But where's the HD content? Broadcast, cable, and satellite programming is great for catching the occasional TV show or movie if it happens to be on during your schedule (and isn't cropped from the original aspect ratio, edited, or interrupted with commercials), but many of us prefer to actually own movies to watch on our own time. When it comes to prerecorded HD media, the only significant option in the American marketplace is D-VHS, an awkward tape-based format whose hardware and software are both overpriced and under-supported. For those who can afford it, D-VHS will have to make due as a stopgap. At least it’s in true 1080i high definition, and it’s available now. Naturally, though, what we all really want is an HD video disc, with all the features and convenience of DVD in a higher-quality format.
Microsoft attempted to get the ball rolling with its Windows Media 9 (WM9) compression codec, which allows an HD movie to be compressed onto a regular DVD in 720p or 1080p resolution. Examples of this include the “bonus” WM9 versions of movies on a small handful of commercially released discs, such as the Terminator 2: Extreme Edition and Standing in the Shadows of Motown DVDs. Although the video quality is good, the hassles of watching it are almost not worth the effort. These discs are playable only in the DVD-ROM drive of a computer with ridiculous hardware requirements, and WM9 also forces a viewer to connect to the Internet to download a licensing agreement before use. (The Terminator 2 license is good for only 5 days at a time.) No thanks. This leaves us waiting patiently for a real HD video disc standard to be finalized and released. We all know the technology is available, but where is it?
The Battle for HD DVD
The holdup on getting such a next-generation product to market comes down to two words: format war. On the one hand, we have Blu-Ray, the HD format developed by Sony that utilizes a new form of high-density, high-capacity storage disc. On the other hand, we have HD-DVD from Toshiba and NEC, with big promotional enthusiasm from head cheerleader Warren Lieberfarb, the former head of Warner Home video who was one of the driving forces behind the development and introduction of DVD. The official selection of the DVD Forum, HD-DVD is based on the current DVD standard but uses the more efficient MPEG-4 compression codec to squeeze more information into the same amount of space.
The competition between these two developing forces has been likened to the infamous battle between VHS and Betamax. Truth be told, that’s not an accurate comparison. VHS and Beta had clear quality and functional differences, and (despite being the inferior of the two) VHS was the clear winner that the public immediately latched onto. No, the situation here is more akin to the war between DVD-Audio and SACD, the two high-resolution audio formats whose quality and features are so similar that they’ve left consumers confused and disinterested. An apathetic buying public still mostly satisfied with plain old CD-quality sound hasn’t bothered to buy into either one. Such might just happen again. Any new video-disc format is likely to be relegated to niche status in light of the wildly popular DVD, and when you try to divide that niche between two separate products, both might suffer. A format war is in no one’s best interest.
Nonetheless, the two opposing camps each refuse to back down. Lieberfarb and Benjamin Feingold, the President of Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, even recently engaged in a pissing match at the Home Entertainment Summit in West Hollywood. In any case, we as the interested videophile public won’t know the outcome of any of this for quite a while. Current estimates place the introduction of either format at the earliest in late 2005 or early 2006. That’s a long time to go with little but speculation to tide us over.
The Story in Asia
Just when you thought the HD DVD situation was confusing enough, some new players have just entered the game. Several hardware manufacturers in Asia have decided that they don’t want to wait for the Americans and Japanese to make up their minds. Eager to prove that their own countries can produce cutting-edge technology, China and Taiwan have put into development not one but three all-new HD video-disc formats. From China, we have the competing rivals Enhanced Video Disc (EVD) and High-Clearness Video Disc (HVD). Not to be outdone, Taiwan has jumped in with its announcement of Forward Versatile Disc (FVD). It’s a veritable alphabet soup over there! What started as a format war between two titan opponents has degenerated into a free-for-all melee in that part of the world.
It’s safe to say that none of these new Asian formats is intended to set a worldwide standard. Each is a blatant attention-grabbing maneuver from the countries and manufacturers supporting them, and a ploy to circumvent further royalty payments to the mostly Japanese conglomerates who monopolize the home video industry. It's highly unlikely that we'll ever see many Hollywood or other foreign movies licensed for release on any of these formats. Geared for a Chinese marketplace, EVD and HVD will probably release almost exclusively Chinese movies, and likewise with FVD in Taiwan.
