travel. It is about quality and consistency of the video and sound and not the fact you can play the video 10% faster to finish it before the plane lands. It is about flawless performance without a glitch or a hiccup, as these are things we want and need in a Home Theater. After all, you may want to use these software packages at home, rather than on an airline.

As most of you are aware, at Secrets we pride ourselves on delivering information on a level playing field while trying to focus on the technical aspects of a product as much as the subjective opinions that are so prevalent in most publications. The DVD players tested here are inherently progressive scan, so with that in mind, we will subject them to the same tests that we have subjected hardware progressive scan DVD players. That seems fair, however if you are using an HTPC and feel your solution is perfect you might want to read the warning included with the first DVD player shootout. I will include it here for you convenience.

“ . . . We also want to warn you: if you have a progressive-scan DVD player that you are happy with, you probably should not read this report. With some of these artifacts, you are much better off not knowing they are there, because once you start to notice them, they’ll drive you nuts, and then you will inevitably need to replace your player. . .” -- DVD Benchmark - Part 5 - Progressive Scan DVD October, 2000

Brian Florian and Stacey Spears were kind enough to donate some time in helping me test all the software players. I have to thank them for all their help, as both of these individuals have an in-depth understanding of video de-interlacing and have provided great editorial support.

There are some issues that affect HTPCs that do not affect component based players. Some of these problems can be brought on by several factors and configurations and have simple solutions, while others cannot be solved until issues with DVD encoding are resolved. If you are looking for our test configuration in detail, please refer to Part II in the HTPC series of articles.

In the original progressive DVD player shootout, we explained that there are only two types of DVD players: Flag-reading, which read the flags encoded in the MPEG stream, and Cadence-based players that analyze the video fields to decide which deinterlacing algorithm to use. The Secret’s preference was for cadence based players as they are better suited to deal with the errors in the DVD flags common on many DVDs produced today. In a perfect world, flag reading players would win out over cadence based players because they can react to changes from film to video and video to film faster than cadence players. However, we definitely do not live in a perfect world, and since most DVDs are plagued with flag errors, the cadence players win out every time. Some of the new players (i.e., Denon DVD-9000) allow the user to change between flag reading and cadence, so I guess that would give you the best of both worlds, assuming you knew if the flags were properly encoded on the DVD.

There was a time when we calculated that 90% of Hollywood DVDs would play fine on almost any progressive player, and it would only be 'B' titles or independent films that would have problems.  However, if you have been following our DVD reviews lately, you will notice almost all DVDs, regardless of the production studio, have errors in the flags.  So, while it would be nice to say 90% of DVDs will play fine on your flag reading progressive player, it is more likely that 90% of DVDs will play flawlessly 90% of the time on your flag reading player.  For the other 10% of the DVD or 10% of the time, your viewing experience might be distracted by an artifact here and there.  Some 'B' movies actually are so poorly encoded, I cannot even watch them on my HTPC.

I had originally thought software DVD players would all be flag reading. It is possible to write a cadence based DVD player, but it would be a little more CPU hungry. With the use of hardware acceleration and ease of coding a flag reading player, I did not think a cadence based player even existed. As you will learn from this article, most of the companies writing the DVD player software tend to have a different target market than HTPCs, so there is not much motivation for them to change their method.

I was surprised by the results from one player. And while it is not a cadence based DVD player, it does make watching poorly flagged material more bearable to view. I am not going to tell you which player that is so early in the article, as there are other factors to consider when choosing a DVD player for your HTPC. No matter which DVD player you choose, they all allow the user to force a deinterlacing algorithm (bob or weave), but that is not a terribly practical solution, and we did not force the DVD players in our tests. In some cases, it is possible to trick the players into passing the tests by forcing bob or weave, but I have chosen not to do this for consistency with the console based players. Most times, even forcing a player into the correct mode, it will still fail the test. To give the HTPC a fighting chance against the cadence players, I have also decided to add a couple of non-software based DVD players into the tests. These players will deinterlace the video stream while being fed from a video capture card. Some people prefer this solution as it does not suffer from some of the problems that software based players do, and can provide excellent results.

Other Problems

As I mentioned above, there are a couple of other issues that plague HTPCs:

Judder and Studder

If you are using an HTPC, you may have already noticed this artifact. Sometimes, when you watch a sequence, the motion seems choppy or unnatural. In the most severe cases, you may see the video pause and the audio signal hiccup for a second. In some cases, the original DVD is responsible, but in most cases the fault is to be placed on the HTPC. There are several things that can cause this.

