Sony's budget deck is a slimline model with an uncluttered fascia that'll win admirers from the minimalist school of design. It isn't particularly distinctive, but there certainly isn't anything off-putting about the look.

The same cannot be said for the features list. This is a budget deck, which has to be borne in mind, but the features on offer are thin on the ground - we were really scratching our heads to come up with stuff to fill out the spec box on this review!

Some of the omissions are acceptable given the asking price. There is no component video output, so no progressive scan output is possible. There is also no DVD-Audio or SACD playback but this is often missing on models costing twice as much.

The absence of DiVX playback is, however, a bit surprising considering the growing popularity of this format. Given Sony's involvement in the movie business perhaps this is a sign of the company's displeasure at the way this high-compression format is being used? You do get JPEG and MP3 playback, but WMA files are not welcome.

Playback options include a zoom,slow motion and the usual high-speed picture search functions. There is a Custom Picture mode, letting you adjust parameters for contrast, brightness, hue and colour, while there is a separate control for picture sharpness.

A TV Virtual Surround function creates a wider soundstage from your TV's stereo speakers - but this will always be inferior to a proper home cinema sound system.

A dynamic range compressor makes it easier to listen to a movie at low volumes... and, well, that's about it. There is a 40-disc custom parental control feature, but when we start talking about features like that you know we're really scraping the barrel.

Connections are also sparse. You get a Scart socket (for RGB or S-Video output) and a composite output, but no dedicated S-video socket. In a similar way, there's an electrical digital audio output but no optical version.

Ease of use is good, but the remote control, strikingly designed though it may be, suffers from overly sensitive buttons. Several times we found it had registered multiple presses when we had only intended to press once but familiarity should iron this out.

Performance

It's a shame this is sounding like a negative review - even though many of these features can be found on similarly priced decks, their absence need not be a dealbreaker if you are mostly interested in picture and sound quality and have no interest in progressive scan, DVD-Audio or DiVX playback.

The good news here is that the picture and sound are impressive enough to turn this review around and make the Sony DVP-NS30 into a contender.

Pictures are excellent when delivered via an RGB Scart connection.The test track sequence in Charlie's Angels is a visual treat, with huge splashes of vivid reds screaming around the racetrack yet remaining firmly in place - there is no colour bleed to worry about.

More tricky material from a variety of test scenes prove the NS30 to be a superior performer. There is a high level of fine detail, realistic colours (skin tones are very good) and an ability to handle highly complex material.

Fed to a decent sound system the results are impressive, but CD playback is only average. As expected, the virtual surround mode doesn't offer much, but is still a step up from regular stereo.

The performance of this budget deck goes a long way to making up for the limited features and connectivity. If you're more into performance than bells and whistles, this model should prove tempting. Jason Glenn