Toshiba's SD490 is the latest DVD player to come out of the company's current upscaling focus.
The deck's back panel is sparse and, being an upscaler to 1080p, the most useful output is the HDMI. There is a Scart, too, but no component video. A separate audio link is provided via an electrical digital socket, but it also travels via HDMI when PCM is selected.
When upscaling, the player's default auto mode chooses a suitable quality for any HDMI-equipped TV, or you can override manually to choose a specific resolution within your TV's range. This is in case you prefer 720p (progressive scan) to 1080i (interlaced) on a non-1080p TV.
There's support for MP3 audio, JPEG photos and DivX video from discs burned on PC. While the instructions only mention CD-R/ -RW as a medium for these, recorded DVDs also work, so you can fit more files on one disc – the equivalent of an iPod nano's worth of MP3s, for example, if using a double layered blank.
The SD490 lacks any of the snazzy networking features for linking directly to PCs, as found in some TVs, amps, Blu-ray players and digital recorders.
Ease of use
There are a few buttons on the front in case the remote isn't handy, but these are embedded into the casing and are almost invisible. The remote control is basic but neat, with the largest buttons devoted to playback.
The corresponding onscreen menu is unfussy and, being a no-nonsense player, there isn't much to set up. The SD490 is fixed to Region 2 by default. A multiregional hack for this model is listed on the internet – using a short handset number code – but we couldn't get it to work with our test sample. If multiregional playback is essential, look for a pre-modified version.
The tiny front display only shows the chapter number during DVD playback rather than running time (and this is inappropriate for DivX as chapters may not be indicated). An onscreen message calls up elapsed and time remaining info on demand, but it's distracting if you're merely curious about what stage the film has reached. You can also bookmark up to three moments in a DVD, though these are lost when you eject the disc.
There is a three-level picture zoom – controlled by a handset button – and a separate View Mode, which is only accessible via the menu even though, arguably, it is more useful (there's even a blank button on the remote where it could have sat). This mode controls how non-standard sized images appear (cropped, stretched to fit or unaltered), and it's especially convenient for DivX viewing.
The player reveals a good contrast range, with very little digital blocking or noise around object edges. The Assassination of Jesse James is a challenging DVD due its compressed length and dark scenes, but it holds up well, particularly with the smooth gradations in chapter 4 where Brad Pitt is seen silhouetted against backlit steam.
Similarly There Will Be Blood shows impressive textures, undisturbed by too much graininess or over-sharpened outlines. The rich mix of rustic colours and clear skies is portrayed vividly. While we can still tell that it is coming from a DVD and not from an HD disc or a TV source, results are also visibly sharper than average.
Switching to CGI animation, there is evidence of jaggedness in the fine details of Beowulf such as hair and chain mail, which causes a rippling effect. This is less obvious in the more polished, slick appearance of Pixar's movie, Cars.
The Scart offers RGB output, although if this is your only option you'll lose out on progressive scan, HD upscaling and the generally punchier quality gained via HDMI.
If playing DivX, you may need to resize the image using the auto-fit mode mentioned earlier, depending on the format. However, the resulting quality is less impressive than the SD490's DVD playback or some other players' DivX handling.
The JPEG viewer is normally clear and colourful, but there were glitches in presentation during our test with an unexplained band of colour distortion at the top or bottom of some images.
As with the picture, the SD490 is an able player of audio. The DTS soundtrack of Korean bandit movie The Good, The Bad, The Weird comes bursting with strongly defined surround effects and clear vocals.
Music from CD or higher bitrate MP3 files is also refreshingly lucid. The 3-D sound mode is best avoided, though, as it adds an unpleasantly hollow echo effect.
Listed with a £69 starting price, the SD490 can be found on sale for a reasonable £50 or less, which certainly represents decent value for a top name player.
While the pre-recorded disc sector is inching gradually towards Blu-ray dominance, it is by no means a mass market proposition yet, and if you are not moving up in that direction just yet, but want to get more out of having an HDTV, then this DVD player should fit the bill.
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