The first cause might be Insufficient Processing Power. If your CPU is right on the edge of being able to decode and deinterlace the MPEG stream in real-time, video playback might studder. There are a couple of fixes for this. The first is to turn on hardware acceleration in your DVD software, as this will take some of the load off your CPU. You can also run the DVD player at a higher priority level than other applications. You can download software off the internet to do this, or if you are using Windows 2000 or Windows XP, you can control this from the task manager, as follows:

  1. While the DVD player is running, start the Task Manager (press ctrl-alt-del).
  2. Right click on the DVD player application and choose ‘Go To Process’.
  3. Right click on the process that the task manager has chosen for you.
  4. Set the Priority to ‘Real Time’.
There are further refinements you can make, but that is for later articles.

The second cause may be the chosen Refresh Rate. Although Film based material is 24 frames per second originally, when transfered to video, including DVD, the time base becomes 59.94 fields per second. For a more information see 'The Nature of Interlaced TV, Film-to-Video Conversion, and Other Interesting Gambits' -- Brian Florian. If we go back to our lesson on 3-2 pull down, 1 second of film at 24 frame per second fits into 60 fields BUT only 59.94 feilds are shown in a second. So what do the film makers do? Nothing. They live with the inherent stretching of the film's running time. To compensate for the fact, they may or may not correct the pitch of the sountrack, though I doubt you would notice the 0.1% difference even if they did not correct the pitch.

This tells us multiples of 59.94 will make the best refresh rates when playing back video material and multiples of 23.976 will work best for film based material. Since the lowest common denominator for those two numbers (119.88) is higher than the refresh rate of most displays, there is not a single optimal refresh rate for both film and video based material. 59.94 Hz, which is what progressive DVD players use, is excellent for video based material, but 71.928 Hz would displays each frame of a films source a nice even 3 times, eliminating 3-2 pulldown judder. Both these rates are achievable on your HTPC. Though it would also be possible to use a lower refresh rate like 47.952 Hz for film based material, I find bright areas of the image tend to flicker at this resolution, but depending on your display device that is an option. I use 71.9 Hz all the time, as deinterlaced video usually gets played on my TV and not my projector for reasons we will explore a little later. You will need to use a utility like PowerStrip to get refresh rates more accurate than whole numbers. Using the number closes to the "ideal" refresh rates (e.g. 60 Hz or 72 Hz) will still work very well, although you will display one frame an extra time every 20 seconds or so.

Some people also use interlaced refresh rates and claim it has a more film like image. While this might be true, I cannot recommend using an interlaced refresh rate under any circumstances. The DVD player just finished deinterlacing the film or video fields into frames, so why would you want to split the frames back up?

The third issue is sometimes referred to as Micro-studder. This is caused by issues with the audio being synchronized with the video using the sp/dif pass-through with newer versions of DirectShow. While it seems like the manufacturers should revert back to the older methods, that is not the case. The newer methods will allow for greater compatibility and performance with new hardware, and while we may suffer a bit today, it should pay off once all the bugs are worked out. I personally cannot say this is much of a concern in my system, but depending on your hardware configuration, it may be a real issue. I know Sonic and a couple of the other filter manufacturers have already started to release patches to address this issue.

The last issue that could cause studder is the DVD itself. There are lots of things that can go wrong, from the flags being improperly coded, to the film being choppy in the first place. These problems cannot be fixed.

No one player seems to present any more studder or judder than any other player. I have used these players at different refresh rates, in both hardware and software mode, and they all react in the same way. The only time I noticed any player having issues with studder was with nvDVD on my laptop using Dolby headphone surround. My 700 Mhz laptop was not fast enough to play the video back smoothly (playback was fine on the Athlon 1800+ HTPC). PowerDVD and Sonic did not have problems on my laptop with Dolby headphone surround, so I would guess nvDVD is a little harder on the CPU than the other players. To keep all the HTPC savvy people happy. I do see studder on my system on certain movies. My current issue is trying to decide if it is the HTPC or the original film causing the problem. I visited my local cinema last week. Since building my Home Theater I hardly ever go to the cinema. The experience was less than impressive to be truthful. I saw 'Dare Devil' and the panning sequences seemed to studder more than any movie I have watched on my HTPC recently.

Menu Navigation and Lockup

Menu navigation has plagued DVD players for some time. For instance, the AVIA test and calibration DVD that many of us use, would lock up when being played on some machines. Another example is with a recently released DVD "Monsters, Inc." In this case, when you entered the special features menu on the DVD, there would be no items displayed. Over the last year the player manufactures have put some work into resolving these issues, and most of the software players tested here suffer from only a few known menu navigation issues. If you are using an older version of any of these players, it would be worth upgrading to remove the aggravation of some of these quirks. By no means are the current versions perfect, but they have improved.

Audio Problems

Like some of the early console DVD players, software DVD players sometimes had lip sync issues or audio glitches. The ATI player was particularly bad for this. Using the sp/dif output of the c-media chipset, I have not experienced lip-sync problems over the review period with any of the test players. So, the players have obviously improved on the software. Had this test been done a year ago, we would have experienced some different results. For owners of older DVD players whose setup suffers from lip-sync issues, I recommend upgrading to one of the newer versions.

