Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray Player 
Home Theater Video Players Blu-ray Players
Written by Bryan Dailey   
Saturday, 01 July 2006

Introduction
Format wars. Everyone hates them, but they are a fact of life and HDTV owners who long for more performance than DVD has to offer are smack dab in the middle of a dilemma. Blu-ray or HD DVD – that is the question. Sony has never fared well in past AV format wars (remember Betamax, Mini-Disc and SACD?), but they are betting on their new Blu-ray technology big time. HD DVD rolled out several weeks prior to the Blu-ray launch; the players have so far received cheers for their picture and jeers for their glitchy performance and sloppy interfaces. The mixed reviews have left the door open for Sony’s format to swoop in and impress. The first player to hit the streets is the $999 Samsung BD-P1000.

Being the only Blu-ray player commercially available at the time of this review (other than the players available in Sony VAIO computers), the obvious comparison for this player is not other Blu-ray players, but rather the rival Toshiba HD DVD players, the HD-A1 and HD-XA1, priced at $499 and $799, respectively. Someday, if both formats take enough market share from DVD and the studios keep releasing titles, there is a strong possibility there will be a universal player, similar to the players that can play SACD and DVD-Audio discs. However, until that day comes, you will need a Blu-ray player to watch the HD movie titles from studios such as Sony Pictures, MGM and Columbia/TriStar, and an HD DVD player to view Universal and Warner Bros. titles in HD DVD.

Cracking open the box, the first impression of the packing materials of the BD-P1000 reminded me a lot of those that come with an Apple computer. You want to feel good about your purchase when dropping big money for electronics and Apple has the absolutely slickest packaging of any company. Although the Samsung packing materials don’t quite rival Apple, it was a much more impressive initial experience than the one engendered by the industrial cardboard box that brought the Toshiba HD DVD player. Underneath the player is a nice box that contains a set of component video cables, a set of standard RCA audio/video cables and, last but not least, an HDMI cable.

The unit itself is surprisingly light at just a shade under 10 pounds. The front of the case has a slick black finish and elegant buttons, but the case feels as if it is made of a very thin material. It does not feel flimsy, however, coming from an Integra DTR-10.5 up-converting DVD player that is built like a tank at nearly 50 pounds, I was expecting a more robust build quality out of the BD-P1000. It is about the size of an average DVD player at 16.9 inches wide, 12.8 inches deep and 3.1 inches tall. It is capable of playing Blu-ray discs, compact discs, DVD discs, DVD-R discs and DVD-RW discs. However, some CD-RW discs may not be compatible. Blu-ray discs are capable of carrying up to 50 gigs of information, so a full feature movie as well as a boatload of extras can be crammed onto these discs, with several audio mixes, commentary tracks, etc.

Almost everything about the Blu-ray player and the discs is, you guessed it, blue. The cases of the discs are blue, the labels on the discs are blue and almost every single light on the front of the player is blue. The laser inside that reads the high-density Blu-ray discs is blue as well. Priced at $999, with discs that sell in stores currently for about $25, getting into Blu-ray is a much pricier endeavor than owning HD DVD. Like HD DVD players, Blu-ray players, the Samsung included, are backwards-compatible to standard DVDs, so should you decide to make the move to Blu-ray, you have the option of taking your DVD player out of the loop.

From left to right on the front of the player, there is a silver power button with a standby/on indicator light. Next up is the front-loading disc tray; under this is a fold-down silver panel that unveils ports for putting in photo/video memory cards. This allows for a video slide show of your digital vacation photos. Now you can bore your friends in spectacular HD. Moving on to the right is the eject button. A barely visible infrared sensor is up next. This is important, as it is placed there for those who will be using this player as part of an automated control system, as there is no RS-232 port on the back, which in my opinion is a terrible oversight for a player in this price range. A small rectangular LED window gives information, such as the time elapsed/remaining on a disc. Under this is a very helpful button called TV OUT SELECT that allows you to toggle between the video outputs. Pressing the button moves the colored LED light to one of three positions: HDMI, Component and Video (S-video and composite). This makes it a snap to be sure that you are outputting the correct format. The onscreen display will show you what resolution is being output. Changing this between 1080p, 720p, 1080i and 480p requires going into the onscreen menus. If you select a resolution that your TV cannot support, the screen will go black, but you need not panic. Just hold the fast forward button on the front of the player, without a disc in it, for five seconds and it will reset back to the previous resolution, bringing back your picture.

