Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

New Pioneer and OPPO DVD players almost multi-media

Jerry Stratton, November 3, 2007

Last Friday while watching Ghostbusters—one of the first DVDs I purchased—the video started breaking up. The disc itself looks fine. I’ve been having a few issues with this player for the last several weeks, problems that used to be limited to obviously-scratched rental discs. I bought 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea a few weeks ago and it won’t even recognize that as a DVD but it plays fine in my iMac. So I finally broke down and decided to buy a new DVD player.

The Pioneer DV-414 was a great player for its time, but that time was just two months shy of nine years ago. I bought the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas DVD in October of 1998 and purchased the Pioneer in late December a few months later. It’s been one of the most satisfying purchases I’ve ever made.

It has lasted so long that I was beginning to hope that a more fully multi-media solution would be available by the time I needed to replace it, something like the AppleTV or even a Mac Mini. But the AppleTV doesn’t play DVDs, and I just don’t trust slot-loading drives for discs that I use often. I’m willing to use them for CDs that I only use once, rip, and store, but it seems like they abrade discs over time.

So I started browsing DVD players on Amazon and building up a list of necessary or useful features.

  • Tray-loading
  • 1080p upscaling (I don’t have an HD television yet, but I expect that when I buy a widescreen TV it will be HD)
  • S-Video for my current television set (some of the new upscaling players drop the s-video connection)
  • Better handling of layer changes.
  • USB port

The last item on the list, I had no idea I wanted until I started looking around. But it’s a great idea—it has the potential of turning the DVD player into a multimedia device.

I’m not particularly interested in HD-DVD or Blu-Ray; it’ll be several years before I trust them enough to start buying DVDs in one of those formats, and by then we may be buying movies on-line anyway.

The Creme of the Crop

The two players that floated to the top of my list were the Pioneer DV-400V-K and the OPPO DV-980H. Both have great reputations on-line and both look like great players. Nine years of the nearly flawless DV-414 initially inclined me towards the Pioneer, and price-wise it was significantly less expensive at just under $100. In the end, OPPO’s active after-sale support for firmware upgrades and its reputation for a better picture and audio quality convinced me to shell out the extra $70 for their unit.

On the DVD side of things, the layer change on the OPPO is nearly unnoticeable; I chose a handful of older DVDs with known layer changes: 1941, The Blues Brothers, Boogie Nights, and Bulworth. Except for Boogie Nights, I was able to see the layer changes when I was looking for them, but they went by very quickly; I’m not sure I was looking at the right place in Boogie Nights, because I couldn’t see the layer change at all.

Feature-wise, however, both of these players are very close, and it surprised me what DVD players are doing now, nine years after I bought my first player. Not only do they play DVDs and CDs and all of their cousins, but both of these DVD players accept a USB flash drive. They will play back music files, video files, and photographs from the drive. That’s pretty damn cool. You just plug your flash drive into the front of the unit and start playing back. As it happens, I just replaced my 512 MB flash drive last week, and now I know what I’ll be doing with it.

They could definitely take some interface design classes from Apple, but it works fine and is useful. One problem is that it treats USB drives differently from CDs. It can play music from all of the folders at once on a CD, but only from one folder at a time on a USB drive. Another is that there is no option to hide hidden files, cluttering up an already-cluttered menu.

On the plus side, I plugged my iPod Shuffle into the USB port and was able to play the songs from it; however, because iTunes doesn’t store song tracks with human readable filenames this may or may not be useful for anything other than shuffle mode. Also, iTunes stores them (on my 1 GB shuffle) in three folders of about 170 tracks each. Since the Oppo doesn’t play from more than one folder at a time on USB drives, I can only shuffle through a third of the tracks at a time. Still, it’s nice to be able to do it. And it appears to charge the Shuffle at the same time! Since my USB 2.0 port on my iMac usually has a flash drive in it, that’s useful.

It does not support USB cameras, which would seem like a no-brainer to me.

Both DVD players will play MP3s, as well as Advanced Audio Coding (AAC/M4A) files such as are created by default by Apple’s iTunes software. While they won’t play restricted AAC files from the iTunes Music Store, they will (or at least, the Oppo I have will, and I can’t see why the Pioneer wouldn’t either) play files marked as iTunes Plus, since those are standard AAC files. I verified this using Southern Culture on the Skid’s Ditch Diggin’ album, which is iTunes Plus on the iTMS.