General Overview

To see the basic set of tests we use, please refer to ‘DVD Benchmark - Guide to the Progressive Scan DVD Player Shootouts

You will notice each software DVD player has two sets of results: One with hardware acceleration turned on, and one with it turned off. The reason for this is that the players are using slightly different decoding and deinterlacing algorithms in each case, and can give different results for each of the tests. Generally speaking, the players pass or fail the same tests in both hardware and software mode, but to be complete, results are provided for both. It is also possible that, with different hardware configurations, players could test differently.

You will also notice that in most cases all players seem to pass or fail as a group. On the failing side, they may do so in different ways or to varying degrees. For example, some will comb, while others will drop to video mode, but either way it is still a fail. In other cases, players will take a few more frames to recover, but they pretty much all pass or fail as a group. By looking at the tests, we can see that for the most part, DVD players are flag reading with a surprise or two along the way.

Dscaler on the other hand is cadence based as it does not have access to flag. While its tests show promise, there is still room for improvement.

I am happy to say all players passed the chroma upsampling tests. None of the players have the Chroma bug (CUE, or Chroma Upsampling Error) in hardware or software mode. A couple did when I began writing this article, but have since released patches to deal with the bug. All players still suffer from the 4:2:0 interlaced chroma problem (ICP) as discussed in the article ‘The Chroma Upsampling Error and the 4:2:0 Interlaced Chroma Problem’ -- April, 2001, by Don Munsil and Stacey Spears. Over the last couple of weeks we have discovered that PowerDVD does have the chroma bug in software mode with the newest patch applied. The version we originally tested did not have the Chroma bug. Enabling hardware acceleration with most video cards will allow you to aviod this even with the newest patch.

I will also mention that the players worked very well on the properly flagged sequences and had no problems with the progressive detail test on "Super Speedway" or synchronizing subtitles to frames. Looking at the core tests, you will also see all software players are extremely fast at changing layers. I spent some time with my old Pioneer interlaced player, and I cannot imagine having to live with layer changes in the middle of movies again. I scored all players identically on responsiveness. While there might be small differences in how fast they react to menu changes and commands on the test setup, they were all very quick.

The one weakness in all software DVD players I have tested to date is with deinterlacing video material. The quality does not come close to the deinterlacer in my Sony TV, which is poor to start with and doesn't even have a 3:2 pull down mode.  I recently purchased a Panasonic RP82 which for $229 has video deinterlacing that will put any of the software DVD players to shame.  As I mentioned earlier, this is why almost exclusively video based material is played on my progressive TV being fed by the RP82. This is one area manufacturers need to take a serious look at if we are going to take software DVD players to the next level. DScaler on the other hand did do a decent job deinterlacing video material and was noticeably better than the software based players. There is still room for improvement, and we discuss this below. There is one solution that does excel at video deinterlacing, and that is the Holo3DGraph, but its performance comes at a price.

The Players

Some of the information below is from product marketing material and not thoroughly tested. I made the assumption that the reader wanted to know how each player held up in the real world and were less worried if the skin support in player X worked well. I did try and provide a target market and some differentiation for each player. While Zoom Player was not tested here, you can assume that if the tests pass with the player below then that player’s filters used in Zoom Player will also pass. I have chosen not to test the cheaper or free players that are supplied with video cards and DVD-ROMs. Some of these include the ATI player, Interactive, and feature limited versions of the players below. I have found that most of these players are inadequate and have usability quirks that make users upgrade after a short time. Since the tests we performed do not exploit the quirks, I did not think it would be fair to the vendors who have attempted to make their players bug free . . . well as bug free as commercial software can get these days.

I have found the support of all the companies below to be very helpful and prompt.

The Test Results

   Pass    Borderline
   Fail    Not Tested

Player data table:

