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Thanks to the rapid uptake of DVD among the general public, more and more efforts have been made to improve the technology along the way. We’ve seen the introduction of DVD-Audio, SuperBit and 7.1 channel sound, ensuring those who choose to take their technology that little bit further can take full advantage of what’s on offer. An area that does seem to be forgotten, however, is the home theatre PC (HTPC) market. Many DVD devotees have already set up a simple personal computer in their home theatre rooms to handle the playback and audio output of any disc they decide to throw at it. Gone are the days when a standalone DVD player was the only option.

So with this comes the need for a sufficient software DVD player. Cyberlink have long been regarded the frontrunner in this area, providing consumers with an affordable, functional and award-winning PC-based player which allows for playback of high quality video and audio on your home computer. Since the very first release we’ve seen the program grow rapidly, including more and more features and extras along the way. Version 5.0 was a real step up, adding a lot more user-friendly characteristics which appealed to the general novice user. Version 6.0 is again a marked improvement, though this time you’ll have to look a little harder to find the real value in the upgrade.

Features


Firstly, the good news is that DVD Genie and the likes will still allow you to change the regions accordingly with this player. It seems there’s no problem playing back discs from any region using version 6.0 as opposed to version 5.0.

With version five practically nailing the functionality side of things there was very little room for version six to improve in that area. However, there are a few little handy inclusions which make things a little more user-friendly in the long run.

 Cyberlink PowerDVD 6.0

Firstly, the buttons have been given a bit of a tidier look. Sure, it may only be a cosmetic change but it does help when you want to quickly perform a task such as capture the frame, change the audio settings or head into the configuration. The most welcome change to the controls, however, is the ability to right click on the capture frame, next subtitle and next audio stream buttons to easily switch settings. No longer do you have to scroll through all the soundtracks to reach the one you want, nor do you have to go into the configuration menu to change the way you make a screen grab.

The right-click feature has also been extended to the play button, where you can quickly skip to a particular numbered chapter or title while playing back the film. Particularly useful if you know where you need to head, this little feature is a welcome addition, though I’m guessing a lot of users won’t even know it’s there for a while. There are also other right-click features in and around the menu, including a time search function, the karaoke settings and the standard express menu, which can be accessed by right-clicking within the video window.

Video Features


While there have been a few cosmetic improvements made to the controls in this version, it is really underneath the surface where the real benefits lie. The video quality in previous versions has been adequate without being mind-blowing, regardless of what video card you might be using. In the latest version, however, you’ll find that there is a marked improvement in the vibrancy, sharpness and colour rendition on any disc you decide to play.

Much of the improvement in the visual aspects has to do with the introduction of a Smart Video De-Interlacing feature, which eliminates image feathering, ghosting and other problems associated with playback. To the untrained (or merely uninterested) eye this might not be noticeable at first, but when you compare the performance of the new version to the last you’ll quickly realise there is a definite step up in quality.

Also helping out the visual side of things is Cyberlink’s second generation dynamic video technology called CLEV-2™. With this feature enabled (only when hardware acceleration is switched off) the visual quality is improved during low contrast scenes to enable more natural colours and a better looking picture overall. It’s easy to see the difference because Cyberlink have included a nifty split-screen mode which places the original image on the left half of the screen and compares it with the improved version on the right. Check out the image below for an example:

 Cyberlink PowerDVD 6.0

The support for better visual quality has also been extended in this version. PowerDVD 6.0 now supports playback of high-definition MPEG-2, WMV-HD and DivX Pro, making it more than just a software DVD player. To the general public this might not be utilised at all, but there are plenty of higher-end users out there who would welcome this addition. Thanks to Cyberlink you can either take it or leave it.

So a summary of the video improvements in this release:

[*]CLEV-2: Improved contrast and colour vibrancy during darker scenes

[*]Support for various high-definition formats such as DivX Pro and MPEG-2

[*]Smart video de-interlacing, making the picture a lot smoother and clearer overall


Audio Features


While the video quality has been improved a great deal, the audio aspects of the software have arguably been given even better treatment with this release. And like the video aspects, Cyberlink have included their own proprietary technology to handle the audio signal, called CLMEI-2™. With this improved second generation feature, PowerDVD will take two-channel audio signals and expand them to fit multiple-speaker setups. Great for playing back music or video files with only two channels, particularly if you’re into pumping up the volume and having the music come out every available speaker. There are three modes to choose from; movie mode, music mode (which envelopes the listener in the sound as if the concert was all around them) and Onstage mode (simulating a stage performance). In the configuration menu you can also use sliders to change the exact levels of each of your speakers, which is a handy addition if you don’t fancy the presets.