Last up is a circular control wheel that looks like a professional editor’s jog shuttle wheel, although it really just has four buttons. Pushing it up acts as the play/pause button, pushing and holding left or right fast forwards or rewinds, tapping left or right skips forward or back and pushing the bottom of the circle stops the disc, causing the Samsung Blu-ray player menu to pop up.

Flipping the player around, the output options are fairly sparse. However, the single most important option is in the middle of the rear panel. The HDMI output allows for true 1080p video output, as well as a digital audio signal for those with TVs and/or receivers/AV preamps that will accept an audio signal via HDMI. To the right of the HDMI input are two digital audio outputs, one optical, often known as TosLink, and the other coaxial digital. The coaxial digital audio cable for this connection looks like a standard RCA cable, except that it normally has orange ends. Farther to the right is a large air intake vent with a cooling fan and, finally, a power cord. Unlike the Toshiba HD DVD players, the Samsung has a built-in power cord. This can make hard rebooting a little more difficult if you have fed the power plug end of the Blu-ray player down into an out of the way area, such as behind a cabinet. Keep this in mind, as there will likely be times when you need to unplug and replug the player.

Introduction (continued)
Moving to the left of the HDMI port, when looking at the unit from behind, there is a set of component video outputs. I only recommending using these if you have an older HDTV that does not have a DVI or HDMI input. It is the second-best way that you can connect your HDTV. However, you won’t be able to enjoy full bandwidth 1080p output and you will have a picture that has been converted from digital to analog, run through the cable, then converted back again to digital at the TV. This provides opportunity for the signal to degrade along the path and the result is a picture with more noise, jagged edges and other unwanted artifacts.

Next up is a pair of stereo audio outputs. A pair of cables is included, which would most likely be used if you have a non-surround sound system and want to plug the audio directly into a TV or a stereo receiver. I ran these out to my second TV in my kitchen and put the component video cables into this, so I have the option of hitting the output button on the front of the Blu-ray player to output component instead of HDMI; I can easily move the picture over to my small kitchen television should I decide to watch a Blu-ray disc and cook or do the dishes at the same time. Unfortunately, the player does not have the power to output both HDMI and component HD simultaneously, but that would be asking a lot.

Moving on are two video connections that you probably have no business using if you are dropping $1,000 on a Blu-ray player, S-Video and composite video. I would only recommend using these if you are running them to a secondary TV like my kitchen set that isn’t an HDTV-capable monitor. The video performance will certainly be watchable, but you are going for that next level of performance and you certainly can’t hope to find it with these connections; still, at least they are there as options.

Last but certainly not least is a set of 5.1 analog outputs. This is where the highly-touted “uncompressed 5.1 audio via PCM” comes from. Digital audio codecs, such as DTS and Dolby Digital, are compressed digital audio signals that that are sent down the digital cable in a compressed format and decoded and uncompressed by the receiver or AV preamp. Using these six RCA connections provides a pure, uncompressed analog audio signal. I hooked up my player both ways so that I could toggle between the two.

Booting up the Blu-ray player for the first time was a pleasure, compared to either of the Toshiba HD DVD units. The Toshiba players are essentially Windows/Intel computers, whereas the front of the Blu-ray player features a sticker that says “Powered by Java,” a programming language that works with Unix-based computers. The result is a player that boots up quicker and features buttons that are snappier (computer geek talk for more responsive), and the player gives you a greater sense of control. Pushing the eject button on the Samsung, even when playing a disc, results in the disc stopping, then the door opening in a span of less than four seconds. On the Toshiba HD DVD players, the time to accomplish the same task is at least double this, and even longer for the more expensive of the two units, as it has a silver door that must fold down and out of the way before the tray opens. With the Blu-ray player, I got much less of the “Uh-oh, did I break something?” feeling.

Only one time since owning this unit has the player locked up and required a hard reboot (unplugging and waiting, then plugging the unit back in) and this was the during second time that I powered the machine up. Since then, I have run the cycle of turning on the player, putting a disc in, starting and stopping it well over 50 times, and it has not had any problems since, telling me that there is a more stable operating system under the hood than that of the HD DVD players. Unfortunately, it is impossible to ignore that you are really dealing with a computer in a box with the Blu-ray player, because as the discs load up, an hourglass symbol flashes on the screen while information from the disc is loaded into the memory of the player and sometimes a flashing progress bar ticks by to show you that the player is loading. This makes me think of the days of loading up PlayStation games or waiting for my computer to boot and it draws you right out of the moment. The Sony Pictures logo that comes up on the screen is beautiful and cinematic and gets you amped up to watch a film, just like the THX or DTS logo before a movie, but when the white digital hourglass then pops up on the screen, it’s a bit of a buzz-kill.

