Component Reviews, Part 3
Published on December 1, 2004
DVDO iScan HD Video Scaler
|DVDO Home Theater Products
300 Orchard City Drive
Campbell, CA 95008
408 379-3836 (voice)
408 379-3845 (fax)
The iScan HD is a variable line rate video processor capable of outputting any resolution between 480p and 1080P—there is no upscaling of 720p or 1080i signals however. Due to its adjustability, this product will work with all types of digital televisions including LCD/CRT/DILA/DLP/plasma. The unit features infrared remote control, on-screen display, software upgrades, and RS-232 control.
Inputs included: VGA (DB-15), (2x) RGB/S or YPrPb (RCA) input processing 480i, 480p, 576i, 576p signals and pass-through for 720p and 1080i signals, DVI pass-through, (2x) composite (RCA), (2x) s-video (mini DIN), (2x) optical digital audio and (2x) coaxial digital audio that accepts DD, DTS, and PCM from 44kHz-96kHz, 16 bit-24 bit word length.
Outputs included: DVI and VGA (DB15) for RGB or YPbPr with H&V sync, composite sync, or sync-on-video, one digital coaxial, and one digital optical output.
Processing allows for 3:2/2:2 pulldown detection, picture adjustments (contrast, brightness, color, tint, Y/C delay, sharpness), Framerate conversion, automatic chroma upsampling error detection and correction, timebase correction, digital audio delay to correct for timing errors, and supports 4:3, 16:9, and letterboxed (in 4:3 or 16:9) aspect ratios.
Detachable power supply, LCD display (on the front), automatic input source detection and input priority selection, built-in test patterns are included. The HD2 will pass but not process HDCP compliant signals on the DVI input, while the newest version, the HD+ (available in November), will be able to process a few, select resolutions—see Setup below. There is a SDI (Serial Digital Interface) option available ($300), and the component comes with rack mounts. Unit measures 17” W x 10.4” D x 2.2” H and weighs 6.4 pounds. 1-year warranty.
System 1: Barco graphics 808 projector, Dish Network 4900 satellite receiver, SD-3800 DVD player, Mitsubishi HS-U54 VCR, Smart Devices line conditioner, Comprehensive Video, Accell, and Audioquest video cabling.
System 2: Fujitsu P50XHA30WS 50” Plasma monitor, Arcam DV-79 DVD player, Monster Cable HTS1000 Power Conditioner, Audioquest and Monster Cable video cabling.
More and more features mean more and more setup. Plugging things into the unit was a snap. The two optical audio inputs were a benefit for me because my surround processor only has one. In addition this unit offers digital delay and I was anxious to see how well this worked. Just as many video processors are adding DVI compatibility and features, the industry has decided to abandon the connection. I’ve noticed that many DVD players and HD set-top boxes have eliminated DVI in favor of HDMI connections. Plasma televisions have already started the transition and I’m sure, soon enough, most digital televisions will have abandoned this supposed standard. Oh, well. But don’t fear because cable manufacturers are already making DVI-HDMI and HDMI-DVI adaptors so not all is lost. My guess is that newer versions of scalers will offer multiple HDMI inputs in the future.
The iScan HD unit under review will not process HDCP compliant DVD players and set-top boxes over DVI. This means that anything connected to the DVI input will be a straight pass-through to the TV if these connections are utilized. For those looking for the ability to upscale or downscale the DVI signal, the easiest solution is to wait until the HD+ unit is available in November. The HD+ will work with HDCP (that’s copy-protected digital content for those who are unfamiliar with the acronym) and process resolutions of 480p, 576p, 720p, and 1080i.
The next step was to dig out the manual and figure out the best way to get started. It is clearly written and comes complete with diagrams that should help even a total beginner. That’s not to say that it is an easy read. It may take a while to get through it, but when you have, using the unit to its fullest won’t be such a daunting task.
Below, I’ve sectioned off the different areas of setup for the iScan that will make reading through the review a little easier.