Will any of these formats have an impact on the American marketplace or the battle between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray? Not likely. Should Americans even care? Most probably won’t. However, this isn’t to say that they hold no interest for the early-adopter videophile consumer. In fact, there’s one key point that makes them downright fascinating. China and Taiwan aren’t waiting around until late 2005 or 2006. They're putting their HD product out right away. The FVD format (based on a version of the WM9 codec) will be available before the end of the year. Meanwhile, both Chinese formats, EVD and HVD (based on MPEG-2 compression with proprietary encryption schemes), have hardware available on the market right now. What’s more, the players are cheap and easily imported.
Both the Shinco EVD-8830 and the Skyworth HVD-3050 are fully functional region-free DVD players, in addition to their HD capabilities. So, even if neither HD disc format takes off (and frankly it’s very possible that neither will), the machines might still be worthwhile investments for their ability to play normal DVDs from other parts of the world without region-coding restrictions. (For the record, it's not illegal to own a region-free DVD player.) And for those viewers desperate for an HD fix, both machines come prepackaged with a selection of movies for demo material. If you’ve got an HD screen, a hunger for more shiny HD content to light it up as soon as possible, and a couple hundred dollars in discretionary income, one of these players might be worth a look.
Hitting the market first was Shinco’s EVD-8830. Housed in a shiny silver case with a reflective front faceplate, the machine is an odd mix of sleekly stylish and chintzy. The player weighs about 7 pounds and, like many Chinese electronics, doesn't exactly impress with the sturdiness of its build quality. You’d expect the first-ever HD disc player to be a robustly built beast with a price tag over $1000. But no, the Shinco looks pretty much like every other cheap Chinese DVD player and is priced at a mere $245. That’s actually on the high side for Chinese electronics, and apparently it hasn't sold well in either China or Hong Kong, where HDTVs are only starting to make inroads and consumers expect to pay much less for a DVD player. Here in the United States, a quality DVD player that's neither region-free nor has any HD output abilities will frequently cost more than that. For what you get, $245 is rather reasonable by those standards.
The Shinco is dual-voltage compatible and doesn't require a currency converter to work in an American electrical outlet. However, the included power cord has a Chinese plug, so you either need to buy an adaptor or replace the cord. Radio Shack part number 61-2876 works just fine and costs only $2.99.
You'll notice that the player's front panel has no disc tray, but rather a slot-loading mechanism. This might have been intended to make the machine look futuristic, but again it seems a little cheap-jack. The lack of a disc tray means that the player won't accept the 3" Pocket DVD format, but I doubt many will consider that a big deal. I know of only one Pocket DVD release: the supplement disc to the anime movie Metropolis.
Connections on the back of the player include the power input and one set each of component video, S-video, composite video, coaxial digital audio, Toslink optical digital audio, and 6-channel analog audio outputs. The player and manual make no mention of DTS compatibility, but in my tests DTS came through just fine from both the digital and 6-channel analog audio connections. The analog outputs are primarily intended for use with EVD’s proprietary EAC 5.1 surround-sound format—another ploy to get out of paying licensing fees to Dolby and DTS, I imagine. Unfortunately, none of the demo discs included in the package is actually encoded with EAC 5.1, so I was unable to test this. Until some EAC-encoded discs get released, I expect most users will simply go with one of the two digital audio connections.
The remote control is one of the worst I’ve ever had the displeasure of using. The button layout is almost intentionally nonintuitive, with important functions not anywhere where you’d expect them to be. The button labels are in English, but several important functions such as Subtitle and Audio are labeled with ambiguous icons that you won’t understand until you look them up in the manual.
Once you’ve got everything connected and powered on, you'll find that the onscreen menus are thankfully in English. Setup is pretty straightforward if you’ve ever used a DVD player, and it has most of the standard features you’d expect. Notably missing is the ability to turn off onscreen icons during movie playback. The player can pillarbox a 4:3 picture in the center of a 16:9 screen, if so desired, but it offers no Zoom function for non-anamorphic letterbox discs.
