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Introduction
DVD, as a format, has come a long way in its relatively short life span. As disc content is continually presented in new and innovative ways, the equipment required to maximise the potential of our beloved shiny silver platters must perpetually evolve in tandem.

Of course, the price of discs and players already has plummeted now that the mainstream market (Mr Joseph Public esq.) has accepted DVD as the natural successor to VHS.  Factor in the rise of the super-powerful generation of processor which can now be found in almost all new home computers and it emerges that there is now, for the first time, a genuine choice as to whether the workhorse of home cinema should be a standalone player or a PC.

Leading the line for the PC end of the debate is Cyberlink’s codec, PowerDVD XP 4. Stuffed to the gills with added features over the previous award-winning release, this fourth incarnation has been tailored to maximise the potential of the latest Windows operating system, hence the rather unsurprising ‘XP’ of the title.

That said, fear not if you’re XP-less or if the home PC doesn’t house the latest ‘biggest and best’ core that Intel or AMD have managed to produce in the last 3 months. First things first; if you can manage a modest 400Mhz powerplant with at least 128MB of RAM running on Windows 98 or above then, according to Cyberlink’s own recommended minimum specifications, you’re on the right track.

Installation should prove to be the simple operation that I found it to be. If perchance there is an earlier version of PowerDVD software on the hard drive, the installation procedure will prompt the user to remove all existing files prior to proceeding. This done, a couple of minutes later, depending on the speed of the machine, PowerDVD 4.0 should be up and running.

 Cyberlink PowerDVD XP 4.0

Navigation


Included with the package are a full readme file and detailed help guide which can convey a lot of information in a brief and, more importantly, simple manner. However, as many users confront a product’s instruction guide only as a last resort, perhaps the first impression of the software will be when launching the application for the first time.

This done, the user interface will appear. Initially there is only a single style to choose (although many more are available for download if something more funky or avant-garde is your bag) but I’ve never found the need to look for a replacement, so easily accessible are all the various options.

A lot of thought has obviously gone into the ergonomic design of the interface, which to a degree resembles the front of a simple editing console, so that full control of your DVD viewing experience is literally at your fingertips. On the right of the console is a circular layout of playback control and chapter selection buttons inside the perimeter of a shuttle wheel which affords remarkably effortless manipulation of the basic fast forward or rewind functions (up to from x½ to x32 speed in either direction). A nice touch is that it’s possible to use one of the many mousewheel configuration options to select how many seconds forward or back each rotation will take; very handy when watching a long movie on a disc without a plethora of chapter stops.

To the left of this is the digital-style display. If desired, the console can be minimised to leave just the playing options available but in ‘full’ mode all the relevant important information can be snatched at a glance. One particular facet of the good design is that the type of audio track on the disc being used and the PC’s current speaker configuration are displayed in the console. In this way, it’s not only easy to see that the correct speaker settings are employed for the disc in question but also, should the disc possess both, that the correct Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS track according to the viewer’s preference has been selected.

An extension of this is the ‘Show Information’ option that can be toggled on and off. Selecting this when in ‘Play’ mode will produce a small graphic display highlighting the duration of the chapter being viewed, the nature and bitrate of the video track (updated second by second) and the format of the audio track complete with bitrate counter. As a reviewer for DVDAnswers I can state that I find this option priceless.

Sadly, there just isn’t space in this piece, much as I would like, to detail every aspect of the exemplary user-friendly interface. Suffice to say, any newcomer to DVD on PC can just insert a disc into the drive and view a movie without the need to fiddle about with anything at all. Such is the scalability of the package that just about every setting can be tweaked for a truly personal player to match the individual nature of that particular person’s PC.

