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BUYING BUDGET DVD

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Something really odd is happening! In the past when a new consumer electronics technology came along, for the buying guide magazines that sprung up around the product it was a case of rounding up the usual suspects. DVD started out in a more or less traditional way with the first slew of machines coming from the ‘A-Brand’ European and Japanese manufacturers, charging eager early adopters top dollar for the privilege.

 

After a few months, when the dust had begun to settle and it was clear that DVD was not a flash in the pan, the first ‘B-Brand’ machines began to appear, shaving a few pounds off the price and starting the time-honoured process of price erosion. It was a familiar pattern and most industry insiders and observers thought that the DVD market would probably evolve in the same way as previous home entertainment technologies, like the video reorder, CD and camcorders, and over the course of several years develop into a commodity item. Back in those early days, when the first DVD players cost on average £500 it seemed just about feasible that within five years or so players might eventually drop to below £250 and then perhaps DVD would really take off…

 

It now seems entirely possible that the first £100 DVD players could be on sale within a matter of months. Sub-£250 machines appeared late last year, the £200 price point was breached this Spring and the cheapest DVD player we’ve seen sells for just £135; several retailers are giving players away with widescreen TVs. It’s easy to forget that DVD in the UK was only launched a little over two years ago! Since then over half a million players have been sold -- most of them with the past six months – and that number is expected to double by Christmas confirming DVD’s status as the fastest selling home entertainment technology of all time. Back in mid July another milestone was reached with the sale of the 10 millionth disc and there are now over 2000 Region 2 titles available. 

 

But what has happened to bring prices down so far and so fast? Several unusual factors have been at work and there have been crucial differences in the way the DVD market has developed, compared with other audio and video formats. The first is players being sold by retailers not normally associated with cutting-edge electronics products. Woolworth’s set the ball rolling in early 1999 and soon afterwards players were appearing alongside brussel sprouts and tins of beans in supermarkets like Tesco and Asda. DVD has also benefited from the tremendous growth in shopping online, indeed in the months prior to the UK launch, and for some time afterwards, one of the few ways to get your hands on a player was to buy one from an American Internet site.

 

The other significant factor – and something that is so far unique to DVD -- is the huge number of companies producing players. New brands seem to be coming out of the woodwork, companies that up until now have been associated with high-end audio are trying to grab a slice of the action and we’re even seeing PC manufacturers and companies with no previous history in AV technology jumping aboard the DVD bandwagon. With the exception of the exclusive hi-fi brands, who are clearly pitching their products at well-heeled audiophiles, most of the newcomers are concentrating on the budget end of the market with aggressively priced players that are forcing reluctant major brands to try and keep pace.

 

In the past when considering ultra cheap AV equipment from an obscure or unknown manufacturer the usual advice from buying guide magazines and experts was to steer well clear. Budget products are invariably inferior to premium brand equipment but once again DVD defies convention. To begin with we’re talking about a sophisticated digital technology where pictures and sounds are represented by numbers, which lends itself to a much greater degree of conformity than wobbly old analogue systems. Performance also depends to a significant extent on the abilities of the display and audio components that the player is connected to. Second, at this relatively early stage of the game only a few companies around the world are making MPEG-2 processor chipsets and it’s not unknown for the same microchips to turn up in a sub £200 player, made by a company you’ve never heard, and a top of the line machine from a well-known and highly respected Japanese or European manufacturer, costing up to twice as much.

 

One interesting spin-off from the use of highly integrated processing chipsets is that more features are being squeezed into fewer chips and facilities that used only to be found on top-end players are now appearing on cheaper entry level models. It’s also worth mentioning that budget players are more likely to have easily disabled Region locks, or the manufacturer has set the player to Region-Free, leaving it up to the importer to set the appropriate country code. It’s amazing how many seem to forget…  

 

Thirdly, there are only a few mechanical components inside a DVD player, which makes them cheaper to build and generally very reliable. Complex tape deck mechanisms and head assemblies are often the most expensive elements in an AV product like a VCR or camcorder, the most likely to fail and the place where corner and cost cutting can have the biggest impact on performance. That doesn’t happen with DVD to anything like the same extent. DVD disc mechanisms are virtually identical to those found in audio CD players. It’s a tried and tested technology and by the time the image ends up on the screen there’s often little difference between the best and the worst, furthermore, like the processing chips, only a smallish number of manufacturers are involved, so the same deck mechanics can appear in players with a price difference of a couple of hundred pounds or more.

