The Panasonic DVD-S35 is a low-cost progressive scan DVD player which plays essentially all popular video disc formats in use today. It is capable of reading essentially every type of compact disc form factor recordable optical media, including DVD, DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, DVD-RAM, CD, CDR, and CD-RW. It will play DVD Movies, VideoCD (VCD) and XVCD, Super VideoCD (SVCD) and XSVCD, MPEG1 Layer 3 (MP3) audio, Windows Media Audio (WMA), Kodak PhotoCD, and slideshows of JPEG images on any of the supported CD formats. There is also a less-featured version called "DVD-S31" which is missing WMA and JPEG support. There are silver and black-colored units, which Panasonic refers to as the DVD-S35S and DVD-S35B respectively.

While it is not the cheapest model in its class, at an approximately US$80 street price (ss of August 23, 2003) it is still quite reasonable, and it has a number of features not provided by other players, primarily the nonstandard bitrate support for VideoCD and Super VideoCD, and the outstanding MP3 player interface, which includes long filename support. It also has a nice set of controls, such as a variable-zoom knob and a relatively complete set of buttons on the face of the unit.

COMPATIBILITY

Compatibility is definitely the intent of this DVD player. It supports essentially everyone anyone expects out of a DVD player. Especially notable is the support for all major media types, though actually, they deny support for a number of formats which have been shown to work properly in the unit. The manual contains a passage on discs that supposedly cannot be played: "DVD-Audio, DVD-ROM, CD-ROM, CDV, CD-G, +RW, DVD-RW, CVD, SACD, Divx Video Discs, Photo CD, DVD-RAM that cannot be removed from their cartridge, 2.6-GB and 5.2-GB DVD-RAM, and "Chaoji VCD" available on the market including CVD, DVCD and SVCD that do not conform to IEC62107." In addition, protected WMA files are not supported, as there is no way to manage content keys on a DVD player.

However, DVDRHelp.com's Player Compatibility List claims that the unit plays DVD-RW, DVD+R, DVD+RW, SVCD with non-permanent subtitles, CVD, XVCD up to 4200kbit/s, and XSVCD up to 3300kbit/s. (XVCD and XSVCD are VCD and SVCD-format discs with nonstandard bitrates, allowing both very high and low bitrates.) Some people report problems with DVD+R/RW support, and others are having no problems, which is likely related to the brand of media involved (Fuji and TDK are reported not to work.) This underscores the importance of choosing a media based on your player, or simply using DVD-R, which is supported by nearly everyone.

Naturally, the system plays Compact Disc Digital Audio CDDA, and it also supports CD--Text, which can display the name of the album and its artist, as well as names of songs, and an individual artist for each song. Many CD burning programs support the creation of Red Book Audio CDs with CD-Text.

While the player tends to support almost everything, there is reportedly a problem with the JPEG image support, where the player errors on images larger than 2MB. This may result from some memory limitation of the system.

In general, it seems that the unit is quite intolerant of any data which does not strictly meet the specifications of the format, except for MP3 files. It oddly does not support ID3 tags (the manual is kind enough to explicitly inform you of this) but it does support playing MP3s with arbitrary data like pictures stuffed into them, though it will not display the images. MP3 files must have a '.MP3', or '.mp3' extension, and WMA files must end with '.WMA', or '.wma'.

JPEG images which contain rotation information or similar nonstandard data, which the manual will tell you can come from some digital cameras, are not supported. Further, the extension used must be '.JPG', '.jpg', '.JPEG', or '.jpeg'. Files with a .jpeg or .JPEG extension written to an ISO9660 Mode 1 CD will thus not work, as they will have a '.JPE' extension. If you don't want to (or can't) burn your CDs in ISO Mode 2, don't forget to use the Joliet filesystem extensions when you burn your CD. (I do not know if this unit supports the Rock Ridge extensions, but it seems unlikely.)

Finally, if you create a Video DVD and neglect to include the AUDIO_TS directory, it will not play. Even though that directory is commonly empty on a DVD-Video, it is necessary to include it.

CONNECTIONS

This player has connections to suit most needs. Audio is provided through an optical digital (S/PDIF) connection, or through a pair of RCA line level jacks. 480i/480p progressive scan video is output through three RCA jacks as per usual, and video is also output through composite (another RCA jack) and S-Video. Power input is through a keyed cable, with the power supply inside the unit. The only commonly-present connection missing is the coaxial digital audio.

PHYSICAL INTERFACE

The DVD-S35 has a powerful and detailed (and thus complicated) interface which allows a great deal of control. Some options are buried fairly deep within the assorted menus, which make up for this fact by being fairly logical. A few nifty geek-style features are even included, like a bitrate display with graph which can be activated while watching any of the supported video types. Unfortunately, this feature (the graph, anyway) is not supported for MP3 playback.

