Guide to Buying a DVD Player
By: Cliff PennockPrintablePaged

Watching movies in the comfort of your home has come a long way since the days of the early video recorders. The first VCRs (Video Cassette Recorders) were big, clunky machines and a videotape would hold one hour of video at best. Picture quality was less than perfect and sound was monaural and nowhere near movie theater quality. Nevertheless the experience was just as enjoyable as modern day DVD players are today. For the first time we were able to watch a movie wherever and whenever we wanted.

But even todayís DVD players are far superior to the first generation of players. The technology continues to mature at break neck speed, and when you go out to buy one, it's easy to get overwhelmed by all the technical terms a sales person will throw at you. Most of the time they themselves don't know what all these terms mean and that's not all too surprising. To keep up, you either must be a home theater fanatic, or a video technician.

As with everything, the choice of DVD player depends highly on what you want to use it for. Sure, we all want to watch movies but not everybody is interested in watching movies on super large screens with full digital sound. Purchasing a $1000 DVD player for your 20" CRT-TV is serious overkill. On the other hand, getting a $39 player at your local Wal-Mart to hook up to your media roomís home theater system is seriously under-estimating the technology.

But, as Shakespeare said, there's the rub. What is best for you?


Formats
The first thing you need to realize is that DVD players can do more than play DVD movies alone. DVD stands for Digital Versatile Disk (and not Digital Video Disk as some people claim). All modern DVD players can play Audio CDs (so your DVD player can double as a CD player), MP3 music, MPEG3 video and VideoCDs while most can show pictures from a digital camera. And yet others are able to play less well-known audio formats like Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD Audio, and video formats like WMV, DivX and XviD.

MP3 is a format used for playing music. It's very popular on the Internet because it makes music sharing very easy (due to a very smart compression method that results in small file sizes). A 3-minute uncompressed song would take about 24 Megabytes, while the same 3 minute song compressed as MP3 has a file size of around 3 Megabytes. This allows you to store over 200 songs on a single CD. You do loose some quality but unless you are using headphones it's hardly noticeable. Sharing music over the Internet is illegal (unless you are the author) but backing up your own music isn't. And more and more people are doing just that. Backing up their CDs as MP3s and playing those instead while preserving the original CDs.

VideoCD is considered the predecessor of the DVD although the quality isn't nearly as good and it doesn't offer the extensive features a DVD does. But they are still around.

MPEG 3 is a format for compressed movies. It's not as good in quality and compression as DivX or XviD, but since nearly every DVD player supports this format and it's supported by the Windows operating system by default, it's widely used for distributing movies over the internet.

If you want to view digital stills from your digital camera on your DVD player, you need to burn them to CD first (although DVD players with a built-in Storage Card reader have been popping up recently) and itís convenient if your DVD player can display those too.

Then there's DivX and XviD. These formats are to movies what MP3 is to music. Due to the compression you can fit a single movie on an ordinary CD. Again, you will loose some quality but as it's widely used for sharing movies over the Internet, it's very popular. Naturally sharing movies of which you are not the author is illegal. But, if you want to view DivX/XviD movies on your TV screen as opposed to your computer monitor, it's nice if your DVD player has that option. Be aware though: DivX and XviD, although very similar, are not the same formats. DivX is by far the more popular of the two on the Internet, but XviD is gaining popularity fast. So if a DVD player supports DivX, check to make sure it supports XviDs too. Sometimes you can download firmware upgrades from the manufacturer's website. Firmware is what makes your DVD player tick, it's the software, if you will, that runs the player. And often a firmware upgrade is all it takes to make your DVD player play XviDs as well. You download the new firmware, follow the manufacturer's instructions (which usually involves burning the software to CD and "play" it on your player) and you have a better machine.


Recording Standards
As with everything else, there isn't just one single worldwide standard for (re-)writable disks, be it for CD or DVD. There are a few competing standards which carry designations like DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, DVD+RW, DVD-RAM, etc. Which of these is the better standard is debatable and not really important. What is important, is that if you want to burn movies or music on CD or DVD on your computer and play them on your DVD player, you must make sure the DVD player supports the type of disk you are burning. The specifications of a DVD player will always list which disks it can handle.


