Transform your PC into a multimedia powerhouse with this software-based DVD/Blu-ray player
Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system cannot even play DVDs – never mind Blu-rays. This seems strange, as modern PCs are more than capable of handling movies from disc, and can be connected to your AVR and display with the same ease as a conventional Blu-ray spinner. The basic (and free to install) VLC media player can deal with DVDs and Blu-rays amongst other things, but if you want more sophistication then Cyberlink aims to please.
This is the latest incarnation of a product that still goes by the quaint name of PowerDVD, but can do much, much more than spin standard-def platters, including handling Blu-rays and UltraViolet content, pulling media from DLNA servers on your network, giving you access to locally-stored video, music and photos from a library and even nudging you in the direction of YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and the 7Digital music store.
As with VLC, the in-built media player is compatible with many different codecs and formats, including Monkeys Audio (.ape), the lossless FLAC alternative. It also plays both SD and HD recordings of TV programmes in transport stream format, although these have to be captured from a PC's digital TV tuner via another program, as PowerDVD itself doesn't support such tuners.
While newer PCs can harness the power of a graphics card to do video decoding in hardware, PowerDVD 13 gives you its own high-quality software alternative – together with a TrueTheater mode that aims to improve all content (even HD). Meanwhile, 2D-3D conversion is a useful complement to the software's ability to handle 3D Blu-rays. Audio can be decoded, or passed in bitstream form to your AV receiver.
Neat tricks of the Cyberlink package include disabling of BD-Live for faster loading; support for external subtitles for video files; movie information retrieval from an online database; and an iOS/Android app that allows you to drive the system via Wi-Fi rather than your PC's keyboard/mouse. A mini media player for smartphones is also offered, and owners of Windows 8 notebooks without disc drives can download a 'mobile' version. It's also possible to transfer non-copyrighted content to your smartphone via USB. All this is wrapped up in a smooth and attractive UI.
But there are caveats. The smartphone app lacks dedicated controls for selecting DVD or Blu-ray menu options. Instead, you have to use its 'mouse' mode to select a supplementary control panel that can be controlled by your mouse. Ridiculously cumbersome. Another criticism of the app is that your content isn't listed onscreen for selection – which would be useful for display-free music playback.
However, as a media player PowerDVD 13 works great after setup. With default hardware video decoding, picture quality – notably SD – was found to be rather plasticky. Cyberlink's software decoding is noticeably better – easily as good as a decent Blu-ray player. It does draw heavily on your CPU, though. Also aiding picture quality is the fact that refresh rates can be set to change with the source material, thereby avoiding conversion judder. The sound quality of Cyberlink's audio decoders was fine, too.
Overall, a powerful and versatile media player – but check first whether VLC fits your requirements.
Cyberlink PowerDVD 13 Ultra
Price: £100 Approx
Highs: Versatile features and format/media support; speedy disc-loading or media location; excellent sound and picture quality potential
Lows: Some aspects of user interface need work; fast PC needed for software HD decoding; smartphone transfer/transcode didn't work
Format support: CD; Blu-ray; DVD; DivX/XviD; FLAC; MKV/X.264; MP3; MPEG-1/2; FLV; AVCHD (2D/3D); MP4; WMA; WMV; BMP; JPEG; AAC (2 and 5.1-channel); WAV; APE; TS; 3D photos; Dolby Digital/Plus/TrueHD; DTS/96-24/HD
System requirements (Blu-ray 3D): Windows XP SP3/Vista/7/8; Intel Core i5/AMD Phenom II X4 processor; 2GB RAM; Intel HD Graphics/ATi Radeon HD5000/nVidia Geforce 9500GT graphics; 400MB of HDD space for software
Features: BD-Live bypass; dedicated movie library (with info button); display file-based movies with cover art; versatile subtitle support; free PowerDVD Mobile (iOS/Android/Windows 8) and Remote (iOS/Android) apps; TrueTheater HD with higher-than-HD upscaling; instant-start for photos, video & music; mini music player; TV refresh rate auto-synced to DVD frame rate; 5.1/7.1 audio decoded or passed to HDMI; 'instant-seek' buffering for previewing during seeking; zoom; YouTube and Flickr (with upload); Facebook integration; online music store; DLNA networking (share and stream); media library; grab stills from video
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