DVD Player Results
General Deinterlacing Core
3-2 Cadence, Film Flags Weight: 10, From DVD: WHQL, Film Mode 1 3-2 Cadence, Alt. Flags Weight: 8, From DVD: WHQL, Film Mode 2 3-2 Cadence, Video Flags Weight: 7, From DVD: More Tales of the City 3-2 Cadence, Mixed Flags Weight: 6, From DVD: WHQL, Chapter Break 1 and 2 2-2 Cadence, Film Flags Weight: 5, From DVD: Natural Splendors Chapter 6, Avia Zone Plate Film Mode High Detail Weight: 6, From DVD: Super Speedway Bad Edit Weight: 10, From DVD: Big Lebowski, Making-of Video to Film Transition Weight: 6, From DVD: WHQL, Mixed Mode 1 Recovery Time Weight: 6, From DVD: WHQL, Mixed Mode 1 Incorrect Progressive Flags Weight: 6, From DVD: Apollo 13, Making-of; Galaxy Quest Menu Motion Adaptive Weight: 10, From DVD: Video Essentials, Zone Plate; Sage Pendulum Sync Subtitle to Frames Weight: 2, From DVD: Abyss Chroma, 3-2 Film Flags Weight: 10, From DVD: Toy Story, Chapter 4 Chroma, 3-2 Alt. Flags Weight: 8, From DVD: Monsters, Inc. Chroma, 2-2 Film Flags Weight: 8, From DVD: Toy Story Main Menu. (3-disc set only) Chroma, 4:2:0 ICP Weight: 5, From DVD: More Tales of the City Video Levels Weight: 8, From DVD: Avia, Horizontal Gray Ramp Blacker-than-Black Weight: 7, From DVD: Video Essentials, PLUGE pattern YC Delay Weight: 10, From DVD: Video Essentials, Bowtie Image Cropping Weight: 4, From DVD: Avia, Pixel Cropping Pattern Layer Change Weight: 4, From DVD: WHQL, Title Roll Responsiveness Weight: 6, From DVD: Avia Menus
Software DVD Player Results
General Deinterlacing Core
PowerDVD> hardwa> 67 1511.015
PowerDVD> softwa> 67 1411.015
DVD 1.5 hardwa> 65 1545.015
DVD 1.5 softwa> 65 741.015
WinDVD Pl> hardwa> 65 1541.015
WinDVD Pl> softwa> 65 1541.015
CinePlaye> hardwa> 65 1545.015
CinePlaye> softwa> 65 742.015
Video Processor and Non DVD Player Results
General Deinterlacing Core
4.1.0 (43> Default 57 15


Notes on individual players:

Divider

Cyberlink - PowerDVD XP (hardware)

MPEG Maker: software
MPEG Model: Cyberlink
Deinterlacer Maker: software
Deinterlacer Model: Cyberlink
   
MSRP: $69.95
Website:

hardware

Passed Borderline Failed Not Tested
Layer Change
Responsiveness
Chroma, 3-2 Film Flags
Chroma, 3-2 Alt. Flags
Chroma, 2-2 Film Flags
Image Cropping
Sync Subtitle to Frames
3-2 Cadence, Film Flags
3-2 Cadence, Alt. Flags
2-2 Cadence, Film Flags
Film Mode High Detail
Video to Film Transition
Recovery Time
Incorrect Progressive Flags
Chroma, 4:2:0 ICP
3-2 Cadence, Video Flags
3-2 Cadence, Mixed Flags
Bad Edit
Motion Adaptive
Video Levels
Blacker-than-Black
YC Delay

General Comments

PowerDVD is a desktop focused player with its own proprietary video and audio decoders. PowerDVD is not quite as feature rich as WinDVD, but has all the essential functions you would need in a DVD player. Most likely this is caused by the software leap frog effect. PowerDVD is the oldest player of the ones we tested and chances are the next release will have all the features of WinDVD and more. It does support multiple aspect ratios, video overlay controls, sound formats to multi-channel sound cards as well as SPDIF output.

PowerDVD does not have a remote option so you will have to find an alternate way to control the player from your seating position. There are some options discussed in HTPC Part II.

Deinterlacing Comments

This player was the first to surprise me. As you can imagine it gets somewhat monotonous testing player after player to see the same results over and over. I was caught off guard during the ‘Making of Apollo 13’ test. This is a wonderful example of combing for those of you wanting to see it. Most of these players and number of component players comb like crazy during this sequence. PowerDVD worked flawlessly. It never once showed any sign of combing and stayed in video mode the entire time. It also drop to video mode on the opening sequence of Galaxy Quest as it should. This broke my theory about software players being completely flag reading as both sequences are video material flagged as film. Unfortunately PowerDVD is not reading cadence, but instead dropping to video because of the disallowed progressive sequence flag which is turned on in this sequence.  All in all PowerDVD is still a flag reading player

PowerDVD has become my player of choice when it comes to watching film based DVD which are plagued with flag errors like Buffy. While it drops to video mode when it should not, I would rather lose some resolution than deal with combing which I find very distracting.  That is not to say PowerDVD does not comb during improperly flagged sequences, it does, it just does it less often.

On the reverse side, PowerDVD did the worst out of any players on the Video Essentials’ motion adaptive test. I could barely even look at the screen as it blurred and flickered uncontrollably.

Like the other players PowerDVD tested almost identical in both hardware and software mode. All other players did recover to film mode quicker in software mode, but with PowerDVD there was no difference.

As far as the picture quality, PowerDVD never seems as crisp as the other players and always had some noise in the shadows.

