We've heard the claims and been confused over competing formats, but the wait is over and high-definition video is here. Samsung's BD-P1000 is the first Blu-ray player to arrive in the UK, closely followed by Panasonic's DMP-BD10. The first player we'll see from the rival HD DVD camp is Toshiba's HD-E1, due later this month.
The BD-P1000 claims to revolutionise your viewing by displaying high-definition content in the latest 1080p standard. But is the extravagant cost of the player (around £900) and a compatible high-resolution screen (1,920x1,080 pixels if you want to realise its full potential -- another £3,000) worth it?
Well, image quality is unsurpassed, with more detail and smoother movement than standard definition could ever imagine. And additional features such as video upscaling for enhancing your existing DVD collection and various memory card features are helpful. But unless you have to be the first to own the next big thing, you'll save money by waiting for prices to fall and technology to improve.
Samsung has developed a distinctive style that's becoming instantly recognisable. The lacquered black finish and subtle neon-blue lighting are the same design hallmarks used across the entire Samsung range -- including the latest F71 LCD screens that are being pushed as ideal partners for this player.
The sharp-edged construction is comparatively larger and heavier than a conventional DVD player, but there's little else to distinguish this as a new breed of technology. The front panel is attractively clean, with only a few neon-lit controls, and build quality is immaculate -- as it should be at this price.
A flip-down panel at the front conceals two memory card slots with support for up to ten different card formats. It's a useful feature in this age of digital convergence and allows you to watch digital video clips, view JPEG photos and listen to MP3 music files stored on a multitude of memory cards.
As the absence of Scart terminals suggests, HDMI connectivity is all-important for high-definition sources. The digital connection supports all high-definition formats and multi-channel audio in a single cable. If you want to realise the full potential of this player it's almost essential that your digital display features this connectivity.
You can use the analogue component outputs to carry some high-definition signals, but they will not support the highest 1080p native resolution used by Blu-ray discs. There's also a set of standard AV outputs, but they are unlikely to be ever used.
You can use HDMI to carry Dolby Digital and DTS surround soundtracks to a compatible AV amplifier for enhanced sound performance. There are other audio options, ranging from standard stereo and dedicated 5.1 analogue outputs to a choice of optical and coaxial digital outputs.
The slender, tapered remote is conservatively styled and appears overcrowded. The intelligent arrangement of commonly used keys and a few glow-in-the-dark controls means it's practical and easy to use, though.
The increased storage capacity of Blu-ray discs means the player can display high-definition content using 720p, 1080i and the latest 1080p native resolutions.
Your screen's resolution will determine what format you can use -- but only expensive 'Full HD' 1080p models with 1,920x1,080-pixel resolutions will be able to display the highest currently available 1080p format. This format progressively scans the maximum number of picture lines and claims to produce more detail and cohesive movement than anything we've seen before.
Blu-ray discs also feature enhanced interactive menus using high-definition graphics to select various options such as subtitles, commentaries and even games. You can directly access these menus during playback and even customise their appearance. The first Blu-ray films are only just being introduced now, but Samsung supplies two discs, the action film S.W.A.T. and a live jazz compilation to get you on your way.
The player is also backwards compatible with conventional DVDs and CDs including -R/RW and DVD-RAM recording formats. An integrated scaler means that standard-definition images can be upconverted to high-resolution formats up to 1080p for close to hi-def image quality.
On-screen menus are neatly presented, but with surprisingly few functions. You can choose to access information from discs or memory cards with a full range of playback options. We had imagined more elaborate functionality, but this system is incredibly easy to use and selecting the appropriate output resolution is the only adjustment that requires attention.
The improvements to image quality over standard definition are immediately apparent as soon as you play a high-definition film. Almost surreal detail levels expose the slightest nuances in tones and textures whether you're sat near or far away from the screen. Distinctive black levels and beautifully balanced colours enhance realism, while movement glides effortlessly across the screen. It's quite simply the finest picture we've ever seen from a disc player.
We're not totally convinced that this exceptional quality justifies the exorbitant outlay for both player and accompanying screen, however. Die-hard enthusiasts won't care, but the progression in picture quality isn't as pronounced as the difference between DVD and VHS, which might leave the average consumer wondering what all the fuss is about. And even while playing 1080p content, there are still some digital artefacts upsetting colour and shadow gradations.
Upscaled DVD image quality isn't particularly impressive and it's difficult to notice much difference between 1080i and 1080p pictures, which won't please anyone who's paid the extra for a top-of-the-range screen.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide