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
Here at The Tech Buyer's Guru, we focus on hardware reviews, but along the way, we get exposed to (and receive questions about) a lot of software. One of the software packages that has always been of interest to home theater PC fans is PowerDVD. Ever since Microsoft pulled native OS support for DVDs (back with Windows 8), an aftermarket solution has been required for users of disc-based media. There are a number of freeware and shareware options, but the most popular mainstream app has been PowerDVD, which is updated on a yearly basis. The latest version, PowerDVD 17 Ultra, just released for 2017, offers the same core features as previous editions, but adds a number of additional cutting-edge features for users of the latest media formats.
So we already know PowerDVD has a market basically unto itself. But does it deliver on all that it promises? Read on to find out!
We'd like to extend a special thank you to Cyberlink for providing us with a review copy of PowerDVD 17 Ultra.
Description and Features
One of the great features of PowerDVD is that it actually has two distinct modes, in fact it's practically two distinct applications: PowerDVD for PC and PowerDVD for TV. While these are called "modes", they actually require a reboot of the applications. That's a bit inconvenient if you're in the middle of a film, for example, and decide you want to switch modes. In our testing, TV Mode was by far superior for use on an HTPC. That's because it uses large icons and controls that are easy to use without a mouse (for example, with arrow keys on a keyboard). The PC Mode version of the app will be better for people sorting through a lot of content sitting at their desks, as it can display much more on screen, but we figure most HTPC users are going to use TV Mode and never go back, which means the inconvenient mode switching isn't really a problem. You can see a screeshot of the PC Mode at left, displaying the tracks of an Adele album. While it would be fine for use at a desk, it's not what you want to be looking at when sitting on the couch.
Below you can see a screenshot of the album browser in TV mode. While a similar view is available from PC Mode, it takes a lot of mouse clicks to get there, while you can enter this view from TV Mode without ever picking up a mouse. It's really clean and intuitive, which we like a lot.
While PowerDVD 17 offers a number of video tweaks under its "TrueTheater" suite of "enhancements", we tend not to like altering the image quality of our video, and did not test these. That's not to say some people won't enjoy playing with the options, particularly HDR conversion for non-HDR material.
PowerDVD supports a surprising number of formats, and in fact, goes way beyond its namesake, the DVD. This includes audio file formats such as AAC and FLAC, photo formats such as RAW, and of course, the stars of the video show, Blu-Ray and Ultra-HD 4K Blu-Ray. Now, truth be told that there's a bit of a "chicken or the egg" problem at play, as 4K Blu-Ray players are just now hitting the market. More accurately, a 4K Blu-Ray player is hitting the market: the Pioneer BDR-211UBK, which is scheduled for shipment from first-tier vendor B&H Photo Video on May 18, 2017 (a few days after we're going to press with this review). Since we obviously don't have one, we can't test PowerDVD's functionality with 4K Blu-Rays. Interestingly, Pioneer is including an older version bundled with its drive, what it's calling "PowerDVD 14 UHD-BD software". We asked for clarification from Cyberlink regarding the capability, Here's what we heard back:
[T]his is only for OEM version. ([Pioneer is] our specific partner at that time). For PowerDVD17, it is actually the first version capable of playing UHD Blu-Rays (Ultra and Live version).
Another major concern is that due to copyright concerns, an enormous number of barriers have been put up that make the ability to play 4K video nearly impossible. Cyberlink has a checklist on its website, but to be brief, you need an HDMI 2.0 with HDCP 2.2 enabled (which by our count fewer than five motherboards currently provide), along with a 7th-generation Intel Core CPU, and Windows 10 64-bit. Sadly, while many add-in video cards, including all Nvidia GeForce cards released since September 2014, offer HDMI 2.0, they are not a substitute for these requirements. You must output directly via Intel's built-in video processor. At this point, we think 4K Blu-Ray on PCs just doesn't make sense. It's far too hard to get it running, and for reasons we'll discuss on the next page, it's probably not worth bothering with if you're a true cinema fan.
Luckily, things were pretty smooth in our testing of standard Blu-Rays. We tried a bunch, including award-winning films Life of Pi, Arrival, and Hidden Figures. We found that on several discs, PowerDVD proved unstable and could not properly load them on the first try, but after restarting the application, we were always able to access the content. We really liked using TV Mode for viewing Blu-Rays, and as can be seen above, it resembles the built-in apps in many stand-alone Blu-Ray players, as well as consoles like the Xbox and Playstation. Note that due to content protection put in place by Cyberlink, taking screenshots of Blu-Rays is not possible, so we just have the menu to show you!
By the way, another new feature of PowerDVD 17 is its support for virtual reality content via the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. As we don't have either of these on hand to test with, we can't say exactly what PowerDVD 17 adds that built-in apps can't provide, but owners of these VR headsets that also need AV software may want to look into the value added by this new functionality.
Flip to the next page to hear more about some innovative PowerDVD features, as well as issues we encountered and our final thoughts.