Resolution
Whenever images are involved, moving or not, we encounter the term resolution. Everybody knows that higher resolutions are better than lower resolutions. But that's as far as most people's knowledge goes. Sometimes a resolution is given in Megapixels as with digital cameras, sometimes with a few numbers like 1024x768, and other times as a term like 1080i. But they all refer to the same thing: the number of dots or "pixels" that make up the image on a photo or a screen.

Not so very long ago, all TVs were just boxes with a big electron tube in them. An electron beam simply swept across a chemically treated glass surface (your TV screen) and wherever the beam hit the screen, that's where the screen would be lit up. The number of lines had to be the same for every TV, as well as the time it took for the beam to scan from left to right over the screen since it was the signal broadcasted by TV-stations that indirectly controlled the beam. So the "resolution" was the same for every TV, which meant that resolution for a DVD player was a moot point. Now fast-forward a few years. HDTV (or "High Definition TV") is introduced. The big difference from the old TV format is that this is a digital format. Instead of broadcasting an "analog" signal that controlled the beam on your TV, "digital" information is sent. Basically, this is the same as simply sending a file to your receiver box and playing it. However, in this case, the file is played instantly (and not stored) as it's being received. The data is being streamed.

As with all digital video formats, the digital data holds information for each single point (or pixel) on your screen. It also holds the data for audio. And it can be compressed too. No longer does the TV signal indirectly control the electron beam in your TV. Instead, you receive data and it's up to your TV or receiver box to do with it as it pleases.

HDTV comes in several flavors. They are called 1080i, 1080p, 720i and 720p. The number is shorthand for the actual resolution of the image. 1080 stands for 1920x1080 (1920 pixels horizontally by 1080 pixels vertically), while 720 stands for 1280x720. Both resolutions are much higher than the resolution of an ordinary TV. The "i" and the "p" stand for "interlaced" and "progressive scan" respectively (more on that later).

As of yet, all DVD movies are tailored for ordinary TVís, which means they carry the same resolution as these TVs. But now that High Definition TVs are becoming more common, an upgrade to the DVD standard is necessary as well to get the most out of these TVs. The higher resolutions require a new DVD disk standard because current DVD disks are already up to maximum capacity and donít have the space to store the larger data files which are inherent to these higher resolutions.


Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD
Unfortunately, there is a "standard's battle" going on between two rivaling camps (each camp consisting of several home electronics manufacturers). One standard is called "Blu-Ray", the other is simply called "HD-DVD". It's Betamax vs. VHS all over again. We see more and more DVD players popping up supporting playback of DVDs with the higher HDTV resolutions, but most are either Blu-Ray or HD-DVD. At the time of this writing there's only one player that supports both formats. And since movie companies so far have only released a handful of movies for either format, it's unclear which format is going to win. Remember, even though Betamax was the better standard, it lost to VHS because you couldn't get adult movies on Betamax while you could on VHS. So it's not just a question of which is better.


Upscaling
Even though there are no High Definition DVDs yet, there are players that can convert the relatively low resolution of an ordinary DVD to the higher resolution of a HDTV. This is called upscaling. It all depends on the DVD player and your TV whether you actually need this feature or not because if your DVD player doesn't upscale, your HDTV will. It's just a matter of which does a better job at it. If you have a HDTV that does a lousy job at upscaling (you can tell by the quality of an ordinary "analog" TV channel), you might want to consider a DVD player with this feature.