Divider

Cyberlink - PowerDVD XP (software)

MPEG Maker: software
MPEG Model: Cyberlink
Deinterlacer Maker: software
Deinterlacer Model: Cyberlink
   
MSRP: $69.95
Website:

software

Passed Borderline Failed Not Tested
Layer Change
Responsiveness
Chroma, 3-2 Film Flags
Chroma, 3-2 Alt. Flags
Chroma, 2-2 Film Flags
Image Cropping
Sync Subtitle to Frames
3-2 Cadence, Film Flags
3-2 Cadence, Alt. Flags
2-2 Cadence, Film Flags
Film Mode High Detail
Video to Film Transition
Recovery Time
Incorrect Progressive Flags
Chroma, 4:2:0 ICP
3-2 Cadence, Video Flags
3-2 Cadence, Mixed Flags
Bad Edit
Motion Adaptive
Video Levels
Blacker-than-Black
YC Delay

Divider

TheaterTek - DVD 1.5 (hardware)

MPEG Maker: software
MPEG Model: sonic
Deinterlacer Maker: software
Deinterlacer Model: sonic
   
MSRP: $69.95
Website: http://www.theatertek.com/

hardware

Passed Borderline Failed Not Tested
Layer Change
Responsiveness
Chroma, 3-2 Film Flags
Chroma, 3-2 Alt. Flags
Chroma, 2-2 Film Flags
Image Cropping
Sync Subtitle to Frames
3-2 Cadence, Film Flags
3-2 Cadence, Alt. Flags
2-2 Cadence, Film Flags
Film Mode High Detail
Video to Film Transition
Recovery Time
Chroma, 4:2:0 ICP
3-2 Cadence, Video Flags
3-2 Cadence, Mixed Flags
Bad Edit
Incorrect Progressive Flags
Motion Adaptive
Video Levels
Blacker-than-Black
YC Delay

General Comments

This is currently the only specialized DVD player for the HTPC market. In the console player world this might be considered a boutique player. From the outside it looks and works nothing like any of the other players, but if you look under the covers it uses the Raviant filters provided by Sonic. These filters are known to have some of the best video quality available to software DVD players. The comparison to a boutique player does not lend itself to the price as TheaterTek is not really any more expensive than any of the other players.

Due to TheaterTek’s target market their feature set differs from that of the other players. It does not have on-screen controls and it only runs in full screen mode. All controls are accessed via keyboard shortcuts or for people with an ATI remote wonder, StreamZap or Grinder, TheaterTek supplies plug-in support for download off their website.

The other item you will noticed is lacking in TheaterTek feature list is support for 20 different surround formats. TheaterTek is truly targeted toward HTPCs were the surround processing will most likely be off-loaded to a receiver or surround sound processor.

I like TheaterTek’s interface, or should I say lack of interface, but it does sometimes cause a problems from the PC perspective. For instance, if you were working on a document and wanted to have a movie playing in a window there is no way to do this. Since there is no on-screen control panel trying to remember all the keyboard shortcuts when running the software without the remote can tax my memory at times.

All of the Software DVD players we are testing have aspect ratio control, but they are fairly limited when compared to TheaterTek aspect ratio control. Since TheaterTek will be used mainly on HTPCs it allows the user not only to choose the appropriate aspect ratio for your screen, but also customize it on a DVD by DVD basis. For instance, say the Buffy Season 1 DVDs when playing on a 4x3 screen have a 1 inch gap on the left side of the screen. With TheaterTek you can create a custom aspect ratio that will fill the space and save it for that disc. A week later when you watch the next episode it will use the proper aspect ratio you created. A month later when you put in the next Buffy DVD you can simply apply the aspect ratio you already created to this DVD as well.

Most functions in TheaterTek can be stored on a per DVD basis. You can tell TheaterTek to start playback so you don’t have to watch the FBI warnings every time you put in the disc. As with all of the DVD players video overlay controls are provided, but TheaterTek allows the adjustment on a per disc basis again, so when Buffy is too dim and you don’t want to mess with your properly calibrated display, you can adjust the brightness for the Buffy disc only. Senior members of the TheaterTek forum have posted settings for certain video cards and drivers that will result in proper output levels from the video card. So if you happen to have one of the cards they have tested then setting the proper video overlay values will be easy. You do have to remember to save these as your default settings or they will only work on the one particular DVD you are watching. Since I have not tested the output levels of the cards myself, I cannot say how accurate these measurements are. I can tell you at least for brightness and contrast they work very well with my setup.

Remember when I said you could force a pass on some of the tests by changing de-interlacing methods from bob to weave or vice-versa, well TheaterTek has thought of an innovative way to do this. They created a keyboard shortcut to change methods on the fly so you can test which one works best for the particular DVD. And again it is saved on a per DVD basis. I have used this feature to force 'bob' with 'B' movies that have regular occurring artifacts or flickers. While 'bob' reduced resolution, it is sometime better than the alternative.

