DVD In The Fast Lane Page 3

Setup was simplified by an onscreen menu system featuring large, clear graphics. The only thing that struck me as slightly funky was the procedure for switching between the player's component- and S-video outputs. To make the component-video jacks active, you have to press and hold the stop button with no disc inserted - not a complicated maneuver, but an awkward, unintuitive one.

JVC packed a few neat disc-navigation features into the S45GD. Pressing the Digest button on the remote control after hitting play calls up a grid of still images pulled from the opening scenes of each chapter on the disc. You can use the arrow keys to select a scene, then hit the enter button to jump directly to it. There are a total of five fast and five slow scanning speeds in each direction, and the 2x and 5x speeds provided impressively smooth motion. Finally, a zoom feature lets you double the size of images and scan across them using the arrow keys on the remote.

The JVC player delivered a crisp, clean-looking picture through its S-video output. I could see plenty of detail in the earthy cobblestone sidewalks and brick cottages of the rural village John Steed (Ralph Fiennes) strolls through in the opening of The Avengers. And when Emma Peel (Uma Thurman) appears in the next chapter, both her red dress and the pop art paintings lining her walls came across vividly, with no color noise or smearing. The player's relatively poor component-video performance in our bench tests (see "in the lab," page 00) made me wonder if I should even bother using that output. However, when I viewed the same scenes on a big-screen TV using a component-video connection, I didn't see any problems.

The JVC had no difficulty reading any of the discs that I tossed into its tray, including CD-Rs, CD-RWs, and even DVD-Rs. From a user standpoint, the only complaint I had was the painfully long time the player took to read a disc once it was inserted. At times it took so long for a disc to load I figured either the player or disc must be damaged.

JVC's XV-S45GD offers solid performance plus a few cool features at a very reasonable price. Better yet, it looks like the kind of player you'd have to spend a few extra C-notes to get your hands on. The only other things I could ask for would be a progressive-scan output and the ability to read DVD-Audio discs - features that would raise the price by hundreds of dollars. As it stands, I'm comfortable recommending JVC's entry-level player to anyone looking to join the DVD party without spending a lot of money.

Pioneer DV-444
DIMENSIONS 16 5/8 inches wide, 2 1/4 inches high, 11 1/8 inches deep
WEIGHT 6 3/8 pounds
PRICE $449

Pioneer Electronics USA, Dept. S&V, 2265 E. 220th St., Long Beach, CA 90810; www.pioneerelectronics.com; 800-746-63377

To judge from the rail-thin fashion models we constantly see in magazines and on TV, these are fat-phobic times we're living in. That's one reason Pioneer's DV-444 commanded my attention. At only 2 1/4 inches high, it's one of the slimmest DVD players I've seen. Adding to its appeal is a jewel-like silver finish and an uncluttered faceplate that offers only the most essential controls - including play, stop, pause, and skip/scan buttons - plus a three-step dimmer for the LED display.

The DV-444 lists for $449, although you might find it selling for as much as 40% less at some large retail chains. Its video output array includes a component-video jack that you can set to deliver either interlaced or progressive-scan signals. In addition to DVDs and CDs, it will play CD-RWs, CD-Rs, DVD-Rs, and even discs loaded with MP3 files - a way cool feature in a reasonably priced player.

The Pioneer provides a number of picture controls for both its interlaced and progressive modes. For interlaced signals, there's contrast, sharpness, chroma level, hue, and something called Fine Focus that boosts high-frequency video information. The progressive mode adds controls for noise reduction, Detail, chroma delay (to prevent color bleeding), and gamma (to draw out detail in shadows). You can store your settings in any of the player's three custom memories or select one of two factory presets, Cinema or Animation.