Superb video and audio quality at a steep price...that's my immediate take on the Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player. Of course, a mix of factors is likely to drive the price down in the not too distant future.

The chief one, in my view, is the ongoing format war between Blu-ray and HD-DVD and the need for the leading players (Samsung for Blu-ray and Toshiba for HD-DVD) to prove their mettle very early in the game.

This review is not a comparative evaluation of the two formats, nor does it make any statement of which one will be the likely successor to the DVD player. The jury is still out on that one.

The focus here is on the Samsung BD-P1000, the first Blu-Ray set top player to hit the market. The player showcases some of the strengths of Blu-Ray technology, as well as areas where it needs to develop.

To really appreciate the features of the BD-P1000 -- and these are many -- you need a significant disposable income. You would need to hook up the player, which retails for $1,165 (around £785), to a large-screen, high-resolution display.

In my tests I married the BD-P1000 player to both the Samsung LN-S4051D 40-inch Wide HDTV that supports 1080i resolution, as well as the Samsung HLS6187W TV with support for 1080p. In both cases I used the HDMI cable to connect the player and TVs.

For comparison purposes, I also hooked up the BD-P1000 to my Sony DVD player, using the component ports on both devices. (The BD-P1000 also includes S-Video and composite outputs).

Great video, lengthy load time

Samsung included three Blu-Ray discs in the review unit they sent me.

I viewed these first on the Samsung LN-S4041D HDTV and then on the Samsung HLS6187W TV. In both cases, the sound and visual quality were compelling, but it was the HLS6287W -- with its 1080p (1080 lines) high-definition display -- that offered the best results.

Watching Underworld Evolution (starring Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman) on this 61-inch HLS6187W DLP display was an audio-visual bonanza (after I got the disc to load, which incidentally took a good 35 seconds).

The visual style of Underworld Evolution - a Sony Pictures flick - is consciously bleak and includes inky greys, deep blues and purples and silvers. On the HLS6187W they displayed with pristine clarity, sans noise or any noticeable inconsistency. XXX, the other Sony Pictures title included with the box, thankfully had a broader palette of colors most of which displayed vividly.

To get optimal picture quality from the Blu-Ray discs, you need to use either the HDMI or component outputs on the BD-P1000 and set the signal format to either 1080i or 1080p. The BD-P1000 player obtains the picture resolution from the TV, so if hooked to a TV that doesn't support 1080p, that option will be disabled in the menu.

The BD-1000 player did a great job of upconverting regular DVDs. However, the video quality -- even with the component output -- was not a patch on what I obtained from a Blu-ray disc viewed using the HDMI signal.

The interactive pop up menu is a wonderful feature of Blu-Ray technology and the Samsung BD-P1000. It enables you to pull up the disc menu, without stopping playback. The menu overlays the movie, which you can continue to watch while browsing through the scenes, the cast and other features.

Awesome audio

Audio quality provided by the BD-P1000 can be far richer, and noticeably more differentiated that anything you get from DVD.

The BD-P1000 supports dolby digital plus (DD+) and DTS HD -- high quality multichannel audio formats. According to the Samsung Blu-Ray demo disc, these technologies utilize an audio bit rate up to 10 times higher than DVD.

Here too, however, a few variables determine what you actually experience.

Fabulous audio can be obtained connecting your Blu-Ray player to an HDMI supported amplifier. If you have the right audio gear, the uncompressed linear PCM soundtrack from the Sony Blu-Ray discs can be transferred directly from the disc to the audio system with no conversion.

One of the Sony Blu-ray Discs I tested (Underworld Evolution) carried an uncompressed linear PCM soundtrack. This can be transmitted right from the disc into the audio system with no conversion if you have the right gear. The BD-P1000 includes both optical and coaxial digital outputs and a set of 5.1-channel analog audio outputs. The HDMI output can also transmit digital audio.

MP3 files and pictures

A really cool feature of the BD-P1000 is the two card readers on the front panel that enable it to display digital pictures and play mp3 files from 10 different types of flash media.

When testing this capability, though, I had mixed experiences. I slid a multimedia expansion card that contained both music and pictures into the memory card slot in the BD-P1000.

The mp3 files played exceptionally well -- crystal clear, highly differentiated sounds -- and navigation from one song to another was quick and easy using the remote and the Music List display on the screen.

With the photos though it was a less satisfying experience. It took endless seconds for the first picture to load, with an annoying hour glass popping up until the first picture appeared on the screen. While the picture "play" capability is cool, navigating from one picture to the next again takes at least 10 seconds -- and you have the same hour glass to keep you company while you wait!

The quality of the images, however, was great. Pictures of my Western Canada vacation appeared vivid and surprisingly detailed. Of course much of the credit for this would go to the display capabilities of the Samsung HLS6187W TV.

Final word

To sum up, the BD-P1000 player does a good job of showcasing Blu-Ray technology.

Its main strengths include: exceptional video and audio quality (when hooked up with the right display and audio gear); its ability to upconvert DVDs and CDs, unique interactive features, and truly wide-ranging multimedia capabilities. The design of the player is also compelling -- a glossy black case with an angled silver strip at the bottom -- which on the left side encases the memory card slots.

Negative features include the inordinately long time it takes to load discs and navigate between pictures, and at times, the erratic behavior of the player (such as its failure, a couple of times, to pick up the pictures from my memory card).

Samsung will be releasing a firmware update that may fix some of these problems...I hope. According to a Samsung spokesperson, the new firmware will be released in mid-October (October 15, his e-mail said). It will be available for download from the Samsung site, or can be requested from a Samsung service centre.

Bottomline: the Blu-Ray player is a good buy if you have a significant disposable income.

If not, you may want to wait until Samsung -- or it's competitors -- release the next generation of improved, and cheaper, Blu-Ray machines.