The start-up time from disc going in to the disc playing on the Samsung is better than that of the Toshibas. However, at around 30 seconds (15 better on average than the HD DVD players), it’s still going to make Type A personalities go a little mental. All of the buttons, from the menu button (which features the set-up controls for the player) to the power button, work much better on the Samsung player, making me have a warmer and fuzzy feeling about Blu-ray before I have even cued up a disc. Add to that the fact that I never got the dreaded HDMI error screen that plagues the Toshiba HD DVD players. Score one for Blu-ray.

The first round of Blu-ray discs are mastered for video in 1080p, and the player is capable of outputting true 1080p HDTV. However, unless you have the most cutting-edge HDTV, odds are that your set does not accept a native 1080p signal. Millions of so called “1080p” HDTVs have been sold over the past two years, but the vast majority of these sets actually only accept a 1080i/720p signal at most and then internally scale the picture up to 1080p. The real draw of this Blu-ray player is that it can output native 1080p, whereas the Toshiba HD DVD players are only capable of outputting up to 1080i and 720p signals, despite tempting (or confusing) consumers with 1080p-capable discs. True 1080p sets will become the standard in the next few years, but it is essential to not get caught up in the 1080p hype that is currently at epidemic levels at the retail level.

When it comes to remotes for components, such as DVD players, I generally hit play and let a movie roll, making me a much less tough critic than, say, AVRev.com managing editor Andrew Robinson. A TiVo or PVR remote must be extremely well designed for long sessions of channel surfing, but on disc players, I generally don’t do a lot of pausing, fast forwarding, rewinding, etc. However, it must be said that the remote for the Samsung Blu-ray player, even by my standards, is pretty bad. Made of the lightest, flimsiest plastic, without any kind of backlight, this remote is very awkwardly shaped and the buttons are small and hard to read. Some of the buttons, such as the volume up and down and channel up and down, are a light glow-in-the-dark green, but the majority of the buttons are black and only have very small glow-in-the-dark numbers and letters on them. It’s a good thing that, after my initial set-up, I haven’t really had to use the remote much.

Movies
The title I was most looking forward to seeing on the Samsung Blu-ray machine was the wacky sci-fi adventure “The Fifth Element” (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment). I was very familiar with the recent super-mega-deluxe remastered edition on DVD that I have always used in order to wow my friends with my home theater set-up. On my JVC 61-inch HD-ILA set that has been professionally ISF calibrated, the scene where Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) is formed in the lab has always been spectacular-looking when played through my Integra DTR-10.5 DVD player, which upscales DVDs to 1080i.

I had never really sat through the opening credits on the DVD version, so playing the Blu-ray disc from the beginning was a shocker to me, but not in a good way. The initial menus of the Blu-ray player are a little drab, but the picture onscreen using the HDMI video output is rock solid. No dot crawl and the gradient patter from dark blue to light blue looks very good. However, during the opening credits of “The Fifth Element,” the limitations of my TV’s black-level reproduction capabilities were put to the absolute test. Blu-ray is capable of putting so much video information on the screen that it will highlight the flaws in your display. As the stars fly by the screen, the darkest patches of the screen became washed out and faded in the background. Turning a setting on the Blu-ray layer called “Black Level” to “on” helped this a little bit and re-calibrating my TV’s video input (it was originally calibrated using some of the output settings on my Integra DVD player) gained me back a little bit of the very dark details in this opening scene, but I had not seen this level of splotchy blacks even on the darkest scenes in outer space sci-fi HD DVDs, such as “Doom” (Universal Studios Home Video).

I fully realize that older rear-projection D-ILA TVs suffer from relatively light black levels, so some of this can be blamed on my display, but even when watching the film via the component video outputs and the DVI video outputs on my calibrated 19-inch Dell LCD TV, which has a much better contrast ratio and black levels, this splotchy black space background was still evident.

As the movie transitions to the first scene set in the Egyptian desert, with blue skies and yellow/tan sand, something my TV set is a champ at handling, a new flaw became quite apparent. Blu-ray is so accurate that you are going to see virtually ever bit of grain and dirt flecks on the film print. It was unbelievable that the first two scenes I viewed in this highly-touted video format were so disappointing. The amount of graininess on screen made me wonder if perhaps something was wrong with the player. The level of detail behind this coating of grain was spectacular, however, and absolutely a large improvement over the DVD version, as my player and TV did not have to work together to up-convert the signal, leading me to realize how important the film transfer process is going to be in achieving the results that consumers are going to demand of these high-definition disc formats.

