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Samsung DVD N-501
By Michael Olshansky

Written On: 5/30/2001
Last Updated: 5/31/2001

 
Type: NUON-Enhanced DVD Player
Release Date: Available Now
Pack-in: Ballistic
MSRP: $249
Downloads: Firmware | Manual
Hack it!: Make it Region Free or Add a Blue Power LED

The Story

I've been keeping an eye on VM Labs ever since they announced "Project X", now known as Nuon. If you're not familiar with what Nuon is, CLICK HERE, as I won't be explaining it.

Ever since I read that Best Buy stores were supposed to be receiving the N-501, I been keeping an eye out for one.

I was at the local Best Buy to pick up a copy of Traffic and decided to stroll down the dvd player isle HOPING that they might have one. I noticed a box tipped on its side that was out of place. On closer inspection, I saw that it was a 501!

I looked up and saw the display model but there wasn't a price. I asked the sales guy how much and he was surprised since he had never seen this model before. So $229 later, I've got myself a new player.


Initial First Impressions

  • Excellent menus
  • Easy setup
  • Very good picture quality (the Toshiba SD-2300 looks a bit better)
  • Slow to boot up discs (both dvd, vcd, and mp3)
  • Very fast seek times and menu access (better than the SD-2300)
  • Small cramped remote buttons (though not as bad as Apex remotes)
  • TONS of VLM effects (which also work great with mp3's!)
  • Only 15x zoom (samsung's web site STILL says 20x).. though I think anything beyond 15x is pointless anyways
  • Crystal clear MP3 playback
  • Very good VCD playback
  • Doesn't like CD-R's burnt beyond 4x (and seems to HATE Pny CD-R's)
  • MP3 filenames truncated after 15 characters


Setup

Setting up a DVD player isn't much harder than setting up a VCR (and in many cases it's easier, since you don't have to set that damn clock!). The N-501 was no different than my previous few players. In fact, I'd say that it was even easier than my Toshiba SD-2300.

This is largely due to the well thought out menu design.

As you can see in the picture above, the main menu and most setup options can actually be changed on-the-fly while a movie is playing. Almost every player I've ever seen forces you to stop the disc before you can even SEE the player menu. While this isn't a big deal, due to the fact that most people set up their player before even inserting a disc, it's certainly a nice feature. Forget to enable DTS? You can turn it on WHILE THE DISC IS PLAYING. Pretty neet...


Access and Seek Times

For those that are hard-core DVD users, there's nothing more annoying than having slow load times and slow menu navigation. DVD's with poorly designed animated menus such as The Abyss are slow enough as is. I certainly don't like having to wait around just for a menu to change... I doubt you do either.

The N-501 takes unusually long to boot up discs. Using the Criterion edition of Armageddon (which sports the fastest boot time of any of the 200+ DVD's I currently own) as the test case, I can say that the N-501 takes a bit longer than my trusty Toshiba SD-2300 to boot up.

Measuring boot time from the moment the drive door closes to seeing the discs content/menu on screen, I would hazard to guesstimate that the Toshiba SD-2300 boots Armageddon to the menu in about 2 seconds. The N-501, on the other hand, seems to take about 4 seconds. This may not seem like a long time, but this boot time is extended when using older or poorly mastered discs (i.e. 1st generation RSDL Universal titles). While the boot time is by no means unacceptable with a DVD, it's magnified when using CD-R's filled with MP3's or a VCD.

VCD's have ALWAYS been slow to boot, no matter whose player you're using. My old Panasonic A120 booted a VCD in about 15 seconds or so. The N-501 seems to take 20 or more seconds.

MP3 CD-R's vary depending on how many directories and mp3 files you have on the disc. I would again guess that a CD-R with 1 directory filled with approximately 80-100 mp3's took 20-30 seconds to initialize.


MP3 Playback

I know many of you, like myself, have been eagerly awaiting the MP3 playback feature on a Nuon player. Let me just say, initial load times aside, that the N-501 does a kick ass job of MP3 playback.

Up until now, most of the DVD players touting MP3 playback that I've seen either required you to burn your mp3 cd using iso9660 mode, which gives you those nasty 8.3 character file names (i.e. "01APHE~1.MP3", instead of "01 - Aphex Twin - Blue Calx.mp3"). Not so with the N-501. It will take a normal CD-R with long filenames, though the caveat here is that due to the large font size and low resolution of TV, all filenames and directories are truncated after 15 characters. So, the filename above would show up as "01 - Aphex Twi". This isn't horrible if you give your files shorter names, though if you names your files like I do, the filename display isn't much better than "01APHE~1.MP3".

