I had the opportunity to spend some quality time on June 20th with Samsung's BD-P1000, the first Blu-ray Disc player for the living room, and was left with several early thoughts about this model as compared to Toshiba's HD-A1, its US$499 HD DVD player.
Scroll down in this blog entry, which I've updated several times since the 20th, for new observations on responsiveness and the player's specs, as well as disc playback, disc capacity, and some early thoughts on picture quality issues. And look for a forthcoming blog entry that will discuss the picture quality issues facing comparisons of Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD.
We'll post a full review of the Samsung BD-P1000 once we get a unit in-house, have titles from more than one studio, and have the chance to more fully test the unit in our lab. June 20th marked Sony's launch of its first seven Blu-ray Disc titles. And, in spite of Samsung's official launch date of June 25, the Samsung BD-P1000 player can already be found at retailers nationwide, including the Best Buy in Culver City, CA (which had two in stock, plus one on display). (As of June 21, however, I'd heard of at least one Best Buy store which was telling customers they'd been instructed to not sell the player until the June 25).
Here are my initial impressions based on two hours with the player:
Design. The industrial design of the Samsung is far superior to that of the HD-A1 in several ways. The sleek, piano-black box has a tapered look; a circular, pressure-based front navigation panel; comfortable, lightweight remote control; and a 10-in-2 card slot reader for reading photos or MP3s. The player even resumes disc playback where you left off, whether you press stop, or you power the unit down--a nice touch.
Inside, the player uses a proprietary Samsung processor and what the company describes as 64MB of system memory. It's quiet, too: I found its fan and drive motor to be rather quiet in an environment with low ambient noise. By contrast, the Toshiba HD-A1 is essentially using PC components inside, from its NEC drive to its Pentium CPU and 1GB of memory; I found the Toshiba slightly more noisy, but not so much so that it would dramatically detract from the zen state of your living room environment.
Responsiveness. Again, the Samsung rates ahead here. Across a variety of standard definition and high definition films I threw at it, the Samsung was generally fast at navigating around and titles and menu options, and the remote's soft-mold buttons responded to my commands in a timely fashion. Sometimes, the Sony BD discs I tried (including House of Flying Daggers and 50 First Dates) were a bit sluggish when accessing chapters, but this problem did not seem evident with standard-def discs, which leads me to believe it's an issue with the discs, not the Samsung player.
Future-proofing. Toshiba's HD-A1 has the edge here. That player includes two USB ports up front, as well as an ethernet jack. Although Toshiba has not specified how those might be used down the road, at least the player has them (the inclusion of ethernet alone should make it easier down the road for consumers to upgrade the player). Samsung's player, on the other hand, has neither USB nor ethernet; any firmware upgrades will need to be handled via disc.
Disc Playback. The Samsung player was very responsive as I navigated around different aspects of the disc. I noticed that, upon rewinding within a scene, rather than precisely starting where I stopped the rewind, it instead did an auto-back track for a few frames, so I'd catch the frames just before the spot I intended to stop at. The BD-P1000 also provides an on-screen cue telling you how fast you're scanning; the Toshiba player does not.
Disc startup times--from insertion to first picture--seemed to vary from disc to disc, but all of the discs I tried were faster than the Toshiba player (when tested without the firmware update that Toshiba issued two weeks ago). Whereas the Toshiba player could require from a minute to up to 90 seconds to load a disc, the Samsung player was speedier: Memento required 32 seconds to load; House of Flying Daggers, 44 seconds; 50 First Dates, 31 seconds; The Fifth Element, 32 seconds; xXx, 32 seconds.
First Movie Titles and Disc Capacity. In a recent column, I observed how much disc space was utilized by eight HD DVD titles. Even though all eight titles relied on the latest video codecs--VC-1 and MPEG-4 AVC, both of which are more efficient encoders than MPEG-2--most of the titles showed signs of pushing HD DVD's capacity limits. The Last Samurai topped out at 27.3GB, Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles at 25.4GB, The Phantom of the Opera at 24.8GB, Jarhead at 24.7GB, The Bourne Identity at 22.7GB, Serenity at 19.6GB, The Fugitive at 18.2GB, and Doom at 16.5GB. It seems that the first wave of Blu-ray titles are also pushing the space constraints of the format. For now, these titles are limited to 25GB single-layer discs; 50GB dual-layer discs are forthcoming, though. Using Sony's new Vaio AR Premium, a US$3500 notebook that includes a Blu-ray Disc burner, I checked out how much disc space Sony's first seven Blu-ray titles (encoded in MPEG-2, and many of them light on extra features) required. The results of this survey were quite telling: The Fifth Element needed 22.8GB; The Terminator, 23GB; House of Flying Daggers, 23.1GB; xXx, 22.3GB; Hitch, 22.9GB; Underworld Evolution, 22.5GB; 50 First Dates, 18.8GB.
My one takeaway from this random survey of both Blu-ray and HD DVD titles: The physical disc format's capacity is going to be more integral to the future presentation of content than perhaps Hollywood, or even industry observers, originally anticipated.
Admittedly, with time the industry will develop better, more efficient video encoders that will produce equal video quality at lower bit rates--thereby requiring less space on a disc to do the same job. However, none of these early titles are tapping the full potential of extras filmed in high-definition, let alone the interactivity afforded by the authoring environments of either Blu-ray Disc (which uses its own flavor of Java), or HD DVD (which relies on Microsoft's iHD).
Picture Quality. Considering how many variables go into producing a movie title--be it on DVD, HD DVD, or Blu-ray Disc--I am not ready to judge the Samsung player, or the Blu-ray Disc format for that matter, on the first titles released by one studio. Look for a separate blog with my thoughts on the issues involved in judging picture quality on these next-generation discs. And, when we have a Samsung player in-house, I'll report on the results of my more thorough, comparative image quality testing.