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The Many Benefits of an Upconverting DVD Player

Squeeze the best image quality out of your DVDs

Let's face it. On the eve of the HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray deathmatch—surely the bloodiest format war since the VHS-vs.-Betamax debacle—any self-respecting technophile is going to watch and wait. A costly, obsolete paperweight is the last thing any of us wants to get stuck with. While you're waiting, I have a few things for you to ponder. Because you're reading Connected Home Express, as opposed to, say, Home & Garden, you probably have an HDTV—likely a big one—and have sunk thousands of dollars into an expansive DVD collection. (Remember when bookshelves were used for books?) Sure, you'll catch the odd first-run movie at the theater, but as you're being bumped and annoyed by strangers in the dark, you're probably thinking about how much better the movie will be on DVD, with you nestled comfortably in your home theater.

The joys of the home theater are multifaceted. A home theater should assault the senses with glorious sights and sounds. But if you still have a formerly cutting-edge progressive-scan DVD player, the sights might not be quite as glorious as the sounds anymore. Thankfully, there's a great way to squeeze every last pixel of fidelity out of those hundreds of DVDs lining your shelves. An upconverting DVD player, for the uninitiated, is like a supercharger for home theaters. The player takes the DVD's meager 720x480 (480i) resolution and jacks it up to 720p or 1080i. This jump doesn't rival the one you experienced when you upgraded from VHS to DVD, but on a big HD display, the results can be stunning.

The reasons to buy an upconverting DVD player are compelling. Consider cost and performance. Are you really in a hurry to start a new HD-DVD or Blu-ray library at $30 to $40 a pop? Also, remember that you're facing a minimum $500 price tag for Toshiba’s entry-level player and a Blu-ray price of twice that amount. You can buy excellent upconverting players for $200 and breathe new life into your existing DVDs. The most crucial factor in the upconverting player’s favor is proven performance. HD players will have backward compatibility with standard DVDs, but who knows how well they’ll upscale? The best upconverting players have been fine-tuned and fulfill their specific role exceptionally well. But are all upconverting players created equal? What are the essential features you need to look for when you're deciding on one of the dozens of players on the market? Read on—we’ve got you covered.

Deinterlacing: Transforming Interlaced to Progressive Scan
Mom used to say, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” Upscalers are no exception. The single most crucial component (i.e., the “brain” of the player) is the video-processing chip. The task of ensuring that what you see on the HDTV screen accurately depicts the source material of what’s on the DVD is incredibly complex. Lesser chips need not apply.

The two main duties of the video chip are deinterlacing and scaling. But first, how about a crash refresher course in video resolution? Video on DVD is in 480i resolution, in which 30 still frames are displayed on a TV in two fields of 240 horizontal lines, every second. The “i” stands for “interlaced,” which means the entire frame of video is composed of the two passes of alternating horizontal lines of resolution interlaced together. A resolution of 480i was sufficient on smaller TVs, but the flaws in the interlaced, lower-resolution video become more apparent on larger displays. Increased space between the alternating scan lines can produce a flicker, and details suffer.

Connected Home's Choice: OPPO OPDV971H ($199)

The cost-to-performance ratio of the OPPO upconverting player is excellent. The Faroudja/Genesis FLI2310 video processor is exceptionally well implemented, allowing user control over Cross Color Suppression and TrueLife features. Through the DVI connection, the player offers 480p, 720p, and 1080i upconversion with stunning performance, particularly at 720p. This author’s old standby reference discs have never looked better. The Underworld Superbit DVD, with its shadow-drenched scenes, demonstrated the player’s potent black levels, and The Incredibles DVD's vibrant colors were reproduced with richness and precision. This mighty player even offers PAL-to-NTSC conversion and supports nearly every media format known to man (including DivX and DVD-Audio). Firmware is updated regularly on the company’s site. (Note that players include both a free DVI-to-HDMI cable and a DVI-to-DVI cable.)

HDTVs can display higher-resolution video such as 480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p. Once again, the numbers stand for the horizontal lines of resolution and the “i” and “p” refer to the method by which the scan lines are displayed. Progressive scanning (signified by the "p") displays every horizontal line of video in one pass instead of interlacing alternating lines in two passes. A progressive-scan picture is a huge jump in video fidelity, flicker-free with enhanced clarity and stability.

