Samsung BD-UP5000 Duo HD Blu-ray / HD DVD HD Player

A cease fire or a bridge too far?

Months ago, when Samsung announced its BD-UP5000 dual format player, there appeared to be no end in sight to an ugly format war that threatened the future of high definition on a disc.

But in early January Warner announced that it will release is titles exclusively on Blu-ray starting in June of 2008. With that bombshell tossed at the HD DVD camp, there are (as I write this) only two major studios still committed exclusively to HD DVD: Universal and Paramount.

Nevertheless, there may still be a market for a dual format player. Yes, for the $1,000 list price of the Samsung (though it's widely available for less) you can buy separate players for both formats. But some users, particularly those with extensive collections of both HD DVDs and BDs, are willing to pay a premium to free up space on their equipment racks and eliminate the confusion as to which player is the right one for playing back that shiny new silver disc.

Double Your Pleasure
If you're familiar with standard DVD players you shouldn't have any problems with the basic operation of the Samsung Duo HD. It offers the usual controls together with an illuminated (and dimmable) front panel display. The remote (which can control the player plus a few basic functions on a television) is a good one, though it lacks backlighting.

The player's 7.1-channel analog audio outputs provide bass management with a fixed 100Hz crossover. But there are no level or delay adjustments for the individual channels—a serious limitation. I used the HDMI A/V link for all of my tests, which is the best option if your system can use it.

While the manual (likely printed some time ago) states that the Duo HD does not support the BD-Java features that require Profile 1.1 (such as picture-in-picture video commentaries) hardware, Samsung claims that the player now does play those features.

The Duo HD can output 1080p/24 or 1080p/60 over HDMI, and 1080i over component. Unfortunately, selecting 24fps mutes the multichannel analog outputs.

The Duo HD has a (LAN) Ethernet port but is not spec'd as a Profile 2.0 (BD Live) player. s

Update Follies
Several pages in the manual are devoted to linking the player into a network from its LAN (Ethernet) port. I did not test this feature, but you may need more than a bit of network smarts, plus perhaps a handy copy of Networks for Dummies, to set this up.

With the constant flood of important firmware updates coming out for this and other players, a user should not be required to have an intimate grasp of computers—or any computer knowledge at all—to get his or her player up to speed. One obvious solution would be for manufacturers to keep buyers' info from warrantee cards on file and overnight an update disc to each customer. I'm sorry, manufacturers, if this sounds like too much trouble. But if you can't get the product working right out of the gate, or if a format is in constant flux, the consumer shouldn't be required to be a computer-geek and beta-tester to fix it. And if you expect high definition on disc to go mass market, this situation needs to be addressed—and fast.

TrueHD or Consequences
There are three options for setting up the Duo HD's digital audio output. The PCM option converts all the audio codecs the player can decode into PCM. This includes standard Dolby Digital and standard DTS. Bitstream (Re-encode) converts all source audio to standard DTS. And Bitstream (Audiophile) passes the main program audio track, but not secondary audio such as menu beeps and squeaks or secondary audio from commentaries or streaming Picture-in-Picture.

The Duo HD will not currently output lossless Dolby TrueHD in full resolution multichannel from any output (multichannel analog or HDMI) or in any form (either PCM or bitstream). Nor can it decode, or pass on in bitstream form, a full resolution lossless DTS HD Master Audio track. It will decode TrueHD in two-channel only, which makes it essentially pointless for movie soundtracks. And, from all indications, when the player sees a DTS HD MA soundtrack it decodes it only from the core DTS track, which is straight, lossy DTS.

Samsung has told us that a firmware update to pass soundtracks in both of these lossless formats to a suitable A/V receiver, in bitstream form, is in the works. But it isn't due until May. The fact that it's still four months off suggests that a considerable amount of engineering is involved, and you can't always engineer to a deadline. Our experience with most manufacturers suggests that it's a dicey move, at best, to base a purchase decision on a promised delivery date for future vaporware.

