ProsProvides universal playback for nearly all media; the only current solution for 4K Blu-Ray on PC
ConsSome instability; HTPC experience on PC is inherently awkward; clipping between tracks during FLAC playback
So here's the big question: how does PowerDVD actually work when watching DVDs (or more specifically, Blu-Rays)? In a word, it's good, but not great. We have been enjoying Blu-Ray content since 2006, thanks to the inclusion of BD support in the original Playstation 3, but the use of a game console to watch movies was always a bit awkward, and the same can be said of using a PC to watch movies. We long ago moved to a dedicated Blu-Ray player (we currently use and recommend the Oppo UDP-203 UHD 4K Player), so jumping back to Blu-Ray consumption via a multi-function device took a bit of adjustment. Cyberlink has gone out of its way to make things easier for users, adding the aforementioned TV Mode (which is essential), but also the slick PowerDVD Remote Free, an app you can load onto your smartphone to control your PC. A screenshot is shown here.
The good news is that the app was fairly easy to set up (both the PC and phone must be connected to the exact same home network - being on different frequency bands like 2.4GHz and 5GHz won't work). Once connected, we could indeed control disc transport via our phone, which was pretty fun. The search buttons, however, didn't work correctly, so we were relegated to using the 8s reverse button to navigate around. Luckily, there was also a mouse mode, which allows you to control the whole PC, a great idea and potentially an even more useful feature. Interestingly, you cannot use a physical mouse to interact with Blu-Ray menus, a fact that PowerDVD helpfully (and constantly) reminded us of every time we tried to interact with a Blu-Ray via the touchpad on our Logitech K400 wireless keyboard.
Unfortunately, we found that about 30 minutes into movie watching, the PowerDVD Remote app disconnected from the PC, which we assume was some type of power-saving timeout affecting either our PC or our phone. In any event, we didn't bother to reconnect it mid-film. At least PowerDVD was kind enough to notify us that the phone was not connected anymore, as we would have otherwise been madly tapping away at the screen trying to control the movie for the rest of the evening.
In terms of the actual playback, content looked great, as any Blu-Ray content should. We saw no anomolies in playback quality versus our standalone players. Alas, we did encounter an odd problem: about half-way through a 2-hour film (Hidden Figures in this case), PowerDVD stuttered and forced the Blu-Ray player to start spinning, causing a one-second pause in the film playback. Clearly, the buffer had run out, but it's unclear whether this is something that will happen on all films, or if it was just a random event. We've never seen this happen on standalone Blu-Ray players, but then again, they never spin down the disc during playback. It's possible that this was a result of a Windows power saving setting, but it's something PowerDVD users will have to watch out for.
The final performance concern we had came up during audio playback, specifically of FLAC files. The inclusion of FLAC support is a really great choice by Cyberlink, as it makes PowerDVD a whole lot more useful to consumers of high-quality audio content. The problem we found was that the software caused a very audible clipping sound between tracks, both when skipping between track manually or while simply listenting to an album in its entirety. This was a bit letdown, and we hope Cyberlink can address the issue. There was no such clipping between tracks when listening to MP3s or other audio formats.
As much as we love using PCs due to their power to perform a wide variety of tasks, we don't think they're the best devices for consumption of media content. And so our conclusions regarding PowerDVD 17 Ultra are somewhat biased because no software solution can really get around the physical and content-protection limitations facing PC users. From the absurd restrictions put in place by the movie industry that make playback of 4K Blu-Rays nearly impossible on any PC, to the interface issues that make watching content from the sofa harder on a PC than on a TV, cable box, or disc player, PC enthusiasts looking for the perfect "all-in-one" device for their AV consoles are in for a bumpy ride. So while we enjoyed experimenting with PowerDVD 17, we aren't going to be giving up our Oppo UDP-203 UHD 4K Player just yet!
All this being said, Cyberlink is doing a tremendous service to the PC community by continuing to innovate in the PC playback space. PowerDVD 17 Ultra may not be perfect, but in supporting a huge variety of formats, and specifically in supporting the cutting-edge 4K UHD format, it's allowing PC enthusiasts to determine if using a PC for such content is right for them. Cyberlink clearly has passion for this market, and must be commended for not sitting still even in the face of challenges totally out of its control (i.e., intrusive content protection). In releasing software with 4K UHD support before 4K hardware even hit the market, Cyberlink is clearly eager to lead the way, providing an incentive for all the players on the hardware side to catch up.