The settings for output resolution might be a little confusing. The player was designed for the Chinese market, which uses the PAL video format, and is geared primarily for PAL playback. The four resolution choices are labeled SD-PAL, SD-AUTO, HD-PAL, and HD-AUTO. The player will accept DVDs from either NTSC or PAL video formats. If you set the player for SD-AUTO, it will output them in their native resolutions, either 480i or 576i. If you set it for SD-PAL, it will convert NTSC discs to 576i PAL. Important to note is that the player can't convert PAL discs to NTSC. This is a key point for potential American consumers and makes the player much less desirable.
Shinco also offers the ability to upscale a standard-definition DVD to 1080i HD resolution. Unfortunately, scaling to 1080i isn't a sufficient workaround for the PAL problem because the player can't convert the 50Hz PAL refresh rate to the 60Hz that American TVs use. If you set the player tor HD-AUTO and put in an NTSC disc, the player will output 1080i at 60Hz and it will work fine; however, if you put in a PAL disc, it will output 1080i at 50Hz, which is incompatible with most display models. Likewise, HD-PAL converts everything to 1080i at 50Hz and is basically useless. American viewers will have to set the unit to either SD-AUTO or HD-AUTO and stick to watching only NTSC discs. You'll also notice that the player doesn't offer any progressive-scan output formats. This is an interlace display model only.
The Shinco is region-free out of the box, and I had no problems playing any of my Region 3 NTSC (Hong Kong, Korea) or Region 2 NTSC (Japan) discs. There is no need to enter a secret menu or do anything else sneaky. The player can also easily get around RCE-encoding, and I tested this myself with a known RCE disc.
Finally getting to playback quality, I first tested the standard-definition settings and everything there seemed fine. Notably, the player will downconvert the included 1080i EVD discs to standard 480i 60Hz output—fascinating. My primary interest was in the machine’s HD functions, so I quickly set it for HD-AUTO. Using Avia test patterns, the scaling quality from 480i to 1080i measured decently on the resolution charts, perhaps a little less impressively than my primary Denon player run through an iScan-HD video scaler, but the iScan retails for $1500, so that’s not a fair fight. For a $245 DVD player doing its own scaling, the results were certainly more than adequate. I noticed no edge-enhancement ringing added to the image as a result of the scaling. However, a bit disturbing were some very blatant chroma delay problems that showed up on the color bar patterns.
Moving on to real movie content, the chroma problems I noted on the color bars weren't visible in actual practice. I fed the player a barrage of movies, and they all looked very pretty scaled up to 1080i. Note that scaling a DVD doesn't result in a true HD picture. Scaling doesn't add real picture detail. What it does is fill in the empty spaces between scan lines by duplicating information from the surrounding pixels, which provides a smoother, more stable image—but not real HD. Because we aren't dealing with progressive scan, there were no combing artifacts to be found; however, some minor image shimmer did appear and was disappointing.
Now for the good stuff: HD video content from the brand-new EVD format. The Shinco comes packaged with five free demo discs, each stored in a plain keepcase with generic artwork that has no English text. The only way to tell what you’re watching is to put a disc in and hit Play. The first disc is a brief 8-minute demo clip to get you started. A sort of a mini version of Koyaanisqatsi, the program has some time-lapse photography, some computer graphics, and some scenery all played to music. It makes fine video wallpaper to play in a background loop during a party. Ah, HD bliss! The picture looks terrific. Everything shot on HD video, the image is very sharp and vivid, with pure colors and an excellent 3-D appearance. It’s short, but we’re off to a good start.