 

Budget DVD players have one other very important thing going for them. The picture and sound quality of even the cheapest and most basic machines is dramatically better than what is possible from VHS tape, and in many cases, will produce a sharper picture than either terrestrial or satellite television. The bottom line is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money on a DVD player to get stunning pictures and sounds and lots of useful features, but where do you start?

 

Begin by setting your price range. Whilst there is no official break point the budget sector is widely accepted to be £200 and under. It is highly unlikely you will see any A brand players at that price, unless they are end of line discounts, which leaves the B brands and the newcomers. If you prefer to stick with one of the better-known names you should reckon on spending at least £250.

 

Unfortunately the traditional ways of categorising products according to price performance and features is much less clear-cut with DVD, particularly at the budget end of the market. Broadly speaking there is only one major feature that distinguishes the current assortment of players (across all price ranges), and that is whether or not they have a built-in Dolby Digital 5.1 channel surround sound decoders. Up until a few months ago it was considered a luxury feature that commanded a significant price premium, however, such is the price competition in the budget sector and the all round reduction in the cost of digital processing microchips that there are several Dolby Digital equipped players selling for less than £200.

 

Should you shortlist players with a Dolby Digital decoder? Well, maybe… The point to bear in mind is that it probably won’t save you any money, unless you already have a 5.1 channel compatible AV amplifier and speakers. If not you are going to have to spend several hundred pounds upgrading your system. If you buy a decoderless player there’s nothing to stop you changing to 5.1 channel sound later, of course you will still have to buy an AV amplifier – this time with a built in decoder – and the extra speakers, but the price difference between AV amplifiers with and without Dolby Digital decoders isn’t that great, and it’s getting smaller all the time. By the time you get around to it, it may well be negligible.

 

Secondary and convenience features are not a reliable guide either. There are plenty of budget with feature lists that put machines costing £350 or more to shame, which brings into focus the question of buying a product with name you’re not familiar with. There are parallels here with the PC market, where branding has become much less of an issue. Inside most DVD players there are four main components, the deck mechanism, the AV processor board and 5.1decoder and the power supply. The same boards or at least the same processor microchips and deck assemblies turn up time and again irrespective of the name on the front panel, and as we’ve already pointed out long term reliability is unlikely to be a big problem with DVD since there are so few parts to wear out. DVD players are no different to other electronic devices and if a fault is going to develop it is most likely to do so in the first few hours and days after purchase, when the company that made or sold it is still trading, so you stand a good chance of getting it repaired or replaced.

 

That also raises the question of service contracts and extended warranties. In our view they are not worth bothering about on budget DVD players. Unlike a washing machine or fridge there are no parts that routinely wear out or need adjusting. If a player is going to go wrong it will usually do so within the manufacturer/retailer’s standard one-year guarantee period. In a budget player the dearest parts are likely to be the deck mechanism and processor boards, which shouldn’t cost more than £30 to £50 replace, or about as much as a one year service contract. In any case DVD is a fast-moving technology and most of today’s players are likely to be obsolete within a 3 to 5 year period. By that time recordable DVD will be starting to make its mark and you’ll definitely want one of those, won’t you?

 

All that remains now is work out where to buy your player from, and the best way to pay for it. Buying online is a good way to save money but it has its drawbacks. With Internet exclusive players there’s no chance to try before you buy, and if something does go wrong, you will almost certainly have to send it back from whence it came, put your faith in a courier company, trust the company has efficient service facilities, and pray they don’t go bust in the meantime. If you do buy online the golden rule is to use a credit card, which will provide you with some protection, should anything go wrong. Where possible stick to British-based companies, preferably well-known ones with a good track record in on-line trading.