Before getting my hands dirty with the iScan, I connected it to my computer and updated the software. You can go to the website and check for updates. The one I downloaded was dated September 12th, 2004. There are several changes (see the release notes for a complete list), but the most important one for me was the ability to change the sync polarity. For some reason, my Barco 808 requires negative sync, and this is (most likely) why I was unable to get complete compatibility with the Focus Enhancement Centerstage product previously reviewed. I loaded a terminal program on the computer (on the DVDO website), installed it, connected a RS-232 cable to the iScan, and pushed a couple buttons on the front panel and viola! The upload into the scaler did take more than 10 minutes even though the instructions claim under 5—no big deal.
On-screen and Display Menus
I tried navigation through menu with only the display on the iScan as a guide. It’s possible, but you had better know where everything is, otherwise you are in for lots of repeated button pushing. A big problem with all video processors occurs when you are trying to set them up with a display/monitor for the first time. If you can get a lock with the right resolution and sync, then you’ll want to use the on-screen display. Otherwise you’ll be forced to look at the display on the processor itself until you can get an image. This is what happened when I tried to get the YUV output working. I couldn’t see the image on the screen very well at all (as it was flipping, twisting, and distorted). The controls to change back to DVI were easy to access, so it wasn’t a huge problem.
The iScan’s menu system is first-rate and very easy to navigate. You can get directly to submenus by pushing a button on a remote, or you can move up and down through the main menu. Unlike many DVD/receiver/processor setup menus you can see where you are in the menu structure at all times. I really liked this, and it made it much better to go back and forth between settings. The menu options are (mostly) described below.
Output Control Menu
The first selection to make on the unit is whether you are using analog or digital. With the DVI there is a separate choice for displays that look for a PC signal on the DVI input versus a standard video signal. Next, is the output format and resolution selection.
There are already predefined resolutions in the iScan HD, so you don’t have to use custom resolutions if they are not needed. The most common ones are all ready to go for:
Digital Televisions: 480p, 576p, 540p, 1080i, and 1080p;
PCs: VGA, SVGA, XGA, and SXGA;
Plasma: 852×480, 1280×768, 1024×1024, 1366×768;
DLP: 1280×720, 1024×576;
DILA: 1400×1050, 1365×1024, 1400×788;
CRT: 1280×960, 1440×960, 1440×1152.
I planned to experiment with a few different displays, so the variety of choices made this easier. If you want to build your own resolutions then you can do that as well.
In addition to the resolution adjustments, you can adjust horizontal and vertical shift. In the advanced area there are even more selections to set “timings” to match the display exactly. With the plasma monitor the only adjustment that was needed was for horizontal shift.
Output aspect ratio is next and in addition to 4/3 and 16/9, there is an added setting with the software update for 5/4. Sync type is selectable as bi, tri, composite or separate and with the software update you can select +/- H and V settings! Colorspace is either RGB or YUV.
One of the interesting features of the iScan HD is the ability to do frame rate conversion. You can select an arbitrary output mode that is not locked to the source, perhaps because your display works best at a particular refresh. You can also have the unit convert from where normally a 3:2 pulldown algorithm would be used to convert fields at 60 Hz, to go with 2:2 rate (48 Hz) or 3:3 (72 Hz). For PAL material at 25 Hz it would be 50 Hz or 75 Hz. People claim that these even multiples “look” better to the eye. Also, in the case of CRT projectors there is a good argument as to the fact that the projector will run easier and convergence will drift less if used at lower refresh rates. I planned to experiment and see if this was the case in the viewing tests.
Input selection can be direct or automatic. The inputs have a predetermined priority that selects from active inputs. This can be changed at the user’s discretion.
The input aspect ratio control is more flexible than I expected. In addition to the 4:3, letterbox, and 16:9 modes, there is also a preset mode that is unique to each input. The picture can be zoomed up to 2x in both vertical and horizontal direction and can be panned to adjust for zooming. These functions work on the input signal and not the output.
