Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Cyberlink PowerDVD 12

PowerDVD has come a long way since its origins, when you needed such software to play DVDs on a Windows PC. These days it's Blu-ray playback that doesn't come as standard, and so PowerBlu-ray may be a better, if somewhat clunky title.

Even that moniker wouldn't describe what you get from PowerDVD today. The simple disc-spinning software has grown into a media playback suite with wide support for video, photo and music files. This latest version has extensive file format support, including popular container formats such a MKV, and had no problem playing any file we threw at it.

The two big new features for Blu-ray playback are support for DTS-HD 7.1 soundtracks and the ability to apply 3D upscaling to Blu-ray discs. We've seen the latter applied to DVDs and other video files before, and can't say we've been terribly impressed. Sometimes it works quite well, but it's inconsistent and this makes it very tiring to watch as your eyes struggle to make sense of what is often nonsensical. If you like to watch pick-and-mix favourite scenes from movies, something that PowerDVD encourages with its bookmarking and sharing features, then there's fun to be had here - but we doubt many will get through a whole movie using it.

The Technology Operations Centre that will control all the technology during the games

Truetheatre make its return too, providing easy to use image processing tools - at least compared to more enthusiast decoding and post-processing software such as ffdshow. There's an automatic mode that sharpens things up a little and reduces the appearance of more obvious compression artefacts. You can also tweak the settings to your own preferences, though again not to the same degree as the level of control in ffdshow. We found the default results to be pleasingly sharper and brighter in the main, though you'll barely notice it on high-quality content such as Blu-rays.

We could try and justify this by talking about Trutheatre image processing, or the pseudo 3D mode - but it's really here simply because we love Indy

The interface is straightforward enough, with locations for your content listed on the left and a big browsing and playback pane in the centre. It will pull in content from local storage, attached devices, UPnP and DLNA servers, and popular online site such as Facebook, YouTube and Flickr. You can quickly browse through media files from all these sources, download files en masse from online. It's not as powerful as a dedicated music or photo app, so there's no way to sort albums by year of release, or to tag faces in photos, for example.

It's a small point, but we were surprised to find that the PowerDVD window didn't respond to all the usual Windows 7 shortcuts for moving and maxiximsing the window - such as drag to top of screen, or Windows key and cursors to snap to screen edges. It also insisted on opening by default on the BD/DVD movie page, which is full of links to movie trailers and info, or 'Featured Celebs'. We'd much rather it defaulted to the last open folder than popped up a page of promotional content to movies we don't own.

Mainstream movie buffs may like it, but we'd rather not be presented with a load of promotional content upon opening the program

Where it shines is in dealing with video and mobile devices. You can sync any non-DRM protected file to a connected device - such as an Android phone or tablet. PowerDVD does all the hard work, recognising your device, from a database of thousands, and picking a resolution and codecs that will work best with it. In our case we took some Blu-ray quality content and it squeezed it down to 720x480 (which fitted nicely on the native 854x480 display) at 2Mbit/s using AVC video compression. The results were pretty impressive for single pass encoding, and we were more than pleased with the whole process.

Speaking of mobile devices, this Ultra version of the software comes with two bundled apps - which are then free to download from the Android Market or App store. PowerDVD remote simply lets you control your PC, and therefore PowerDVD itself, using controls on the handheld's screen. These include both media shortcuts (play, pause etc.) as well as a virtual touchpad so you can control Windows itself. Nothing very radical about the latter but having both in one app is certainly handy.

The other app is PowerDVD mobile. This is primarily a media playback app, so you can browse photos and play music, and watch video files. This all works well, though there's nothing to get excited about again. Where it really comes into its own is in pulling and pushing media to and from other devices. Using the app alone you can pretty much play any file on any device, anywhere you like. Want to play a video from your phone on your DLNA TV, then just hold down the file thumbnail and a menu appears with media players you can push the file to. Similarly you can grab files from elsewhere (such as our Blu-ray quality video test file) and stream them to your handheld device, with your PC re-encoding them in real-time.

Here's the app searching for playback devices on our network

Again none of this is revolutionary - your PC can already do this to a degree using the right-click Play to command. However, the slickness with which you can select and play files across an Android handset, Apple iPad, Windows PC and media streaming device -such as a WD TV Live - is impressive none-the-less.

PowerDVD 2012 then doesn't do anything particularly ground-breaking. However, its integration of PC software and mobile apps, along with wide file format and decent post-processing technology, makes it a one-stop-shop for media playback across your home network. However, to justify the price, you'll still have to want to play Blu-ray discs on a home PC or laptop.

If you do, then this is a good buy, though we're still amazed that such software costs more than a basic standalone Blu-ray player. We'd be interested to see how much CyberLink would charge for a fully-featured version of the software but without the Blu-ray and DVD playback parts and their ensuing license costs.

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