 

Buying from a shop or showroom is clearly the best option since you can see what you are getting and there’s no waiting around for delivery vans to arrive. If you buy from a specialist dealer you should get expert advice, though with a budget player it’s just as likely you will be buying it from your local supermarket so don’t expert too much technical help from the fruit and veg assistants. On the other hand you know you’ll be getting a good deal from a high-street multiple or supermarket and in the unlikely event it does go wrong, you can pop it back and get it repaired, replaced or your money back, usually without too much fuss. 

 

BOXOUT 1: BUYING A SECOND HAND DVD PLAYER

It sounds ridiculous but a technology that is barely two years old has already created a market for second hand players and ads are starting to regularly appear in the classified magazines and free sheets, so could this be the way to get a bargain? Sadly the answer is probably no and you only have to look through the list of model numbers to see why. Most of the players we’ve seen are sparsely featured first generation machines that almost certainly cost the original owners a small fortune, especially if they were imported from the US. Features like on-board Dolby Digital decoders were very rare in the early days, even things that we now take for granted on budget models, like multi-speed replay and picture zoom, were unusual, and in the first eighteen months of DVD hardly any players had dts compatible bitstream outputs, which is another reason for early adopters to want to get shot of obsolete equipment. 

 

Remember too that DVD was being developed on the fly -- it still is to some extent -- and a lot of early players had problems with some types of disc. Several decks had a reputation for erratic or unstable replay on certain discs, leisurely layer change, sometimes taking several seconds and the introduction of mixed media discs – with DVD and PC data – caused a lot of difficulties for some manufacturers. Picture and sound processing has improved dramatically, blocking artefacts and freezing was quite common on early players, so the best advice we can give is don’t buy second hand, unless you know exactly what you are doing, you can see it working, and you really do stand to save a lot of money. 

 

BOXOUT 2: HOW CHEAP CAN IT GET?

Given the DVD market’s recent track record on prices you might be tempted to hang on a while longer and see if it gets any cheaper. Whilst we are reasonably confident that the £100 player is not that far away we’re already into the ‘silly money’ region and current sub £200 decks are amazing value for money. However, the real point is that manufacturing costs on these machines have already been shaved to the bone and for prices to dip any lower some we suspect real sacrifices are going to have to be made on build quality, and possibly performance as well. So far that hasn’t happened and the picture and sound quality on even the cheapest players is still very good. Playing the waiting game means won’t protect you from premature obsolescence either, the number of new ‘teething problems’ and rogue discs has slowed right down but enhancements and format variations are not going to stop and recordable DVD machines are now only a matter of months away, when the fun and games starts all over again... If you want DVD now don’t wait, or you’ll just be missing out, it’s cheap enough to take the plunge!

 


THE TESTS

ALBA DVD-103, £150

At just £150 the Alba DVD-103 is currently one of cheapest DVD players on the market and as an added bonus it plays Region one discs without any tiresome preliminaries. You would be forgiven for expecting a basic specification but nothing could be further from the truth, it has 4-mode picture search and 3-speed slomo, a 2-stage zoom and Chapter Digest, which creates a visual menu of stills from the start of each chapter. Useful extras include volume and mute on the remote handset, and a headphone socket on the front panel, with a level control.

 

The clanky menu system can be quite irritating and the remote button layout isn’t very clever but it has a good assortment of rear panel socketry with RGB and S-Video outputs on the SCART connector, dts compatible optical and coaxial bitstream and two sets of video and audio outputs. Picture quality is satisfactory; colours are well defined though skin tones look a little harsh in close-up. Resolution is average it’s not very tolerant of dirty or scratched discs and the range of trick play modes isn’t very inspiring (8x is as quick as it gets) but layer change is very fast (one or two frames).

 

Forget the dull cosmetics and iffy remote, the DVD-150 has the kind of features that were previously only available on players costing twice as much, it’s a bargain!