Sitting back from the display a tad farther than I normally do helped to allow the picture to take on a smoother image and, by the time the film got into the scenes that were filmed indoors on sets, the grain of the film was much less evident and the picture took on a more lifelike quality. It was perhaps the stock location footage that was grainier. In my favorite demo section, the creation of Leeloo with her shocking orange hair and crazy white strap dress in the laboratory, I was starting to feel better about Blu-ray. One of the scientists in the lab has a particularly bad complexion and comparing the DVD version to the Blu-ray version was a striking demo. It almost looked like an ad for Oxy 10 face cream, as his pitted cheeks looked noticeably more cratered on the Blu-ray version. More zit marks on the face means more video information, which equals more detail. To get more detail out of a DVD, you will generally add a lot of noise to a picture with a setting called “edge enhancement,” which adds dot crawl and other unwanted noise to the picture. Leaving my set’s edge enhancement at its lowest setting, I was able to get crisp lines, such as those on the computer screen that shows an outline of Leeloo’s body as she is being formed. On the DVD version, a small amount of white flicker flanks each side of these red lines. It’s the little details like this that don’t immediately strike you at first but become more evident after getting used to the higher resolution of Blu-ray, then moving back to the DVD equivalent.

I had a feeling I was going to be in for the same film grain amd poor video transfer problem with the Blu-ray version of the original “Terminator.” Not only did it have the same whitish, hazy, washed-out look that older HD DVDs such as “Full Metal Jacket” and “Goodfellas” (both Warner Home Video) have, but it features a 16x9 non theatrical aspect ratio that makes the picture look bigger and more unnatural than it should be. Most people’s first instinct when watching TV and movies on a 16x9 set is to want to fill up every inch of the screen with picture, but by doing this, you end up getting less of a theatrical presentation of the film, with the left and right ends chopped off, even on a widescreen set. After watching many films in 2.35:1 on the Toshiba HD DVD player, the squarer 16x9 enhanced version of “The Terminator” seems like it overcrowds the screen. This again is a function of how the disc is mastered and not the player; it’s a matter of personal preference.

I was having a 50 percent success rate with Blu-ray discs so far, as I felt like I was watching an HDTV home video transfer with “The Terminator” and the beginning of “The Fifth Element,” so I wanted to find a movie made in the last few years to see if I could get past all that dang film grain and those dirty prints. Moving to “xXx” (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment) starring Vin Diesel, I was relieved to find that there are Blu-ray discs that do live up to their hype in terms of picture quality. As the band Orgy rages on at a concert in front of thousands of Gothed-out kids, I started to really see the capabilities of Blu-ray. This scene, with a frenzy of young moshers dancing as the lead singer from the band breathes fire out into the crowd, is sensory overload and this Blu-ray version looks simply spectacular.

The uncompressed analog audio tracks have perhaps a hint more noise during the quietest parts, so dramedies, such as the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore chick flick comedy “50 First Dates,” was a film I felt held up better with the pure digital connection, but the uncompressed audio track of “xXx” simply rocked the house with its fast-paced energy and huge explosions. Most people will set the player on one audio setting and forget about it, but for you geeks out there, have fun with comparing both of the audio mixes. They all sounded quite good, so you can’t go wrong.

The gem in the first batch of Blu-ray disc releases is the modern-day martial arts masterpiece “The House of Flying Daggers” (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment). The demo scene to use to blow your friends and family away and make them understand why you had to drop $1,000 on a new player is the battle in the bamboo forest. Our heroine (Ziyi Zhang) takes on a band of ninjas who float among a bamboo forest, swinging from tree to tree and hacking off sharp pieces of bamboo at an angle to make pointed spears. This transfer is so clean, vibrant and beautiful, all of my doubts about my set-up and display that I dealt with on the previous discs dissolved. When a tripwire buried in the leaves of the forest triggers a large booby trap of bamboo knives that flip up from out of the leaves, the detail in the close-up shot of the bamboo is shockingly clear. Every spine that runs around the green bamboo is crystal clear and the color saturation of the player, combined with my HD-ILA set, was nothing short of spectacular.