The other four discs are all Chinese movies: a period costume drama/comedy called The Lion Roars, a modern action comedy called Kung-Fu Girls, the action fantasy Black Mask 2, and Zhang Yimou’s martial arts epic Hero, starring Jet Li. All the movies are in either Cantonese or Mandarin language, and none have English subtitles (except for Black Mask 2, which inexplicably has one scene with hard-coded English subs, but then reverts back to having no subtitles). English-speaking viewers might enjoy the eye candy but will probably not have as much interest in sitting through an entire untranslated movie. All the movies were obviously transferred from theatrical film prints, not pristine sources such as an internegative or interpositive, and suffer from visible dirt on the elements. Hero is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Black Mask 2 starts at 2.35:1 but switches to a cropped 16:9 presentation after the opening credits. The other two movies are 16:9 all the way through. Picture quality is generally very good, about comparable to what I see when watching HDTV via cable. None of the discs have 5.1 soundtracks, just compressed and shrill 2-channel audio mixes that are rather unsatisfactory.
The only movie I was able to compare directly to a DVD was Hero. Run side-by-side against the Region 3 DVD, the EVD is definitely sharper and more detailed but has a very different color balance that is darker and bluish. Overall, I prefer the warmer look and stunning DTS 5.1 sound of the DVD. On the other hand, the EVD is the only known release of the 120-minute Director’s Cut (the theatrical release and DVD are 98 minutes) and is worth owning for that reason alone, even without subtitles.
At present, these five free discs are the only EVDs in existence. No professionally packaged consumer releases are available. The companies supporting the EVD format have claimed that more than 1000 titles will be released by year's end, but no progress has actually been made toward that goal.
Although the picture aspect of both DVD and EVD was nice, the player I received experienced repeated audio dropouts in both Dolby Digital and DTS DVD soundtracks, as well as whatever 2-channel format the EVDs were using. The Hero EVD also froze up and pixelated during one chapter, and I was able to get past it only by skipping to the next one, missing about 15 minutes of movie. Obviously, some quality-control problems are happening here, and the Shinco has a number of glitches still to be worked out. These are serious flaws, and coupled with the inability to convert PAL to NTSC, they make for a less-than-great region-free player.
Shinco is reportedly working on a new model that will have added functionalities, including the ability to scale to 720p output. Hopefully, it will also have better quality control and fewer glitches. When or if this new model will come out is still unknown, because EVD hasn’t exactly sparked a lot of interest in its native country. The format could already be dead in the water. As such, the EVD-8830 is an interesting curiosity but is basically impossible to recommend for ownership.
I’ve expended a lot of words on a player that I don’t even recommend for purchase, so let’s skip ahead to one that I do. The Skyworth HVD-3050 won't win any beauty contests (it’s very plain and even more cheap-looking than the Shinco), but the quality and functionality are much better than its competition. Priced at a mere $149, it's a significantly better value in all respects.
Like its competitor, the Skyworth will also accept American 110v voltage without needing a power converter (the back panel claims to be compatible with 85-245v), but in this case the Chinese power cord is nondetachable. If you aren't up to opening the player and installing a new cord, an adaptor will be necessary.
On the back panel are a power switch and a standard bevy of output connections: component video, S-video, composite video, coaxial digital audio, Toslink optical digital audio, 6-channel analog audio and separate left/right 2-channel analog audio. There's also an HD-15 connector that apparently is capable of outputting the video in either VGA (640x480) or SVGA (800x600) resolutions. The front panel is black but sheltered behind an ugly opaque plastic cover that can't be removed. The unit has a standard disc tray that looks potentially flimsy but is still preferable to the Shinco's slot-loading type.
No mention of DTS compatibility is mentioned on the player, on the packaging, or in the manual, but I made sure to test this. The player passed the DTS stream through its digital audio connections without incident. Using the 6-channel analog audio connections, only Dolby Digital comes out. The player is obviously lacking an internal DTS decoder, so a digital audio cable is the preferred connection method.
The manual that comes in the box is entirely in Chinese, so not a lot of help there. Fortunately, the remote control and all the onscreen user menus are in English. The button layout on the remote isn't terrific, but it’s a lot better than the piece of junk that came with the Shinco. Navigation through the setup menus is pretty easy to figure out and should only take a few minutes to get everything ready. Like all DVD players, the Skyworth can be set for either 4:3 or 16:9 display types; however, unlike the Shinco, it doesn't offer any modes for pillarboxing a 4:3 image in the center of a 16:9 screen. Viewers with TVs that force a 16:9 stretch on all progressive scan input signals should be aware of this point.