Navigation Features:


  •  Enhanced toolbar navigator: customise your toolbar by deciding  what functions you would like to include.
  • Customisable mouse scroller functions include "Shuttle Reverse/    Forward", "Previous/Next Chapter", "Volume Adjustment" and "Time Seek".
  • ”Time Seek” with customisable duration from 1 to 600 seconds.
  • DVD Auto-Resume playback: if a movie playback is interrupted, the next time you can choose to view from the beginning of the movie or resume from the point of interruption.
  • On Screen Display support: change font type, font size, font colour,    display duration, display location and background OSD colour as to your preference.
  • Multi-user parental control and user management.


Viewing Experience


As staunch a supporter of version 3.0 of PowerDVD as I was, it was noted that there was room for improvement in the picture quality during DVD playback. I’m pleased to see that visual fidelity is markedly better in this updated release in terms of both colour sharpness and shadow detail.

In the former case, fine patterns in set design décor and the weave of clothing materials in close up shots can be the acid test for the definition of the visual output. Bearing such criteria in mind two particularly visually arresting discs were applied to test this definition depth: the exacting Edko R3 edition of Zhang Yimou’s Hero and the outstanding R2 MGM release of David Lean’s A Passage To India.

Hero, for those yet to see it and for all its martial arts derring-do, features heavily on sumptuous Oriental costumes which, due to the luminosity of the silk content in the clothing, force degrees of subtle colour change across the garment’s surface that is difficult enough to render in uneven outdoor lighting conditions when characters are standing still. Considering that the cast spend most of their time leaping about with the aid of wire work, it’s a demanding job!

 Cyberlink PowerDVD XP 4.0

As can be noted from the above image, the near opacity of the clothing materials against a similarly hued background and animated elements which are constantly shifting through the frame requires a befitting sharpness for the maximum aesthetic effect. PowerDVD copes as admirably as many a medium to high-end standalone player.

Similarly, A Passage To India features many finely patterned sari-style costumes from the Indian sub-continent which reproduce some of the conditions as outlined above. In addition, this disc, by its preponderance with fleshtones glistening with moisture and individual sweat droplets, illustrates the stability of PowerDVD’s rendering capability.

In the latter case, shadow detail is a significant improvement over version 3.0 and will put most budget and lower-spec players to shame. Testing two of the darkest transfers available, EIV’s wobbly double disc edition of Seven and the Tartan R2 travesty that is Audition, blacks are indeed deeper but the effect of smoothing the gradients between blacks and greys with higher shadow definition just cannot be ignored.

With resolutions accessible up to 1600x1200 and the ability to select, for many of those resolution levels, a refresh rate from 60Hz right up to 144Hz, there is undoubtedly a satisfactory choice for any combination of graphics card/monitor/TV. During testing using a 64Mb nVidia GeForce2 Ti card, it was apparent that the output was rather dark when playing back NTSC discs.

Preset profiles of ‘Vivid’, ‘Bright’ and ‘Theater’ are provided but these do significantly eat up processor clock cycles. Ramping up the refresh rate in the video output tab or adjusting the overlay levels in the video properties of the PC’s graphics card would seem to be a better bet in reducing the load on the CPU.

Of the four discs mentioned previously, three are PAL. This statement not seemingly immediately consequential, several NTSC discs were tested specifically with regard to the same issue. Due to the nature of transferring film into the NTSC viewing standard using 2:3 pulldown, tracking shots and pans can look a little jerky; done poorly it can be debilitatingly distracting in a viewing experience. Again this is much reduced in PowerDVD 4.0 to the point that unless one is really looking hard it is not noticeable. For this reviewer who has a preference for PAL discs for just that reason, it’s Manna from heaven!

In addition, for reviewing purposes at least, the screen capturing facility has been enhanced in this release. Despite retaining bitmaps (.bmp) as the only format in which to save images, the saved image quality is patently better and certainly good enough to allow the user to make up worthwhile Windows backdrops from their favourite movie scenes.