 

The MP3 playback feature isn't without another quirk.. burn speed. I have tried several different CD-R's in the N-501 and have found that it REFUSES to see CD-R's burned at speeds higher than 4x. I haven't done extensive testing with different brands, so this may not hold true after more testing is done.

I have tried a few different brands and found that this unit seems to like GREEN or BLUE CD-R's burnt at 4x or below. BLUE CD-R's, such as Memorex or TDK, sometimes take 2-3 tries before the player will initialize them. The generic GREEN CD-R's I've tried work with no problems at all. Unfortunately, the excellent PNY CD-R's you see on sale at a lot of places and have worked great in every device and drive I've used to date, REFUSE to work in the N-501's MP3 playback mode even when burned at 4x.

Oddly enough, they DO work for VCD playback, though it typically takes 2 tries before the player will initialize them. Again, VCD's on GREEN CD-R work fine, as do pressed silver discs and the couple CD-RW's I've tried.

Once the MP3 disc is initialized, it's smooth sailing... really smooth. The VLM does indeed work with MP3 playback.. and man does it rule! While there is no fast-forward (no big surprise there, as few DVD or portable MP3-CD players support this), I can use the chapter skip button to skip files at will. There's maybe a 1-2 second pause between files, but that's certainly not a big deal.

The coolest feature (besides the VLM running w/ MP3's) is the fact that you can actually navigate through files and folders on the disc WHILE MP3's CONTINUE TO PLAY! Thank god... since having to stop playback just to browse a disc (as some of you may have seen on Apex DVD players) is downright annoying.


VCD Playback

Being a fan of VCD, due to the fact that I own an MPEG-1 capture card and have some personal VHS stuff that I have transferred to a "more durable" format, I'm glad to report that the VCD playback feature on the N-501 works quite well.

Compared to a couple other DVD/VCD players I've seen, the picture seems a tad soft. Since VCD isn't exactly a high-resolution format, the softness isn't all bad. Some poorly mastered discs that exhibit a lot of pixelation seem to look a bit better, while well mastered discs just look.. well.. a bit soft.

The fast-forward and fast-reverse features that work so well on DVD's also work very will with VCD's, too. Again, I haven't done a lot of testing in this area, so this is more of an initial first-impression.


DVD Video Quality

Being the serious videophile that I am, I have spent several hours examining the video quality of the N-501. I've used almost a dozen different discs, analyzing video characteristics such as: black level, color balance, color fidelity, noise, stability, and fine detail.

If you don't want to get into specifics, you can just read the paragraph below then skip to Audio Quality.

In short, I'll say that the N-501 delivers excellent video quality for a sub-$250 player. The only others that I'd say are close are the various sub-$250 Toshiba models and the Sony 360. The sub-$250 Toshiba's look sharp but exhibit some line structure (especially during anamorphic downconversion), while the Sony 360 delivers a smooth but soft picture. I would say that the video quality lies somewhere inbetween the aforementioned Toshiba and Sony players.

With that said, I'll now cover the specifics of the N-501's video playback quality in comparison with my Toshiba SD-2300.

The $299 Toshiba SD-2300 does produce a slightly better picture than the Samsung. Compaired to the 2300, the N-501's picture seems just a tad "off". It's a bit softer and doesn't reveal fine details as well, and the picture seems just a tad warm. Even after messing with my near-perfect TV calibration the N-501's picture quality, while still very very good for a dvd player in its price range ($180-250), doesn't quite match the 2300.

This is by no means a failure on Samsung's or VM Lab's part, as the N-501 is the best bang-for-the-buck in the sub-$250 price range. My feeling is that the extra $70 of Toshiba SD-2300 is directly related to the quality of connectors (and other associated components used to output the video). I could be wrong.. but that's my gut feeling.

As with any DVD player, manufacturers have to cut corners in order to reach a given price point.


Audio Quality

As with most things digital, audio quality is very hard to discern. I had a tough time hearing any differences between my two players. Again, I give a very slight edge to the Toshiba SD-2300. If you think I have a bias here, I certainly do not.. as I was sincerely hoping that the N-501 would completely replace my SD-2300. This just isn't the case.