 

Contact Alba 020 8594 5533

 

EXTRA FEATURES

All region, PAL/NTSC replay, dts compatible bitstream output, multi-speed replay, 2-stage picture zoom, chapter digest, volume and mute control, display dimmer/off, headphone out

 

OUTPUTS

SCART             Y

S-Video             Y

RGB out                        Y

Component                    N

Optical digital            Y

Coaxial digital            Y

5.1 decoder                   N

 

Ease of use            3

Picture  4

Sound               4

Features            5

Overall  4

 

AZUDA DVD-862, £159

Unless you’re in the computer business you probably won’t have heard of Azuda but they are quite well known for bolting together PCs for several well-known UK brands. The DVD-862 is actually assembled in Wales and the PC connection is evident from the enclosed DVD-ROM type drive inside the box and the fact that it has a universal power supply that works just about anywhere and it replays MP3 files recorded on CD-R/RW discs.

 

Although officially priced at £199 it’s available online for only £159, which is remarkably cheap considering it has an on-board Dolby Digital decoder, Scene Digest feature, multi-speed fast play and slomo and a 2-stage picture zoom. The icing on the cake is hack-free all-region playback, switchable RGB/YUV (component video output) and a karaoke mode with twin mike and mix/echo facilities

 

Picture quality is generally good and it uses the same core processing microchips as significantly dearer players, it could do with a slightly wider contrast range but colours are clean and layer change is over in an instant. Audio performance is fine, the Dolby Digital decoder misses some low-level effects and MP3 is nothing to write home about, but it is still incredible value and it has to be well worth considering.

 

Contact Elecbrand, 01639 822222,

 

EXTRA FEATURES

All Region, PAL/NTSC replay, Dolby Digital decoder, multi-speed replay, 2-stage picture zoom, scene digest, MP3 playback, karaoke facility with echo, repeat playback

 

OUTPUTS

SCART             N

S-Video             Y

RGB out                        Y

Component                    Y

Optical digital            Y

Coaxial digital            Y

5.1 decoder                   Y

 

Ease of use            4

Picture  4

Sound               4

Features            5

Overall  4

 

 

BUSH DVD-2002, £180

When the Bush DVD-200 was introduced a few months ago the £180 ticket price set a new benchmark for a player with a built-in Dolby Digital decoders. It’s no longer the cheapest machine with 5.1 sound but the feature list still looks quite attractive. One unusual item is a YUV component video output, which might prove useful to some, though we would have gladly traded that for and RGB output or the all-region playback, which has been a feature of most recent Bush DVD players. It has a good assortment of trick play modes and there’s a headphone socket with a level control adjustment on the front panel.

 

On-screen performance is typical of most budget to mid range players with a crisp, detailed picture, solid and natural looking colours, no noticeable problems with processing artefacts or errors but some loss of detail in darker scenes caused by a narrowish contrast range. There’s only the briefest of interruptions during layer change – most of the time you won’t even notice it – and the 5.1 decoder is fast and accurate.  It has a few rough edges but it’s a likeable and well designed machine and the price is fair.

                       

Contact, Bush, 020 8594 5533

 

EXTRA FEATURES

Region 2, PAL/NTSC replay, multi-speed replay, headphone socket, component video output

 

OUTPUTS

SCART             1

S-Video             1

RGB out                        no

Component                    Y

Optical digital            yes

Coaxial digital            yes

5.1 decoder                   yes

 

Ease of use            3

Picture  4

Sound               4

Features            3

Overall  4

 

 

ENCORE DV-450, £230

From the outside it looks ordinary enough but this is a most unusual machine since it is based around a DVD-ROM deck mechanism, though as we’ll see it that’s no impediment when it comes to picture or sound performance. In addition to a built-in Dolby Digital decoder it has a 2-stage picture zoom, 5-scene marker and MP3 file replay, on CD-R/RW discs. There’s also a front-mounted headphone socket and level control. The player is set to Region 2 playback but the lock can be easily disabled by entering General Setup on the Setup menu and pressing 38883 on the remote handset. Connectivity is very good with a choice of composite, component, RGB and S-Video outputs.