TheaterTek – Video Comments

The player tests identical to Sonic CinePlayer and looks just as good. However, it suffers from all the same problems when dealing with problems in the flags on the DVDs.

If you have been contemplating purchasing TheaterTek over another player, do it for the features of the player mentioned above.

Divider

TheaterTek - DVD 1.5 (software)

MPEG Maker: software
MPEG Model: sonic
Deinterlacer Maker: software
Deinterlacer Model: sonic
   
MSRP: $69.95
Website: http://www.theatertek.com/

software

Passed Borderline Failed Not Tested
Layer Change
Responsiveness
Chroma, 3-2 Film Flags
Chroma, 3-2 Alt. Flags
Chroma, 2-2 Film Flags
Image Cropping
Sync Subtitle to Frames
3-2 Cadence, Film Flags
3-2 Cadence, Alt. Flags
2-2 Cadence, Film Flags
Film Mode High Detail
Video to Film Transition
Recovery Time
Chroma, 4:2:0 ICP
3-2 Cadence, Video Flags
3-2 Cadence, Mixed Flags
Bad Edit
Incorrect Progressive Flags
Motion Adaptive
Video Levels
Blacker-than-Black
YC Delay

Divider

Intervideo - WinDVD Plus 4.0 (hardware)

MPEG Maker: software
MPEG Model: Intervideo
Deinterlacer Maker: software
Deinterlacer Model: Intervideo
   
MSRP: $79.95
Website:

hardware

Passed Borderline Failed Not Tested
Layer Change
Responsiveness
Chroma, 3-2 Film Flags
Chroma, 3-2 Alt. Flags
Chroma, 2-2 Film Flags
Image Cropping
Sync Subtitle to Frames
3-2 Cadence, Film Flags
3-2 Cadence, Alt. Flags
2-2 Cadence, Film Flags
Film Mode High Detail
Video to Film Transition
Recovery Time
Chroma, 4:2:0 ICP
3-2 Cadence, Video Flags
3-2 Cadence, Mixed Flags
Bad Edit
Incorrect Progressive Flags
Motion Adaptive
Video Levels
Blacker-than-Black
YC Delay

General Comments

WinDVD claims to be the world leader in software DVD players and claims they have over 25 million users in their ‘reviewer’s documentation’. I have no reason to doubt them as many large PC manufactures such as IBM, Dell and Sony have chosen to include WinDVD as the software DVD player on the systems they sell. That certainly can give a company a lead in market share.

WinDVD’s target market is focused at users who purchase Dell, Sony or similar computers, followed by business travelers and early adopters of technology. This makes WinDVD more suited to personal computers or laptops and not focused towards the HTPCs. That does not mean it should not be used in a HTPC, but that HTPCs are an after thought for InterVideo. Of course, you cannot blame InterVideo. If I could sell 25 million users that have PCs and laptops software, I would choose the same focus.

WinDVD does give users the option to purchase a remote with the software. If you do not have a remote for your HTPC, choosing this player might be an attractive option. I have used the remote on several occasions and it fits in one hand and performs all the functions you need to control DVDs from your seat. It has enough range to bounce off my screen and control the HTPC behind me. The remote is not back lit and lacks standard DVD menu controls, but instead has a mouse control. Although it is nice to be able to control the mouse it would have been better to include menu controls.

All of those clients give InterVideo the resources to pursue interesting new features. For instance their ‘Time-Stretching’ feature allows you to watch a DVD in longer or shorter period of time while maintaining proper pitch (audio won’t sound like the chipmunks). This has some interesting applications, for instance you could watch a two hour movie on a flight that is only one and a half. I should mention that Time-Stretching will not work with the spdif output. As WinDVD has a large market in Europe where PAL DVDs are prevalent WinDVD leveraged their time-stretching feature to create TrueSpeed. TrueSpeed will play PAL DVDs converted from NTSC DVDs at the correct speed as they play 4% too fast.

Deinterlacing Comments

This player is best described as average when compared to the other players tested here. When the majority of players passed or failed so did WinDVD. It never combed the least number of times and conversely it never combed the most.

As for video quality it is not the best of the players and not the worst. It lands in between. Make sure you have the brightness and contrast set properly. The brightness was set substantially too high upon initial install, which effects picture quality.