E Pluribus Unum
I'll start with the tech stuff, and it's here the Duo HD shines. It's equipped with the HQV REON video processor from Silicon Optix, which not only suggests excellent upconversion of standard definition discs, but also delivers. It sailed cleanly through my standard mix of 480i-to-1080p tests, both from Silicon Optix' own >HQV Benchmark standard definition test DVD and regular DVDs like Gladiator and Star Trek: Insurrection. I have not seen better performance on these tests.

It also properly de-interlaced 1080i material to 1080p, including recognition of 3/2 pulldown. 1080i isn't common on high definition discs, but you will find it on concert releases.

Disc loading times were comparable to the newest dedicated HD DVD and Blu-ray players I've tested. Short of Sony's PlayStation3 for Blu-ray (still the speed champ) you won't do much better. In one respect, however, the Samsung was very fast: its time from power-up to drawer-open was a swift 15 seconds.

But where the Samsung really excelled was in pure picture quality. The Samsung produced high definition images from both BD and HD DVD that were as good—and sometimes better—than those I've seen from high definition players dedicated to either format. The improvement was not dramatic, but in its color saturation, sharpness (without artificiality), depth, and overall image "pop" the Duo HD marginally beat out the Panasonic DMP-BD30 on Blu-ray and at least equaled the Toshiba HD-A35 on HD DVD.

Caveat Emptor
While the Samsung did a terrific job on all the discs it would play, there were discs it wouldn't play—or play correctly. Some would not play at all (Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 1, the second episode on the first disc, "Where No Man Has Gone Before" (HD DVD), Pixar Shorts and Underdog (both BD). One disc, Across the Universe (BD), would not respond to menu inputs, including "Play." And two of the new Profile 1.1/Bonus View BDs, Sunshine and Resident Evil: Extinction refused to play their picture-in-picture commentaries correctly. Both discs produced a bizarre combination of commentary video and movie audio. Nothing I did would get them to play the film's picture and sound together—rendering the movies useless. In both of the latter cases the player was also prone to random freeze-ups.

All of the problem BDs and HD DVDs I tried played without a hitch on the Panasonic DMP-BD30 (BD) or Toshiba HD-A35 (HD DVD) players. After spending several days evaluating the player as delivered, I discovered that Samsung has released a new firmware update three days after we received the Duo HD—without informing us.

After I installed the update, three of the previously crippled BDs, Pixar Shorts, Underdog, and Across the Universe now played properly. But another, an episode on the first disc of Star Trek: The Original Series season 1, still did not play. Nor did any part of disc 2 in that HD DVD release. The problems on the Star Trek discs also froze the player. I had to unplug it and power it up again to retrieve the discs.

Sunshine and Resident Evil: Extinction played the film sound and picture together following the update, but neither of them would allow me to select the PIP features. (Sunshine's enhanced PIP commentary could, however, be played full screen, apart from the movie, just like any standard feature). Clearly the Duo HD is not yet ready for full Profile 1.1/Bonus View operation.

The Samsung BD-UP5000 is in many ways a superb high definition disc player—with arguably the best picture quality I've yet seen from high definition discs.

But it's a work in progress, with shortcomings that need to be fixed. Hopefully they will be, with future firmware. Internet reports also suggest that the problems we encountered were widespread, both before and after the update, and not simply indicative of a defective sample.

While I haven't yet found a completely bug-free Blu-ray or HD DVD player, I can't quite recommend the Samsung Duo HD as it currently stands, even apart from its inability to play back advanced audio. That conclusion may well change in the future, and I hope it does. Certainly we look forward to a follow-up to this report when Samsung has ironed out all the kinks. But with the market looking increasingly Blu, by the time we have the answers will we still be asking the questions?

[Editor's note: although the Duo HD hasn't been on the market for more than a few weeks as I write this, Samsung informed us it will be discontinued in May. Retailers will sell remaining inventory as long as it lasts. We practically can't review these things before they're gone.]

Plays your Blu-ray Discs, HD DVDs, DVDs, and CDs
Superb picture quality
Problems remain, however, with some high definition discs
No multichannel Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio—yet

Samsung Electronics America, Inc.
1-800-SAMSUNG (726-7864)