The infrared remote is an average-sized boxy device with an uninspired but logical layout. The keypad takes center stage, with navigator, playlist, display, and menu return buttons arranged around it. Basic play control functions are arranged above them in semicircles, reducing the awkwardness of the necessary thumb motions. Buttons for audio and video enhancement share the upper area of the remote with the numeric keypad, and the power, sleep, setup, and open/close buttons run across the very top. The lowest area of the remote contains the buttons which control playback options, like subtitles and audio tracks, angle, and zoom. The remote runs on two AA batteries (included) and is of approximately average weight (about 100g with batteries.)

The face of the unit itself has power, open/close, play, stop, pause, skip/seek backward, skip/seek forward, quick replay, and zoom mode buttons, plus a "knob" (really a three position rotary switch) for changing the zoom level.

SOFTWARE INTERFACE

One nice feature of the interface is an on-screen display which will give you a thermometer-style progress indicator and title/track numbers, as well as the time index which can be set to elapsed play time, or remaining time for the program, play list, track, title, or chapter.

Besides this, the really notable part of the interface, is the system for playing MP3 and WMA files, and viewing JPEG images. It's worth mentioning that all of the menus are extremely reminiscent of the graphics of the Amiga personal computer since version 2.0, down to the fonts, the appearance of the widgets, and even the way it flickers on an ordinary (interlaced) television. What this means to the non-nerd is that the interface is clean and easily legible even on mediocre televisions.

Pressing the remote's "Direct Navigator"/"Top Menu" button (the name Direct Navigator is a reference to the functionality it provides when displaying a Panasonic-format DVD-RAM video disc) or the "Play List" button will take you to a file browser. For audio, this will lead initially to the list of files on the first assumed album found - a directory containing MP3/WMA files. Incidentally, one missing item is the ability to play music and view images on the same disc at the same time. You must use setup and set the behavior of the unit when a disc with both types of media on it is inserted.

Pressing the keypad right button while in the album view takes you to a tree view where you can see the list of directories. Directories with playable songs in them are shown in white, with others shown in black. A scroll bar is displayed on the left to show the length of the list. Albums (and songs within albums) are sorted in typical alphanumeric order, so it is useful to have song filenames begin with their track numbers. There is no support for ID3 tag track numbers, as there is no support for ID3 tags.

While all of this interface complexity seems somewhat overwhelming, it's pleasant to see such a complete set of functions in one player, and the controls really are laid out quite logically. In addition, the manual gives a very good explanation of how to invoke the various functions.

OTHER FEATURES

The player allows you to adjust the picture in order to make up for shortcomings of your video output device or its position in your house. You can adjust brightness, color, contrast, gamma correction, and sharpness. There is a Cinema Mode which does some smoothing and color shifting to minimize the effects of glare and reduce the "tearing" effect of fast motion. It also has a surround sound simulator (like QSound) which enhances sound for those persons with two speakers, though it does not emulate surround sound. The system decodes Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS audio and mixes it down to two channels for analog output, so people without digital audio can listen to those audio tracks.

The zoom function allows both an arbitrary amount of zoom, and also a number of preset zoom levels, including 4:3 Standard, European Vista (1.66:1), 16:9 Standard, American Vista (1.85:1), Cinemascope1 (2.35:1), and Cinemascope2 (2.55:1). You can set the zoom in 0.01 increments between 1.00 and 1.60x, and in 0.02 increments between 1.60 and 2.00x.

HACKING

Reputedly, it is possible to hack the DVD-S35 for multiregion via infrared with a special remote control, but I was unable to locate a specific hack. Apparently the deprotect is done by some shops using a remote control which has been hacked somehow, and which sends an appropriate debugging signal to the unit. www.dvdchips.co.uk will apparently rent you a hacked remote to make the change, but only if you live in an EU country. The remote only upgrades one unit, and apparently the sequence is quite long, so software like OmniRemote or hardware like the Philips Pronto remote will not accurately record it, though it is likely that it could be recorded using an adequately fast sampling device (some remotes operate as rapidly as 450kHz, but that is mostly only very high end equipment) and then analyzed at leisure. Some other Panasonic DVD models can be hacked using a service disc, but none is listed for this model in their website's parts list.

CONCLUSIONS

This is a fantastic unit. It is a low-profile device, comes in both black and silver to suit your decor, and works quite well. The menus are all quite attractive and legible, and the remote's button locations are logical. For a device which plays all these assorted formats, especially the XVCD and XSVCD support, and has progressive output, the price is quite reasonable. The difficulty of gaining multiregion play and disabling macrovision will doubtless chase away the hardcore, but it is otherwise quite capable.


References:

  1. DVD Player VCD,SVCD,CD-R/W,DVD±R/W Compatibility list. DVDRHelp.com/VCDHelp.com, 2003. (http://www.dvdrhelp.com/dvdplayers.php?DVDnameid=2473&Search=Search)
  2. DVD-S35S. Panasonic, 2003. (http://www.prodcat.panasonic.com/shop/NewDesign/ModelTemplate.asp?ModelId=17309&show_all=false&product_exists=True&active=1&ModelNo=DVD-S35S&CategoryId=%202977)
  3. Panasonic Document RQT6933--2P, Panasonic DVD/CD Player Operating Instructions, Model No. DVD-S35/DVD-S31. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd., 2002.

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