One really cool “useless” option is the ability to choose any movie frame or any photo on a CD or USB drive as your default background image. The default background image doesn’t show up often, but when it does, I now have a picture of the California surf instead of a round OPPO logo.

Major issues with non-DVD music and video

While the OPPO can play AAC music files, they’re second-hand citizens. For the most part, they are not counted as audio files. This means that you can’t have a slideshow running while AAC music is playing; it also means that if you have both AAC and MP3 files in your collection, whatever you start playing is the format that gets shuffled through.

It appears to keep all of the files in the list of music, but if I start on one of the two MP3s in a CD of 150 music files, every time it hits the end of the track it takes forever to play the subsequent track—which will always be the other MP3 file. On a USB drive where I deliberately put in about half MP3 and half AAC, there was a significant multi-second pause between songs; and the next song is always the same format as the previous song.

The manual doesn’t mention this; it always talks in terms of “digital audio”, a term which should apply to both MP3 and AAC files.

While a song is playing, the SKIP PREV and SKIP NEXT buttons can be used to skip to the previous or next song. You may also use the ARROW buttons on the remote control to highlight the song to play, and then press the SELECT button.

If the disc contains both digital audio and picture files, you can enjoy both of them simultaneously. First navigate to the folder that contains the digital audio files and start audio playback. Next you can navigate to the folder that contains the digital picture files and start the slide show. The slide show will start with the already playing digital audio as background music.

The problem is that as soon as I start audio playback on an AAC file, the navigation screen disappears and is replaced with the OPPO logo, and the sentence “This file has no video”. Pressing the arrow buttons just displays a “you can’t do this” icon.

You can fast forward through MP3 files to get to the right place in a track, but that doesn’t work with AAC files. Metadata (title, artist, album) is displayed for some MP3 files, but not others, and as far as I can tell not for AAC files at all.

Video file support is just as spotty; it will play AVI files, sort of. A Meditation on the Speed Limit played fine; I tried to play the famous “Microsoft packages the iPod” AVI, and the audio was okay, but the video played in spurts. On another AVI file, the campy “Mrs. Burke gets felt up by her daughter’s boyfriend” grape-nuts ad, the audio played but the video was completely unsupported and blacked out.

Quicktime movies are completely unsupported, as are WMVs. MPEG and MPEG 4 appear to be the best bet for video.

Should you buy it?

Maybe. The bottom line is that the “extra functionality” on this DVD player doesn’t advance to the stage of being a useful media player. The average user who might want a means of showing off their photos immediately won’t be able to use it for that. They’ll need to copy it to a CD or USB drive. But by then, they’ve already been through a computer that can display the photos. The average iTunes user (or any music listener who uses AAC over MP3) will be able to play their music, but not watch slide shows at the same time.

This is more useful for the technogeek, who thinks in terms of file format rather than file content—AAC, MP3, MPEG, and AVI rather than music or video. Formats aren’t something that people used to standard jukebox software expect to have to worry about. In iTunes or most any other jukebox software, if you play a folder filled with different audio formats, it will play all of the formats. What matters is that they’re music, not the specific file format of the music.

On the one hand, this is a very cool device. On the other hand, for someone used to the consistency and deep usability of Apple products, it’s also frustrating. When I see an interface like this, it reminds me of why I’m willing to pay a little more to buy an Apple product when that’s an option. But that’s just par for the course on media devices today. I still recommend one of these two players for anyone looking for a DVD player that can do more than play DVDs, especially if you want to wait before getting a high definition DVD player but you have or expect to get a high definition television set soon.

For most people, the less expensive Pioneer is likely to be the better choice, with the caveat that I haven’t used it, and expect that it’s interface isn’t worse than the OPPO. If you want the more advanced upconversion capability of the OPPO, you already know this.

The OPPO player also came with an HDMI cable, a video cable, and a stereo cable, and came wrapped in a visually-pleasing thin black bag with the OPPO logo on it.

Disclosure: I own a small amount of Pioneer stock and a bit more Apple stock, in both cases because I enjoy their products and expect other people to as well.

Update: I changed the link to the Pioneer DV-410V-K, which appears to be the latest version of the DV-400V-K.

  1. <- 300
  2. Harman Kardon speakers ->