Deinterlacing is necessary any time interlaced video—the humble DVD, for example—is displayed as progressive-scan video. In theory, the task of repeating scan lines to form the progressive-scan image is simple enough. But, in practice, there are variables that can seriously mess with video quality.

Consider the source of the video stored on the DVD: The material was created on either film or video. Films are typically shot at 24 frames per second (fps). To store and output the material on a DVD, at about 60fps, a repeat pattern, or cadence, for the film frames (called 3-2 pulldown) is used. The PAL format uses 2-2 pulldown.) To further complicate matters, material shot on video is already at 60fps. And film and video sources often appear together in one movie—for example, filmed scenes with digital-video special effects.

A video processor must be able to automatically detect the correct source for a DVD (with film or video mode), correct the cadence when it’s interrupted by a bad edit made during the DVD production, and deinterlace moving and still onscreen objects differently. Telltale signs of substandard deinterlacing are jagged diagonal edges (“jaggies”), softened details, and juddering during slow camera pans.

Scaling: Low-res to Hi-res
Unless you have a CRT—or picture tube—HDTV, that LCD, plasma, or DLP rear-projection beauty that sits at the center of your home theater is a fixed-pixel display. It has a native resolution, be it 1024x768, 1366x768, 1920x1080, or a variation thereof. This pixel-per-scan-line by horizontal-scan-line count is what every moving image appearing on the TV is displayed at. Unfortunately, video signals come in all shapes and sizes, from the DVD’s 720x480 to 1080i HDTV’s 1980x1080 pixels.

The myriad video signals all have to be converted or scaled to fit the native resolution of an HDTV display. Thus, the upconverting DVD player’s video processor goes to work adding pixels to the DVD’s native resolution to fill up the HDTV's screen. To do so, algorithms copy parts of the surrounding pixels and interpolate what the DVD’s video should look like at a higher resolution.

The process of converting a DVD’s 480i signal to 480p, 720p, or 1080i is incredibly complex and, if done poorly, can wreak havoc on picture quality. Factors such as fast on-screen motion, rapid scene transitions, and video noise from the source material can produce the aforementioned jaggies, visible pixilation (i.e., the “screen door effect”), and color shifting. A powerful, well-integrated video processor will eliminate, or at least minimize, these eyesores.

The Educated Buyer vs. the Electronic Superstore Know-It-All
Deinterlacing and scaling are all well and good, but what are you looking for when it comes time to lay down some hard-earned cash for an upconverting DVD player? First and foremost, just in case I haven't made this abundantly clear, the DVD player must have a well-integrated, quality video processor. A good rule of thumb is that the more deinterlacing and scaling the upconverting DVD player handles, the better the picture will be. HDTVs all have some sort of built-in video processor, but these processors usually pale in comparison with the performance of the chip in a good upconverting player. Let the DVD player do what it does best—optimizing the video—and leave the displaying of the video to the HDTV set.

Several companies make stellar video-processing chipsets with proprietary features above and beyond deinterlacing and scaling.

Faroudja is the maker of the best known and most revered chipset among videophiles. The venerable Genesis FLI2310 chip, found in many high-end, expensive players and a few affordable players such as the OPPO OPDV971H, has a battery of video-enhancement technologies. Faroudja pioneered 3-2 pulldown (or film mode) detection. Cross Color Suppression compensates for artifacts caused by composite video mastering and smoothes out the edges of saturated color fields. TrueLife Enhancement bumps up details in things like skin texture and hair. Directional Correlational De-interlacing (DCDi) tackles the jaggies with impressive results.

Silicon Image chipsets are often mentioned in the same breath as those of Faroudja, and either one has exceptional deinterlacing, scaling, and image-enhancement performance. Its SiI504 chip has a sublime, motion-adaptive deinterlacer in video mode and features a buffer that predicts upcoming breaks in cadence to avoid hits to the resolution that occur while switching from film to video mode. Unfortunately, the buffer sometimes contributes to audio synch troubles.