The N-501's audio, while excellent, seemed to have just a tad less "oomph" than the SD-2300.

Unless you're a hardcore audiophile with some fairly good hardware (read: mid to high end), you probably won't be able to tell the difference.


The new VLM

One thing that the N-501 has that no player besides the Samsung Extive N2000 has, is the VLM. If you're thinking, "What about the SD-2300's VLM?" I'll say this: Those measly 8 effects Toshiba has on the SD-2300 barely qualify.

The N-501 VLM is loaded with a retarded amount of effects. It's even got different ones tailored for different types of music, such as: techno, rock, classical, etc. They seem to respond accurately to their given music type, too. I tried playing some classical with the techno setting and didn't see much activity. On the other hand, using techno on the classical setting did seem to work, though not as well as when I actually used the proper setting. ;)

There are a few so-so effects, but for the most part, the new effects are hypnotic and often mind-numbing. The other cool feature, which was included with the SD-2300 but not the N2000, is that you can actually manipulate VLM effects on the N-501 if you have an analogue controller!

Adjustments vary depending on the effect. On some you can mess with zoom or rotation, while on others, you can mess with video feedback and overdrive. Wicked cool...


Nuon Games

I've only got two Nuon games and T3K was only tested for about 20 minutes, so I don't have much to say here.

With the little testing I DID do, I could swear that T3K runs a smidge smoother than on my Toshiba. I'll have to do some more testing.. and when I do, I'll be sure to update this portion of the review.


Other schtuff...

As for the unit itself, Samsung has tried something different with the outer casing. While most players look pretty similar (read: black retangular boxes), Samsung has outfitted the N-501 in a silverish metallic housing with angled edges on the front, as well as a silverish LCD with nice a bright blue display.

When the player is off, the LCD area looks like a semi-translucent mirror, so to speak. It's rather eye-catching and something different from all the "black rectangular boxes."

The buttons on the player are small silver "dots", which are acceptable, but nothing special. This is probably another instance of Samsung cutting corners to keep the price down. Unlike some prototype shots of the N-501, there is NO jog/shuttle wheel on the front. While this might be disappointing to some, I don't feel that it's necessary on the unit itself, since 95% of DVD player operation is done with the remote. I would like to see one on the remote itself though, as they make advancing frame-by-frame and activating fast-fast-forward much easier.

The remote, while not bad, has a rather strange layout. The button are small and a bit cramped, with some buttons in odd places. After using it for a couple days, it's not too bad, though the buttons that are in the circular formation are something I'll probably never get used to. They just don't feel quite right.

It seems like Samsung didn't redesign the remote for the US market like most Asian manufacturers do.

The zoom feature, while a novelty more than anything, is pretty nice. When you zoom in or out, you actually see a zooming effect. Most players just skip to a larger zoom mode. The N-501 zoom "effect" just looks neet, even if it is fairly useless.


Final Words

My initial impressions pretty much sum up my feelings regarding the N-501. It's an excellent sub-$250 player and packed with a combination of features you won't find on any other player (at least, until Onkyo and Samsung release their high-end models).

The player has it's quirks, especially with MP3 and VCD, though there isn't another player on the market today that does them any better.

I'd like to see the Nuon community get together in the NuonTalk Forums and post their findings with different brands of CD-R's. That way, we can determine the best discs and burning methods for VCD's and MP3 discs.

Another feature that I'm surprised isn't included is a bitrate meter. For the average consumer (who probably doesn't have the slightest clue what bitrate is or means), this feature doesn't matter much. But for us tech geeks, it's neet to see what studios are doing the best job managing their video streams (New Line is one of the best here).

Quirks aside, I definately recommend the N-501 to anyone who is interested in a DVD player and doesn't want to spend $300+. Even if you are willing to spend $350-400, I'd say that the Samsung is definately a better value (unless, of course, you want a progressive scan or DVD-Audio enabled player) than most. It's well built, packed with a lot of really nice features, and especially cool for tech geeks and dvd freaks that like to have the latest-and-greatest toys. :)


Cheers,

Mike (mike@cdnet.net)

 
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Copyright ©2001 Michael Olshansky. All Rights Reserved.
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