Video Features:


  • Run 32 bit displays at resolutions from 800x600 up to 1600x1200 with refresh rates from 60Hz to 144Hz.
  • Full range video adjustments including newly added contrast and saturation controls along with original brightness, yellow/blue and red/green controls.
  • Four default video profiles : Original, Vivid, Bright, and Theater. Plus, The ability to create, define and save video profiles of your own!
  • Enhanced screen capture by utilizing CyberLink's proprietary interpolation technology: the option of capturing as original DVD video frame size (video source) or current video window size is available.
  • Enhanced video de-interlacer and UV up-sampler.


 Cyberlink PowerDVD XP 4.0

Audio Experience


The single biggest technological step forward for version 4.0 of PowerDVD, and the one to which I was most looking forward, has to be the inclusion of a DTS decoder. Granted, other key additions comprise multi-channel mp3 and Dolby Headphones support, Dolby Digital Pro-Logic II and SRS’ Tru-SurroundXT but this holy grail for DVD audiophiles singularly makes an already mighty fine package even better.

Dolby Digital decoding has always been a trusty feature of previous releases and there is no exception here. Initially using a Creative 5.1 Live! surround set up, equivalent 5.1 tracks were found to be handled well, if a little lacking in overly meaty bass from the subwoofer. DTS output was similarly effective, if not being streets ahead as I had first imagined.

Having had the good fortune to upgrade to a Creative Audigy 2 soundcard it rapidly became evident that the audio capabilities of PowerDVD certainly hadn’t been pushed to the limit. Again returning to the scalability issue as mentioned previously, surrounding the software with better output hardware really allows version 4.0 to stretch its legs and deliver.

Testing the Hero full bitrate DTS track running at 1536kb/s the stability, depth and definition of the sound was truly awe-inspiring. Permitting the Dolby Digital 5.1 track more room to breathe heralded a likewise improvement that illustrates the solid design and cohesion of the software.

For those without a surround system, ample provision has been made. Sound output can be downmixed for 4 speaker, 2 speak and headphone users. The most significant of these is that PowerDVD will systematically process the .1 (LFE) components of a Dolby Digital or DTS track so as not to overpower the dual array of 2 speaker or headphone users with sludgy bass.

At first, it may be a little odd to squeeze DTS sound through a set of headphones but for laptop owners and especially commuters who face long train journeys this is an inspired module to have been integrated.

Audio Features:


  •  Certified multi-channel DTS digital surround decoder to play DTS DVD-titles and DTS Audio CDs.
  • Dolby Pro Logic II decoder that processes stereo sources such as MP3, Audio CD, VCD and SVCD into surround sound in a multi-speaker environment.
  • SRS TruSurroundXT provides enhanced virtual surround sound and virtual bass experience through 2 speakers.
  • Interactive virtual speakers positioning by utilizing A3D and Microsoft    DirectSound3D technologies.
  • Dolby Digital Dynamic Range Control for Quiet, Normal or Noisy environments; useful for boosting the audible volume on a notebook or laptop.
  • Mix Low Frequency Effect (LFE) for headphones, 2 speaker and 4 speaker systems.



Overall


Having owned this software for a while I can’t praise it highly enough. I daresay it gets a good run out 6 days in the week in the course of reviewing for this site and never once has crashed, hung or similarly failed to work flawlessly. It has run absolutely everything I’ve been able to throw at it, and that includes DVD-Audio discs and a lot of non-standard CD singles, VCDs and VCDs from the Far East I can tell you!

If I had a criticism of PowerDVD XP 4.0, I would say that it does lacks a little in bass reproduction as compared with rivals, in particular WinDVD. Bear in mind, that’s a big if. Choose to discount this and PowerDVD 4.0 inherently emerges as the leading solution for all the requirements of a home theatre PC and laptop users who don’t wish to scrimp on audio quality when they are travelling to work.

As many family PCs are now sold with surround speaker systems as part of the overall package, it represents real value for money too. Adding the DTS decoder into the equation of an equivalent quality standalone player, amp and receiver (not to mention the speakers), a decent home PC fitted with PowerDVD XP 4.0 means that you shouldn’t have to look anywhere else for your PC-based DVD needs: don’t delay, upgrade today!


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