Interlaced vs. Progressive Scan
With the maturing of the DVD format, two new terms were introduced: "Interlaced" and "Progressive Scan". In reality these terms are not new at all since they have been used for years in the computer industry (although Progressive Scan was simply called "Non-Interlaced"). It depicts the way an image is "build" on your screen. Ordinary TVs all use interlacing. It means one single image (called a "frame") is actually displayed by rapidly displaying two images (called "fields") one after another. The first field contains the odd lines of the frame, while the second contains the even lines. A TV will first display the odd lines, "blank" the screen, then display the even lines. The reason is because there are several advantages to displaying an image like that. For one, it is actually easier to control the electron beam in a TV when the lines displayed in a field are farther apart. Because it happens so fast and because the electron beam is wider than the black space between lines, your brain will interpret the two images as one and you do not pick up the black lines. It also has a nice side effect. Even though there are only 30 frames per second displayed, your brain perceives that the picture changes 60 times per second, which is near what your brain can process Ė giving you the illusion that movement on your screen all looks very natural. The disadvantage is that it makes the picture a bit fuzzy because the two separate images actually overlap each other a bit.

But now we have digital TVs (Plasma, LCD, et all) and they don't have an electron beam. Instead they contain neatly arranged rows of tiny dots that can light up one way or another. These dots are either "on" or "off". So when such TVís receive an interlaced signal, it has to do some tricks to make it look acceptable. It can't simply display the odd lines while leaving the even lines black because unlike with a regular TV, the lines do not overlap and an "active" line is just as high as a black line - resulting in the viewer clearly seeing those lines. It can't do "line-doubling" either by copying active lines to the blank lines when it receives a field. Because when it does the same thing with the next field, our brain will perceive the two separate images - which are now completely overlapping each other - as one and we will see it as one big blurry picture. Fortunately the TV manufacturers have some smart engineers and each company has come up with one solution or another. But no matter how good their method is, the result is always an image that looks much worse than it would on an ordinary, old fashion CRT TV. And that's where Progressive Scan comes in. Progressive scan simply displays a complete frame in one go, which results in a super clear picture. But the disadvantage is that now the screen actually changes no more than 30 times per second, and that's something our brain can easily pick up. Movement doesn't look as natural and looks a bit "stroboscopic". But the advantages of Progressive Scan far outweigh the disadvantages and TVs can use other tricks to minimize this stroboscopic effect.


Output
Even though the information (the movie) on a DVD is stored digitally, it all depends on your TV how the DVD player will send this information to your TV. Old VCRs acted like a "Channel" and you had to tune your TV to your VCR channel. This presented many problems (one of them being other channels interfering resulting in a less than satisfactory quality) and it didn't take long for TV and VCR manufacturers to come up with a new way of hooking up a VCR to the TV.

Instead of taking the analog signal from the VCR and "modulating" this over a channel together with the audio, they separated the audio from the video and sent both signals directly to your TV. The nice thing was that this new incoming signal would completely bypass the TVs tuner, and no longer were other channels able to interfere nor was the audio able to interfere with the video. This was called Composite Video (CV) and is still widely used today.
Even though this method was a big improvement, it's shortcomings would soon be exposed as TVs became better at displaying pictures.

The problem with CV was that all video information was sent over a single wire, and the TV had a hard time separating this signal in its components (Red, Green and Blue) because at certain levels (for instance, a very dark color) the TV had a hard time deciding what color it actually was. The next step up was S-Video. S-Video separated the color information from the luminance (or brightness of a color). This made it much easier for a TV to determine the exact color it needed to display and would then overlay the luminance information. The result was a much clearer picture. In fact, S-Video is still the most widely used output type for DVD players. Then came RGB and Component Video, which separated the color information even more. Component Video is (arguably) the best of the mentioned display systems but it's not widely supported by TVs. Which one is best for you depends on personal taste. Composite Video should only be used if your TV offers no other option - because the resulting quality is very poor compared to the other standards. But whether S-Video, RGB or Component Video is best for you is a matter of taste since they all have their advantages and disadvantages.

All these systems have one thing in common: it's "analog" information. That means that all information is nothing more than variations in voltages which can be measured accurately, but never precisely because so many outside factors can influence this voltage; like quality of used electronic components in a player and TV, or interference from other nearby electronic equipment, etc. The best analogy (no pun intended) is that "Analog" is like sending a postcard to the other side of the world. Along the way it gets scratched, folded and maybe somebody along the way decides to write something extra on it. When the recipient finally receives the postcard, he can still make out what it is and whom it's from, but he doesn't know what the original state of the postcard was when it was sent. He doesn't know if that writing was on the original or not, or if the sender meant it to be folded like that.