The Downside
Much of what you are paying for with this $1,000 player is the ability to output the holy grail of HDTV, 1080p. Most people do not have a display that can accept a true input. I don’t consider this a flaw of the machine, but rather a misleading tactic from an industry that so heavily sold consumers on the buzz on 1080p, when they were actually selling sets that can’t accept 1080p signals. Just recently, a good friend of mine was crowing about his new 1080p set and how we’ll be able to watch movies in 1080p when he gets his Blu-ray player. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he would need an even newer and more expensive display for his dream to come true. You’ll want to be armed with this information before buying a new player and TV combination, if getting to true 1080p picture is important to you. If you are getting ready to pop for a new HDTV, you will want to make sure it can take a true HDTV input so that you can get the most from Blu-ray.

At $1,000, it was surprising to me that this player does not feature an RS-232 port which is a long-standing industry standard used by custom installers and system integrators who command the connection reliability that the format provides. The $499 HD-A1 HD DVD player from Toshiba does not feature RS-232 connections. However, its big brother, the $799 HD DVD player from Toshiba, does. No RS-232 connections will require one of those ugly IR repeaters to be stuck on the front of the case and, although the Samsung player is faster than the Toshiba HD DVD players, it is slow enough that I would guess some of the commands sent to the machine in a complex series of macros could easily get missed along the way. Worse yet, getting a Crestron or AMX system (or an impatient client) to calmly wait for unusually long delays in start-up will have installer’s cell phones ringing off the hook. At $1,000 in price, there is simply no excuse for not having an RS-232 control port. Shame on Samsung for this. The likes of Pioneer and Sony should take note: the CEDIA world of custom installers will not take kindly to you missing this needed feature.

The build quality of the Samsung does not rival the cheaper of the two Toshiba units. It’s is a nice-looking player, but has a bit of a flimsy feel to it and the remote is so bad that it is really something I use only when programming the machine or starting up and stopping a disc. I’m pretty patient, but hunting to find the various pause, rewind and skip options on the remote is a bit of a nightmare. This is shame as, like HD DVD, Blu-ray has cool onscreen menus that you can access while watching a movie instead of having to go back to the main menu, but this feature isn’t what makes or breaks this format. The picture does.

The way that the films transfers are done seemingly varies quite a bit. I know it is a very inexact science and there are variables that come into play that I don’t even have time for here in this review, but like me, you will find that range is quite wide. You have poor with “The Terminator,” good with “The Fifth Element” and “50 First Dates,” and then you have unbelievable, call-your-friends-and-invite-them-over-now good with “xXx” and “The House of Flying Daggers.” Watching what this machine can do has me longing for a better line-up of titles. No “Spider-Man 2” yet? What gives?

Conclusion
If you are starved for HDTV and have the money and equipment, I say jump on board and support Blu-ray and HD DVD both. If you are looking at the two formats side by side and want to put your money into one of them, I’d say that your decision should be based on the pending titles from each format. It is an absolute tragedy that we as consumers have to be forced to chose one or the other, unless we want to shell out $1,500 dollars at a minimum for two players, then add at least $300 or more on to get some kind of HDMI video switching or a new TV set that has multiple HDMI inputs, or a new receiver or AV preamp that has two if not three HDMI inputs, assuming your cable or satellite box is HDMI. It would be a shame to not be able to take advantage of the video performance benefits of HDMI with all of your HD sources, but it sure makes you stop and think how you are going to switch all these sources.

They say the cutting edge of technology is a sharp one and it’s also an expensive one. Make no mistake about it. It’s pricey to get into Blu-ray. There will surely be lower-priced options at some point, but the players that are slated for release later in the year are more expensive than this player. The Pioneer that is going to be released later this year is expected to be $1,500, and even if you wait for Sony’s PS3, that is going to most likely be around $600. Good luck finding one before spring of 2007 if you aren’t already lined up in front of your local electronics store now.

The Samsung BD-P1000 is far from perfect, but it works a heck of a lot better than the two Toshiba offerings. You have to pay the price for this performance and you run the risk of betting on the “losing horse,” but if you want to see more than the highly compressed offerings in HD on satellite or cable, you’ve got to get one of the two formats. With Sony’s PS3 being Blu-ray-based and the HDTV discussion groups full of talk about how to get the Toshiba players to work more reliably, you should seriously take a look at Samsung’s first Blu-ray player. Personally, I am betting on the horse named Blu-ray.
Manufacturer Samsung
Model BD-P1000 Blu-ray Player
Reviewer Bryan Dailey





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