The latest Ultra version of CyberLink PowerDVD 9 expands its Blu-ray hi-def decoding capabilities, and adds picture processing for standard DVD video too.

In PowerDVD, CyberLink already has one of the most popular playback solutions for DVD and Blu-ray on Windows PCs. With its new version 9 Ultra, CyberLink introduces several new features, including TrueTheatre video enhancement, support for HDMI 1.3, different playback screen modes, FancyView graphical browsing, and support for more high-definition video and audio formats.

Meanwhile there are two versions of CyberLink PowerDVD 9 offered without Blu-ray compatibility - for those who have no need to pay expensive levies to the Blu-ray Disc License Office - namely PowerDVD 9 Standard and PowerDVD 9 Deluxe, the latter priced at £39.

TrueTheater Technology, found on all versions of CyberLink PowerDVD 9, is designed to improve picture quality of standard-definition video such as that from DVD. You can also use invoke TTT to create a pseudo-surround effect from stereo audio.

A split-screen view mode in CyberLink PowerDVD 9 lets you easily see the difference between normal and processed picture, and sure enough, the image looks brighter and sharper - but we found this often showed up more unwanted artefacts, in particular interlaced-video lines that were not entirely cleaned up by the deinterlacing process.

While you can tweak the strength of these TTT effects with Sharpness and Brightness manual override sliders, it's difficult to switch off TrueTheater Technology entirely until you dig into the program's Settings and manually de-check various boxes. Or you can elect there to use hardware acceleration of video, in which case all of CyberLink's proprietary digital signal processing (DSP) will be switched off, as direct graphics card decoding does not allow post-processing.

CyberLink PowerDVD 9 is said to be approved for use with Windows 7, although with our Windows 7 Release Candidate installation at least, we encountered problems with an anonymous background process crashing whenever a disc started to play. The program continued to run, however, after clicking through an Ignore warning palette a few times.

CyberLink tells us that Microsoft's approval was granted to a later, near-final, build of Windows 7, so this issue ought not be a problem when used with the new Windows OS when it's officially launched in a few months.

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We inititally had difficulty testing the Blu-ray functionality of CyberLink PowerDVD 9, as the latest build of the software refused to run thanks to the program's annoying online activation system. After entering the program's unlock serial code, it then attempts to connect to a CyberLink server to ‘authorise' the installation. When it repeatedly failed to connect, we were left without a working copy of the program.

The online activation system, we've been told, only applies to the direct download versions of the software sold through the CyberLink website, although no reason for our hopefully isolated mishap was found. A retail disc later provided a reduced hassle installation.

CyberLink kowtows to the film industry's insistence on ‘locking down' media, so beware that CyberLink PowerDVD 9 will not let Blu-ray discs be viewed on two screens at once in mirror mode, and nor can you play high-definition video on a screen unless that display has been deemed 'secure' by Intel's high-bandwith digital content protection (HDCP) approval system.

More worrying, our setup refused to play a Blu-ray film after our screen was incorrectly identified by CyberLink PowerDVD 9 as not being HDCP-approved. Installing CyberLink PowerDVD 9 onto a different PC allowed the film to play on the same screen.

Anyone used to connecting modern Blu-ray players to projectors and displays may be familiar with the pain of random roadblocks caused by a failure to digitally ‘handshake' with this obstructive DRM scheme.

Screengrabs of still images from films, while possible when playing DVD, are denied if you try doing the same with a Blu-ray film running.

Basic playback of discs worked well, with the multi-speed fast-forward/rewind controls responsive to requests. By clicking these controls you can cycle through various speeds, and sped-up audio is also included when scanning up to 2x speed.

NEXT PAGE: More features and performance notes >>

The latest Ultra version of CyberLink PowerDVD 9 expands its Blu-ray hi-def decoding capabilities, and adds picture processing for standard DVD video too.

Picture quality from Blu-ray is superb, with no sign of compression artefacts or motion blurring. On our test system, however, using Vista Home Premium 64-bit SP2 with a Lite-On DX-401S external USB BD-ROM drive, we did experience micro-pauses during the playback of a film. Audio and video would freeze for a fraction of a second periodically throughout the entire film. No other programs were running at the time.

There's a also a lack of consistency of operation between BD and DVD discs. Playing DVD, for example, you can use the spacebar to start and pause playback; or use the mouse to control the disc's on-screen menu functions. With Blu-ray, we could control a disc's menu elements only with the left/right cursor and enter keys of a keyboard; and simple pausing with the space bar did not work.

If you use your PC as a media centre, there's a switchable Cinema Mode which simplifies the interface and allows easier control though big on-screen buttons. Meanwhile, FancyView ‘borrows' Apple's CoverFlow idea to show DVD chapters or an entire movie library in a splayed-out semi-circle.

CyberLink PowerDVD 9 Ultra

CyberLink PowerDVD 9 Ultra FancyView mode

Alternatively, you can use your investment in CyberLink PowerDVD 9 Ultra to allow the viewing of Blu-ray films through Microsoft's Windows Media Center interface.

You can optionally join CyberLink's MoovieLive service, which collects data about your viewing habits, and shares information with other CyberLink users and with advertisers. Unfortunately, we couldn't find a way to switch off the full-screen nag urging us to join; it was always in your face whenever the program first starts and before your own disc is loaded.

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Equally maddening were the constant adverts for us to ‘upgrade' to another version of the software, despite this already being the top-tier Ultimate version. We've been told that both issues are now being addressed for the European market.

In its favour, CyberLink PowerDVD 9 Ultra is a handy one-stop solution for playing most available video and audio disc formats, including BD with DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD soundtracks, as well as DVD-Audio and DTS 96/24 music discs.

The new HDMI 1.3 compatbility (not tested) is a 2006 standard to increase the bandwidth for audio/video passed over the cable link to external decoders, such as flat-screen TVs and AV receivers. It should maintain true high-definition colour gamuts over an HDMI cable, as well as allow the transmission of Dolby and DTS' losslessly compressed multi-channel audio.

NEXT PAGE: Our expert verdict >>

CyberLink PowerDVD 9 Ultra: Specs

  • AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-50 or higher
  • Intel Core 2 Duo 1.8GHz or higher
  • Windows Vista, Windows XP SP3
  • 1GB RAM AGP or PCI Express graphics processor with DirectX 9.0
  • Intel 965, G33, G45 integrated graphics with 256MB video RAM (Vista only for BD)
  • nVidia GeForce 7600 or better
  • ATI Radeon X1600 series or better
  • HDCP-compliant monitor for Blu-ray playback
  • AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-50 or higher
  • Intel Core 2 Duo 1.8GHz or higher
  • Windows Vista, Windows XP SP3
  • 1GB RAM AGP or PCI Express graphics processor with DirectX 9.0
  • Intel 965, G33, G45 integrated graphics with 256MB video RAM (Vista only for BD)
  • nVidia GeForce 7600 or better
  • ATI Radeon X1600 series or better
  • HDCP-compliant monitor for Blu-ray playback

OUR VERDICT

We were impressed by the potential capabilities of PowerDVD 9; and equally irritated by annoying features and bugs that spoilt our ability to get on and enjoy the discs it was supposed to simply play. For simple playback of DVDs, the free VLC program is more versatile, but if you want to play Blu-ray films on your Windows PC, PowerDVD 9 is one of only a few solutions available.

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