And that's why high-end TVs have a digital input and high-end DVD players a digital output. Using the postcard analogy, the sender doesn't actually send the postcard, but tells the recipient exactly how the postcard should look and what should be written on it. No information is left out so the recipient is able to reproduce the postcard exactly. In short, no information is lost.

But as always, TVs can use different digital standards while DVD players use only two. DVD players use either HDMI or DVI so if you want to hook up your DVD player and TV digitally and don't want to use a converter cable, make sure they match. If the TVís input differs from the DVD player's output make sure a converter cable exists at all!


Region Codes
Many people buy their DVD movies on the Internet. Sometimes from a totally different country. Be aware though that not every DVD from every country will play on your DVD player. DVD disks are "region coded", that means they will only play in players with a matching Region Code. Some players allow you to change the Region Code a few times (specifically DVD players for PCs), but after that the Region Code will be fixed. Some players offer some kind of hack (since it's officially illegal) to make the player Region Free, i.e. it will play DVDs from any country. But even if your DVD player is Region Free, that doesn't mean it will play all DVDs. For instance, the USA and Europe use different TV systems (NTSC for USA and PAL for Europe) which are not compatible with each other. So if you are in the USA and your TV and DVD player can't handle PAL, you will not be able to play DVDs from Europe - even if your player is Region Free.


Sound
Sound developed much in the same was as video did. It started with Mono sound (one channel), followed by Stereo (two channels), followed by Quadraphonic (4 channels), Surround (left, right, rear), Dolby Pro-Logic Surround (left, center, right, rear), Dolby Digital 5.1 (left/right front, left/right rear, center, subwoofer), DTS 5.1, etc.

Only very, very cheap DVD players offer stereo output only, but most players have at least one digital output. Again we have two competing formats here, Dolby and DTS, but fortunately most players today support both standards. True digital surround sound is absolutely necessary for that true movie theater experience. But this also means that your Audio Receiver must match your DVD player's digital surround capabilities or that your DVD is at least compatible with the surround system of your Receiver.


Sound outputs
The most widely used Digital Surround sound formats today are Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. Both formats are similar to each other and it's again a matter of personal taste which you prefer. Both formats have 5 separate audio channels (the "5") and have a separate channel for your subwoofer for the very low frequencies (the ".1"). The subwoofer channel is actually optional and can be switched off since you can have the low frequencies of the sound sent to the other 5 channels. Low frequencies require huge speakers and the idea behind a subwoofer is that since you can't tell exactly where a low frequency sound is coming from anyway, it doesn't matter where the source for these low frequencies is. This enables you to use 5 very small speakers for the 5 main channels, and one big subwoofer, which you can hide out of sight. Even though the theory is correct, I personally don't care for a separate subwoofer since there's one major flaw. Even though you can't hear where it's coming from, you can hear if you are farther or nearer to the source. This means that no two people in the same room listening to the same sound source are hearing the subwoofer at the same volume. So for one person the bass volume can be way too low, while for another it's overwhelming. The result is always that there's only one "sweet spot" in your room where the sound and volume is "just right".

The best method to send the sound information to your Audio Receiver is digitally of course (since it's digital data to begin with). However, some DVD players split the signal to 6 separate analog channels first before sending it out. Besides the fact that this means you have 6 wires going to your audio receiver, the disadvantage is that it's analog and prone to interference. Another disadvantage is that hardly any receiver supports this option (6 analog inputs for a single incoming surround signal). So beware that even though some DVD players claim to support Dolby Digital and/or DTS, make sure it's actually sent digitally to your receiver.