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Intervideo - WinDVD Plus 4.0 (software)

MPEG Maker: software
MPEG Model: Intervideo
Deinterlacer Maker: software
Deinterlacer Model: Intervideo
   
MSRP: $79.95
Website:

software

Passed Borderline Failed Not Tested
Layer Change
Responsiveness
Chroma, 3-2 Film Flags
Chroma, 3-2 Alt. Flags
Chroma, 2-2 Film Flags
Image Cropping
Sync Subtitle to Frames
3-2 Cadence, Film Flags
3-2 Cadence, Alt. Flags
2-2 Cadence, Film Flags
Film Mode High Detail
Video to Film Transition
Recovery Time
Chroma, 4:2:0 ICP
3-2 Cadence, Video Flags
3-2 Cadence, Mixed Flags
Bad Edit
Incorrect Progressive Flags
Motion Adaptive
Video Levels
Blacker-than-Black
YC Delay

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Sonic - CinePlayer 1.5 (hardware)

MPEG Maker: software
MPEG Model: Sonic
Deinterlacer Maker: software
Deinterlacer Model: Sonic
   
MSRP: $49.95
Website: http://www.sonic.com

hardware

Passed Borderline Failed Not Tested
Layer Change
Responsiveness
Chroma, 3-2 Film Flags
Chroma, 3-2 Alt. Flags
Chroma, 2-2 Film Flags
Image Cropping
Sync Subtitle to Frames
3-2 Cadence, Film Flags
3-2 Cadence, Alt. Flags
2-2 Cadence, Film Flags
Film Mode High Detail
Video to Film Transition
Recovery Time
Chroma, 4:2:0 ICP
3-2 Cadence, Video Flags
3-2 Cadence, Mixed Flags
Bad Edit
Incorrect Progressive Flags
Motion Adaptive
Video Levels
Blacker-than-Black
YC Delay

General Comments

Sonic CinePlayer 1.5 is a new version of Axeda’s CinePlayer version 4.0. As of April 2002, Sonic currently has an exclusive license to Axeda’s Ravisent filters for their software DVD player and control of the licensing in the personal computer market. What does this mean? Well, the Ravisent filters were used in several other DVD players, but now Sonic gets to decided which of their competitors can use these filters and for what price. The Ravisent filters are known for their video quality (we will explore this a little later) TheaterTek, the X-Box and current version of the ATI player are some examples of players that used them.

One unique thing about Sonic is they allow you to download the Ravisent filters to be used with Media Player for $15. This could save you some money if all you are looking for is the video quality and not all the advanced functions of the DVD player. Interestingly enough, you could also use the $15 option with Zoom Player as a front end.

Sonic similar to InterVideo and CyberLink also makes a fair number of other software titles focused around video playback and creation for home use. However, Sonic has a fair number of titles dealing with the professional DVD creation. Reading through the reviewer guide I notice one interesting fact. Sonic claims their software is used in creating 90% of the commercially produced DVDs on the market. That would certainly give them in depth knowledge of DVDs and might make for a very interesting combination in future releases.

CinePlayer market focus seems to be in-between personal computers and HTPCs. Video quality and ease of use are first on the list of features. Out of all the players Cineplayer’s on-screen controls are the simplest. Fewer features make the control panel spaciously arranged and all buttons are clearly labeled with standard icons. During the tests I constantly switched between players. I found myself searching for the controls on the other players. Cineplayer’s control panel was very intuitive to use. In time you become familiar with the controls of which ever player you choose, but a simple interface will make life easier for others that use your HTPC.

There is no remote option for CinePlayer so you will have to set something up yourself if you wish to use a remote.

Deinterlacing Comments

This player like all the software players looked great on properly flagged video material, but it is not any better than the other solutions when it comes to dealing with errors in the DVD flags or deinterlacing video material. The word on the street isn’t wrong, the filters in this player and TheaterTek look very good, but there is room to improve in both these key areas.

Sonic's filters did have a slightly longer recovery time in hardware mode than in software mode. Which also turns out to be longer than the other players tested, but still within the 5 frame limit we use for a passing grade.

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Sonic - CinePlayer 1.5 (software)

MPEG Maker: software
MPEG Model: Sonic
Deinterlacer Maker: software
Deinterlacer Model: Sonic
   
MSRP: $49.95
Website: http://www.sonic.com

software

Passed Borderline Failed Not Tested
Layer Change
Responsiveness
Chroma, 3-2 Film Flags
Chroma, 3-2 Alt. Flags
Chroma, 2-2 Film Flags
Image Cropping
Sync Subtitle to Frames
3-2 Cadence, Film Flags
3-2 Cadence, Alt. Flags
2-2 Cadence, Film Flags
Film Mode High Detail
Video to Film Transition
Recovery Time
Chroma, 4:2:0 ICP
3-2 Cadence, Video Flags
3-2 Cadence, Mixed Flags
Bad Edit
Incorrect Progressive Flags
Motion Adaptive
Video Levels
Blacker-than-Black
YC Delay

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DScaler - 4.1.0 (4357) (Default)

MPEG Maker: N/A
MPEG Model: N/A
Deinterlacer Maker: Open Source
Deinterlacer Model: N/A
   