 

Picture and sound quality are fine, there’s lot of fine detail in the image, colours are lifelike and skin tones cleanly rendered, the dynamic range is a whisker wider than is usual on budget players, livening up shadows and gloomy scenes no end. Layer change takes less than a couple of frame on average and trick play is fairly smooth, though the control system makes it difficult to access the slomo speeds. Dolby Digital soundtracks are crisply rendered and the sound it makes compares well with most similarly equipped mid-market players. Worth considering.

 

Contact Laser UK, (01895) 450450, www.laseruk.co.uk

 

EXTRA FEATURES

Region 2 (see text), PAL/NTSC replay, Dolby Digital decoder, dts compatible, MP3 replay, multi-speed replay, 2-stage picture zoom, 5-scene marker, front-mounted headphone socket and level control

 

OUTPUTS

SCART             Y

S-Video             Y

RGB out                        Y

Component                    Y

Optical digital            Y

Coaxial digital            Y

5.1 decoder                   Y

 

Ease of use            4

Picture  5

Sound               4

Features            5

Overall  5

 


MICO DVD-A980     £180    

The DVD-A980 is one of a growing number of budget players that are only available from the Internet web-sites, in this case from Unbeatable.co.uk. The asking price of £180 looks quite reasonable when you consider it has a Dolby Digital decoder, advanced replay facilities, all-region playback, 2-stage picture zoom, digital sound processing and MP3 replay on CD-R/RW discs. It has a twin-mike karaoke facility with variable mix and echo effects and although the name on the outside might be unfamiliar, inside the box there’s a Hitachi-made deck mechanism.

 

It’s a bit quirky in places; the row of track selection buttons on the front panel is unusual, there’s no standby option – just a front panel mains on/off switch -- and the control system takes some getting used to but picture quality is quite satisfactory. We would have like a slightly wider contrast range; colours can look a little flat at times. Layer change is a fairly ordinary quarter of a second and it’s not very tolerant of dirty or scratched discs but the image is lively and detailed. The Dolby Digital soundtracks are also well defined and manage to pick out subtle and low level effects without any difficulty. Fair vale, fair performance; put it on your shortlist.

 

Contact: www.unbeatable.co.uk

 

EXTRA FEATURES

All Region, PAL/NTSC replay, Dolby Digital decoder, dts compatible bitstream output, multi-speed replay, 2-stage picture zoom, 7-mode DSP, 6-mode equaliser with user preset, MP3 playback, karaoke facility with echo, repeat and A/B repeat play

 

OUTPUTS

SCART             1

S-Video             1

RGB out                        no

Component                    N

Optical digital            yes

Coaxial digital            yes

5.1 decoder                   yes

 

Ease of use            3

Picture  4

Sound               4

Features            5

Overall  4

 

WHARFEDALE DVD-750, £180

The DVD-750 started out as a Tescos exclusive earlier this year and at the time the £180 price tag looked impressive, though of late it has tended to be overshadowed by cheaper and more exotically equipped players. Nevertheless the Wharfedale name still carries a fair amount of kudos and the rather basic spec means it is fairly easy to use. Whilst it doesn’t have any 5.1 decoders there is a picture zoom, a modest selection of trick play modes and it uses a Sanyo deck mechanism. The region lock can be easily hacked by loading an R1 disc (leave the tray open) and tapping 0,1,2,3 Play on the handset.

 

On-screen displays look a bit crude but AV performance is fine. The picture is sharp with clean colours that cope well with subtle shades and hues. The contrast range could do with being a bit wider but it was no worse than normal. Layer change is over in two or three frames and the trick play modes – such as they are – are very smooth. The mixed stereo output has average levels of background hiss; the response is flat and wide. A reasonable price to pay for decent AV performance and a familiar name.

 

Contact Wharfedale International, telephone (01480) 447700

 

EXTRA FEATURES

Region 2 PAL/NTSC (see text), picture zoom, dynamic range compression, PIN coded parental lock

 

OUTPUTS

SCART             1

S-Video             1

RGB out                        no

Component                    N

Optical digital            yes

Coaxial digital            yes

5.1 decoder                   no

 

Ease of use            4

Picture  4

Sound               4

Features            3

Overall  3

---end---

 

Ó R. Maybury 2000, 3008

 


 

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