But again, the story does not stop here. There are two methods used for transporting the digital data to your receiver. By means of an optical cable, or by means of a coaxial cable. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but none of the disadvantages will result in a worse quality sound. It can however result in sound cutting out all together every now and then. Which method is preferred depends on the DVD player's environment. Since optical cables are made of glass, they can actually break inside. But information is transported as light and there isn't much that can interfere with that and it can be transported over longer distances. Coaxial cables are much stronger but the digital information is sent as an electrical signal, which is sensitive to interference. If your DVD is within 3 feet of your receiver, it really doesn't matter which cable you use. When your DVD player is on the other side of the room from your receiver, then it depends on how you will run the cable. But, this entire discussion is moot when the used method of your receiver doesn't match up to your DVD's. If your DVD has optical out only while your receiver only has coaxial in, there's no way you can hook the two up digitally without using very expensive converters.


D/A Converters
One other thing a DVD player always mentions is the used D/A converter (Digital to Analog Converter). Some players use terms like "12bit/108Mhz" or "12bit/54Mhz", other brands use more exotic terms and they all use different methods (or so they claim) to convert the digital signal to an analog signal internally. So which brand uses the best system? Well, depends on which brand you believe. In reality the differences are so small that you need to use the best equipment available to even see or hear the difference. And even if one technology is better than the other, it isn't the used D/A conversion that makes a player good or bad. You could have a player with the best D/A converter available; if the other components in the player are sub-par, then the resulting picture will be sub-par too. One thing you can be certain of however. With all other things being equal, a higher number (whichever number) is better. So a Sony that sports "12bit/108Mhz" really is better than a Sony with "12bit/54Mhz" - even though only marginally.


Brands
Some people will tell you Sony makes the best DVD players out there, some will say it's Pioneer, others will say brand name doesn't matter. And all are right to a certain extent. I've seen DVD players which carried a brand name I had never heard of giving incredibly picture quality, and I've seen DVD players from expensive well-established brands that were pretty awful. Before you decide to buy any brand/model, check out the reviews on the Internet. User-reviews are very valuable while reviews from professional review sites can be a bit biased. Either way, never buy a DVD player based on what a sales person will tell you alone. Get informed through different sources. There's nothing more frustrating than buying an expensive piece of equipment only to find out it doesn't meet your requirements.


Conclusion
There are many more options and features available on DVD players but for the most part, the ones mentioned in this guide are the ones that count. The most important thing is that your DVD player must be as closely matched as possible to the equipment it is going to be connected to. If all you want to do is watch the occasional flick on your old TV, then by all means, go get that $39 DVD player. Anything you pay more is a waste of money. But if you have a Home Theater with a big 1080p HDTV with HDMI inputs, and a Dolby Digital Ex Surround System then make sure your DVD can handle that as well. Of course, if money isn't an option, then go for the one with the most features. You can never go wrong with that.


Checklist

Video

I have a HDTV or I'm planning to buy one in the near future
I want the player to support my HDTV's resolution
My HDTV is/will be 720i
My HDTV is/will be 720p
My HDTV is/will be 1080i
My HDTV is/will be 1080p

My TV has digital video inputs:
HDMI
DVI

My TV has other video inputs:
Composite Video
S-Video
Component Video
RGB

I want the DVD player to be able to upscale to higher resolutions.

I want to be able to play other video formats:
VideoCD
DivX
XVid
WMV
Digital Still Images (from camera)

I want my player to be able to play movies with different Region Codes

Audio

I have a Surround Receiver or I'm planning to buy on in the near future
The receiver is/will be Dolby Digital 5.1
The receiver is/will be DTS
The recevier is/will be Dolby Digital (5.1) Ex
The recevier is/will be DTS (5.1) ES
The receiver is/will be DTS-ES Discrete 6.1

My receveir has digital inputs:
Optical (TOSLink)
Coaxial (RCA)

My receiver has other audio inputs
Analog Stereo
Analog 5.1

I want to be able to play other audio formats:
MP3
WMA
Super Audio CD (SACD)
DVD Audio

Other

I want my player to be able to read the new HD DVDs:
Blu-Ray
HD-DVD

I want my player to be able to read the following CD/DVD types:
CD/R
CD/RW
DVD-R
DVD-RW
DVD+R
DVD+RW









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