DVDO’s iScan and the Silicon Optix Realta with Hollywood Quality Video are two other leading video-processing chipsets. Most consumer electronics companies worth their salt offer receivers, upconverting DVD players, HDTVs, and projectors with top-quality video processors. Said companies include Denon, JVC, NEC, OPPO, Runco, Sony, Syntax Olevia, Toshiba, and Westinghouse Digital.

Before you scoop up the first upconverting DVD player with “DCDi by Faroudja” on the box, be advised that the implementation of any chip in a product is at least as important as the chip itself. The aforementioned Genesis FLI2310, for example, has about 2000 registers that control its functions. Changing one register to solve a known issue might affect another register, and house-of-cards-style chaos can ensue. Engineers need to know the chip they program inside and out to maximize its performance. Needless to say, that's not always the case.

Companies don’t exactly advertise the ways they fall short in implementing a chipset. So, how do you know whether an upconverting DVD player with a solid video processor is the one for you? It might sound obvious, but try watching some DVDs on it. If the Best Buy clerk rolls his eyes when you bring in a stack of DVDs, go somewhere else. Superbit editions of action-packed films (Black Hawk Down, The Fifth Element, and Underworld are all fine choices) will separate the pretenders from the real thing. Fast on-screen action is some of the most difficult material to render without errors. Likewise, animation—with its super-saturated color palettes—pushes a DVD player to its limits. Whatever DVDs you choose, pick several that you know intimately; flaws and unintended artifacts in the video are much easier to spot that way.

Try to find a store that has the upconverting DVD player you want, along with either your HDTV or a similar model. Be sure to switch from 480p to 720p and 1080i. Only a consumer with nerves of steel, or money to burn, should buy an unauditioned upconverting player. You can always go back to the Web site with those amazing details after you see the machine in action.

Media Compatibility, Connections, and Firmware Updates
You’ve almost made up your mind. Maybe you've narrowed your choice down to two or three perfectly fine players. The good news is that the hardest part is over. Now, you can look at the details. When it comes to media compatibility, more is definitely better. Even if you don’t currently need support for DivX, multiregion playback, SACD and DVD-Audio, and the multitude of recordable DVD formats, you might want some or all of them in the future.

Because upconverting DVD players are all recent products, just about any model will have either a DVI or the newer HDMI output. Both connections facilitate a pure, digital-video signal from the player to the receiver (if equipped with DVI/HDMI input/output) or HDTV. HDMI gives you a digital video and digital multi-channel audio connection through a single cable. Unless you have a costly receiver with HDMI switching, you’re going to be running the video signal directly to the TV and the audio to the receiver. In this case, either a DVI or HDMI output on the DVD player will suffice. If your HDTV has only an HDMI input—and most of the latest models do—a DVI-to-HDMI converter cable is available.

Keeping the video signal in the digital domain during its trip from the DVD player to the HDTV will produce the highest-quality images. If you forgo DVI or HDMI in favor of even a good quality analog connection via component cables, the video signal goes through conversions from digital (DVD) to analog (component) and back to digital again (HDTV). Such conversions can produce signal noise and image degradation.

Another feature to keep an eye out for is DIY firmware updates. Firmware is the software that instructs the processing chip and determines the functionality of the DVD player. Companies such as OPPO and Philips offer online firmware updates for their products; some other companies offer updates at their service centers or just pretend their products are perfect. Updating the firmware yourself is a simple matter of downloading the file from a Web site onto a recordable DVD and running the program on the DVD player. It sure beats having to buy a new player every year.

A Few Words about Video Fine-Tuning
After you get that shiny new DVD player home, there’s one thing left to do to fully enjoy your DVDs in all their upscaled beauty. If you haven’t had your HDTV professionally calibrated (and at $300, who could blame you?), it’s well worth the time and money to run a test disc yourself. The test batteries go from the quick and dirty THX Optimizer (free on some THX-certified DVDs) to more thorough calibration tools such as the Avia Guide to Home Theater and Digital Video Essentials DVDs. Be forewarned that the Avia and DVE discs are in-depth and time-consuming. A faster, more user-friendly experience can be had with the HDTV Calibration Wizard, developed by the Imaging Science Foundation. Now, sit back and start rediscovering your favorite DVDs.

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