The available output resolutions are NTSC 480i, NTSC 480p, PAL 576i, PAL 576p, HD 720p, HD1080i, and (if using the HD-15 connection) VGA or SVGA. Any compatible disc format that's inserted into the player can be scaled to any one of these resolutions, including down-converting the HVD discs to 480i standard definition. The unit does PAL-to-NTSC conversion and NTSC-to-PAL, both with appropriate refresh rate conversion and accurate picture geometry, unlike many cheap region-free players.
One minor annoyance is that the player doesn't have a mode for automatically outputting NTSC or PAL discs in their native resolutions. You have to set your desired resolution in advance, and everything will be scaled to that. Most users won't object to this, but those with multistandard displays might be slightly irritated. To offset this frustration, the player’s remote control does have convenient buttons for switching display resolutions on the fly without going through all the setup menus. Also worth noting is that the machine has no black level control setting. Output of 480i seems to be set automatically to the “Lighter” 7.5 IRE black level, whereas 480p and all the other resolutions come out at the “Darker” 0 IRE, and there's no way to change this.
The Skyworth is region-free out of the box, with no need for hidden menus, and easily circumvents RCE encoding. I threw a multitude of discs at it from all regions and formats, and it played and converted them all to every output resolution. Conversion of PAL to NTSC seems to introduce a small amount of shimmer, but honestly that's pretty typical of region-free players and I didn’t find it severe enough to be objectionable. I didn't see any problems with frame-rate stutter, as is often a problem when converting PAL 50Hz to NTSC 60Hz.
A few years ago, Skyworth caused a small stir with its model 1050 DVD player, one of the few region-free units available with the excellent Faroudja deinterlacing chip. For this model, Skyworth has done away with the Faroudja and gone with a new deinterlacing solution that's not quite as good. In general, movie playback looks fine and stable, but on some of the more difficult film-based material I threw at it, minor combing artifacts intruded into the picture at 480p, 720p, and 1080i resolutions. I found that the Faroudja chip in my other DVD player and the Silicon Image chip in my iScan video scaler both had better progressive-scan deinterlacing quality than the Skyworth. It’s certainly not terrible, but it's not perfect either.
Material shot or edited on video tends to be the most difficult to deinterlace properly, and anime programs are some of the worst test cases due to their rampant improper flagging. In my worst-case example—the trailer for the anime program RahXephon, found on many discs from ADV studios—the image breaks up into combing artifacts in almost every shot in all but the very best deinterlacers. Even the Silicon Image chip in my scaler has problems with it. Basically, Faroudja is the only solution that handles it smoothly. The Skyworth didn't do so well with this one. The trailer is a big combing mess, as I feared. It's probably not the worst I’ve seen from some flag-reading DVD players, but the chip inside is certainly not as agile as the Faroudja. I'm disappointed that Skyworth chose to go another route, but I suppose at this price-point the company had to make some compromises.
In other respects, the scaling quality looks very good at both 720p and 1080i resolutions. The player doesn't have the Chroma Upsampling Error, or if it does, it uses filters to mask it to a degree that I couldn’t see it on my worst test-case discs. No edge enhancement is introduced by the scaling process, and the resolution charts acceptably on Avia test patterns. For real movie content, choosing between the two resolutions will depend as much on your particular monitor as on the player itself, but both looked fairly comparable on mine. Sometimes, one particular scene would look better at one setting, while another scene would look better at the other. Both scaling options seemed slightly softer than regular 480i or 480p outputs. Likely some filtering is being employed to reduce the appearance of scaling artifacts, but the difference is minuscule. The scaling quality might not be reference quality, but for a $149 DVD player it can’t be beat.
And what about real HD? The player comes with two demo HVD discs, the action thriller Heroic Duo and a comedy called My Dream Girl. Both are in their original Cantonese language with no English subtitles (drats!). The discs are professionally packaged with slick artwork, although the packaging design is strange and awkward. The discs are held in a cheap plastic liner, which is stored in a paper sleeve inside a thicker plastic slipcover.