 Cyberlink PowerDVD 6.0

The support for different audio technologies has also been greatly stepped up for this release. PowerDVD is now compatible with the latest high-definition sound boards in order to provide double or quadruple the sampling rate and a scale of 256 time finer than standard audio CDs. That’s a big difference that even the most insensitive ears will pick up. There is also now DVD-Audio support, delivering 192 KHz, 24-bit stereo and 96KHz, 24-bit surround sound. And finally the Dolby Pro Logic IIx mode, coupled with a multi-channel sound card and speakers, allows full-channel playback form any stereo source, whether it be MP3s, VCDs, audio CDs or the like.

Two other Cyberlink additions to the audio side of the package caters for those restricted by headphones or two-channel audio. The headphones-based, virtual surround-sound technology called Cyberlink Headphone allows for an enhanced listening experience, giving users a much richer sound and wider sound image than using standard headphone technology. And with PowerDVD being used by many a business-person or traveller on their notebook PC, this technology is sure to come in handy.

The other proprietary inclusion is Cyberlink’s Virtual Surround technology, which caters for those who wish to listen to a multi-channel signal through only two speakers, simulating the feeling of surround sound. There is a choice of three option for this kind of playback; living room (standard), theatre and stadium.

Rounding out the audio additions and improvements are the more superficial audio features such as the addition of visualisations while playing music (similar to those on Windows Media Player), the inclusion of several preset atmospheric effects such as classical, pop, soft etc and the ability to adjust the pitch of the sound during karaoke mode, which would probably be fun for about five minutes. Personally visualisations don’t do much for me and they look quite tacky at times, but it’s a welcome, unobtrusive addition nonetheless.

With both the video and audio improvements, the control panel can be expanded to provide quick access drop-down menu so you can change the settings on the fly. While playing video you can turn off the CLEV-2 mode and change various other settings, while you can also change the audio settings and presets when you are playing audio files. Again, it’s another easy way to change settings without having to delve into the configuration menu.

 Cyberlink PowerDVD 6.0

The audio improvement can be summaries as such:

[*]CLMEI-2: Allows stereo sound to be mapped into multi-channel outputs

[*]High-definition audio support

[*]High quality DVD-Audio support

[*]Dolby Pro Logic IIx optional encoding, expanding stereo signals from any 2-channel source

[*]Cyberlink Headphone and Virtual Surround, providing better sound quality from 2-channel sources

[*]The addition of visualisations, equaliser presets and karaoke mode pitch correction


Expandability Packs


Keen to keep the improvements going (and provide a bit of extra revenue, naturally), Cyberlink have now introduced several expansion packs for PowerDVD 6.0. Firstly, the Road Warrior Mobility Pack allows those using a notebook without a power source to save battery power and allow them to watch their movies or listen to music a little longer. There’s nothing more frustrating than running out of battery near the end of a DVD, so this is a great addition. Just don’t expect to be sitting through The Return Of The King’s extended edition without a power source.

The second expansion pack is strangely called the H.264 pack, which enables users to play back Advanced Video Coding (AVC) MPEG-4 video files. This will come in handy for the higher-end users more than anyone else. And thirdly, the Interactual Pack is seemingly an add-on which allows Interactual DVD content to be played through PowerDVD. Not a lot is known about this one, so I’ll stand corrected if anyone wants to point out otherwise.

Conclusion


Overall, Cyberlink have done an outstanding job of bringing us a solid software package which is well worth the upgrade. While the cosmetic changes might be small, the back-end has been loaded with useful features and greatly improved video and audio outputs which cater for any situation you can think of. They’ve moved PowerDVD from the realm of simple DVD playback software into a full-on media centre, capable of playing back all kinds of media in the shape and form you see fit. This was the only logical step forward after the success of version 5.0, so kudos to Cyberlink for striving to get there so quickly.

One noticeable aspect about this release is that it doesn’t show any signs of noticeable bugs. Previous versions almost immediately cried out for a patch to fix common problems, something which version 6.0 thankfully doesn’t need. Users shied away from upgrading until a patch was released to remedy the bugs, but you can rest easy knowing this release doesn’t seem to have the same problems.

Is it worth the money to upgrade? For most of you, probably yes. Simple users who care little for anything else other than chucking in a disc every now and then might not get the full benefit, but for those with a little more than a casual interest in playing DVDs and other media files through their computer an upgrade is a no-brainer. Bring on the next lot of improvement because I’ll be interested to see just where they come from, so comprehensive is this release.


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