MSRP: $0.00
Website: http://deinterlace.sourceforge.net

Default

Passed Borderline Failed Not Tested
3-2 Cadence, Film Flags
3-2 Cadence, Alt. Flags
3-2 Cadence, Video Flags
3-2 Cadence, Mixed Flags
Film Mode High Detail
Recovery Time
Incorrect Progressive Flags
Chroma, 4:2:0 ICP
2-2 Cadence, Film Flags
Bad Edit
Video to Film Transition
Motion Adaptive
Layer Change
Responsiveness
Chroma, 3-2 Film Flags
Chroma, 3-2 Alt. Flags
Chroma, 2-2 Film Flags
Video Levels
Blacker-than-Black
YC Delay
Image Cropping
Sync Subtitle to Frames

General Comments

DScaler is a video deinterlacer that can be used with any interlaced NTSC or PAL video source captured via on one of the supported cards in either analog or digital format. Since most of the standard or at least cheap video capture cards all use the same chipset there are a large number of supported cards.

DScaler is an open source project to create a software deinterlacer. Looking at the version numbers it is easy to tell this is not a new intuitive. Version 4 of DScaler is currently in alpha state and is the version we tested, however, version 3 was experimented with and had similar results.

Upon first look, DScaler seems somewhat complicated with all its menus and options. Luckily it is very simple to use. It comes with several methods of de-interlacing including 3:2 and 2:2 pull down as well as several video modes some of which include a form of motion adaptive deinterlacing. Of course there is an auto mode to pick the right algorithm for the current material. Sounds promising doesn’t it?

DScaler, like the players above, has aspect ratio control and all other features you need to setup your display properly. Since the DVDs are played through a console DVD player all other functions and sound are off-loaded to that player.

Deinterlacing Comments

This was the wild card of the bunch and I included it here to see how the budget HTPC could do up against the best deinterlacing chips on the market. To summarize the results, it did okay. It passed some tests the other players failed (like chapter breaks), but in other cases it failed when I figured it should have passed.

There are a couple of test where I have failed DScaler but it does come very close to a pass. In the motion adaptive test, video essentials zone plate, it never flickered once but it did dim for a second in the first part of the test. I had to fail it but it did come closer than any of the software players. With the bad edit sequence from the ‘Making of the Big Lebowski’ I had DScaler pass the test several times and fail several times. On the official results it is a fail, but if you watch the sequence a couple of times in a row Dscaler seems to be able to figure out what it is suppose to do and will pass the test.

The video quality of DScaler is limited by the video capture card. I realize the Haupauge WinTV card is not the cleanest capture card but it is typical of the quality of cards available for under $100. No matter how I adjusted the settings there was always some noise in the signal. The noise filters supplied with DScaler did help material from bad VHS tapes but hindered picture quality if turned on with DVD playback.

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Conclusions

Looking at the results, it is hard to recommend any of these players. A console progressive player that passes almost every test with flying colors and does an excellent job deinterlacing video material costs less than $250. However, this issue comes back to why you were using an HTPC in the first place. For instance, if you are like me and use a high resolution CRT projector where image scaling is required, the $250 progressive player is not of any benefit, and I would be better off getting a good interlaced player and a combination deinterlacer and scaler. However, a combo deinterlacer/scaler that tests substantially better than the players above costs thousands of dollars and is beyond my budget. Taking the HTPC out of the picture would remove all the added functionally we gained by using an HTPC in the first place, such as scaling of all video signals, PVR functionality, or use as a digital jukebox. I had hoped that DScaler would be the cheap knight in shining armor, and for video deinterlacing it was indeed better than the software DVD players, but with the noise in the signal and the fact it did not test any better than the other players on troublesome film based material, it really is not any true advantage over the other solutions for DVD playback.

So which player do I recommend? All and none. A contradictory but true statement. Each of the players has it strengths and weaknesses which are described above. If you are using one of these players, upgrading is not going to gain you leaps and bounds. I still use TheaterTek for my home theater, as the feature set is more desirable for my setup, and I have become accustomed to the button layout on the ATI-Remote-Wonder. When I travel, I use PowerDVD, as it has less of a tendency to comb on improperly flagged video material like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer".

Which one you choose is not all that important right now, because they all need lots of improvements. Hopefully, this set of Benchmark tests will aid the programmers in designing future upgrades. Sorry I cannot be more definitive, but as I mentioned at the top of this review, we put all the players on a level playing field, and as you have seen, the results are level as well.

 

- Sandy Bird -

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DVD Benchmark - Article Index

Introduction and Player Results

Part 1 - Video Part 2 - Audio
Part 3 - Functionality Part 4 - Usability
Part 5 - Progressive Scan Part 6 - DVD Audio

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