Unlike the EVD demo discs, the HVDs are a professional-looking product all the way. The disc authoring is easier to navigate, and both movies are mastered from clean source elements rather than used theatrical prints. Heroic Duo is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, and My Dream Girl is a 16:9 transfer, also with DD 5.1. Picture quality looks decent on both, but not dramatically better than that of regular DVD. There's been some debate about whether the discs are truly encoded at an HD resolution, or actually contain a standard-definition signal that the player upscales to HD. I’ve found it difficult to obtain hard technical data on the format, but the information I have received indicates that HVD discs are encoded natively at 720p resolution. To back this up, in my observations the discs look distinctly worse when the player is set to 480i or 480p output. Edges look jaggy and fine textural detail is lost. Set for 720p or 1080i, the details fill in and the image is more stable. Nonetheless, both HD settings lack that “through a window” feel you get with most HDTV. Whether this is due to the format’s limitations, both movies in question having soft photographic styles, or heavy filtering employed to reduce compression artifacts, I can’t say for certain. What I can say is that these two discs in particular don't look as detailed as the EVD discs packaged with the Shinco player. Honestly, I own DVDs that look better.
Some compromise must have also been made in the audio department to compress an HD movie onto these discs, because the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix on Heroic Duo sounds pretty poor. The track is flat and lacking dynamic range. The sound just has no life to it, despite all the shooting and explosions. My Dream Girl has a less complicated mix and fares better. It would score about average compared to a standard romantic comedy on DVD. With such a small sample to test, I have no way of knowing whether this weak audio is a flaw inherent to the HVD compression scheme or just poor mastering on the part of these two specific initial test discs.
As I think back on how badly the first wave of DVDs from 1997 holds up to current standards, I’m inclined to hope that the HVD video and audio problems are disc-mastering issues and that the format will get better as it progresses.
As with EVD, there are currently no HVD discs available for sale other than those that come packaged with the player. However, owing to its low price, wealth of features, and good quality, the Skyworth HVD-3050 has been a hot seller in Asia, and it's very possible that HVD could take off there. I would hope to see more releases soon. Whether any of them will offer accommodation for English-speaking viewers remains to be seen.
So you’ve got an HDTV and want more content to play on it. You’re too anxious to wait around for Blu-Ray and HD-DVD to settle their differences and will take whatever you can get in the meantime. You also wouldn’t mind getting a decent region-free DVD player while you’re at it. What to do? At just $149 plus about $65 shipping from Hong Kong, the Skyworth HVD-3050 is an excellent all-purpose region-free DVD player that also happens to come with a couple of HD movies, albeit of only mediocre quality. Maybe more HVDs will be released in the near future with better mastering that will show off the format’s true potential. And if you’re very fortunate, maybe some of them will be English-language or include subtitles. Frankly, for all you get, any HD content is just gravy on top of a terrific DVD player value. In fact, the Skyworth has now taken its place as my default region-free player, in favor of the venerable Malata DVD-N996 that has served me well for years.
Unfortunately, the more expensive Shinco EVD-8830 has too many quirks and glitches to recommend for purchase, even though its initial EVD discs look better than the HVD samples I’ve watched so far. The main motivating factor in this player’s favor is the inclusion of the highly desirable director’s cut of the movie Hero, not available on any other disc format. Is that enough to spend $245 plus $80 shipping, especially when the disc has no English subtitles and a poor two-channel audio track? I would dare say not. If Shinco (or some other manufacturer) can get its act together and release a better EVD player model with more features and higher quality, maybe the format will be worth reevaluating in the future. If not, EVD might already be dead. At present, I see more potential in the HVD format.
For those interested, both players are available at the stated prices from the Hong Kong-based retailer HiViZone. Assuming the players are in stock (the Skyworth has been a popular seller), shipping takes a short 3-4 business days to the United States. Mine arrived promptly on the fourth day. In my experience, the site also offers courteous English-language assistance to any questions you may send by email. Have fun shopping!