There are several different picture controls: brightness, contrast, saturation, hue, sharpness, and a dedicated sharpness for component inputs, Y/C delay, and the chroma filter. The chroma filter will attempt to remove chroma upsampling errors (CUE) that may be created by certain hardware. These settings are all individual for each input. There is an auto mode that can be used if you don’t know whether the source is problematic or not.
Other adjustments that are of use are the audio input assignment and lip sync capability. I fully intended to see how much audio delay there is even though my preamplifier offers a source adjustable delay. The delay inside the iScan is automatically calculated to even out any delay caused by the video processing that goes on in the component. You can even select to turn the front panel LED off if you like—a nice touch!
There are more test patterns than what is listed in the manual. My guess is this happened when I updated the software. Also, the manual’s instruction on how to navigate through the patterns is not correct. Pushing the numeral “1” on the remote skipped backwards one pattern and number “3” moved skipped forwards. Hitting the “test patterns” button turned the patterns on and off. There are multiple color bar patterns, grids, geometry and frame checks, vertical and horizontal lines of 1-pixel size, a moving bar to check motion judder, and brightness and contrast checks.
The remote control is nicely laid out and gives you access to just about everything you’d want to access directly. The buttons glow in the dark, but unfortunately, the labels are silk-screened above and below the buttons, and are invisible in the dark. Unless you know where the button you need is, you’ll have difficulty. The buttons are in different sections and are different sizes, so once you get the hang of where they are it isn’t a big problem. Once I got an image on the monitors, I used the remote exclusively to make adjustments with the iScan.
In System I the iScan was connected to the Barco projector with a Comprehensive VGA to RGBHV breakout cable, and all the sources were routed directly through the video processor. With the processor set to negative sync I had absolutely no trouble getting a rock solid image.
Connection to the VCR was made with a composite video cable. Video connection to the DVD player was made via component.
In the past I’ve had trouble with some video processors when using videotape as the source. The problems range from an unstable image, to weird contrast/brightness fluctuations in the picture. Some of these problems are very VCR dependent, so results may vary.
With a pre-recorded videotape of Moulin Rouge play, fast search forwards and backwards were all fine. On the pause there was an ever so slight vertical waver that was probably due to the VCR itself. With a recorded tape in the SP mode playback was fine. With forward and reverse fast searching there was a minor vertical bounce of about 15% every 3-4 seconds. If the tape was going reverse the bounce was down, while going forward it went up. Pause showed the same results as with the pre-recorded tape. With a recorded tape in the EP mode playback was fine and so was fast search forward strangely enough—I would expect problems considering this test wasn’t 100% with an SP tape. The reverse had the same bounce as on the SP tape however. I repeated the test a few times and got the same result. Pause was the same as before.
All in all the problems were minor and this unit should work fine with videotape assuming you get similar performance with your VCR.
I used an Ultralink VGA cable to connect my computer directly to the input on the iScan. I tried a couple different resolutions and, as a pass-through, it seemed to be working perfectly. I tried to utilize the DVI out of the computer, but my display only works with a RGBHV input, and I don’t think the iScan will transcode from DVI to RGBHV—in any case all I got was a blue screen.
Video Test Material–DVD
I started off with the Faroudja test patterns on the same disc I had used for a previous video processor view. Most of the tests went well, although there was still some stair-stepping on the flag. I was anxious to check out some real video material so I moved on to DTS Sampler #3.
With the sampler disc I viewed The Eagles chapter and the Titanic trailer. This DVD is not widescreen enhanced, so if the DVD player is set to output a 16×9 shape then the picture will be too thin vertically. This was fixed by a quick setting of the aspect ratio to 4×3 on the iScan. With the other discs, I left it in the 16×9 setting and got the proper ratio. The Eagles selection looked great with only minimal stair-stepping, and, with the guitar, strings were smooth and continuous. Titanic looked sharp and colorful and close-ups were very clean and clear. Distant shots looked softer, but this is how I remember this disc.
When I went on to Monster’s Inc. chapter 5 I was quite impressed with the job done by the processor. It lacked some of the snap that the DVI connection in System 2 had, but this could also have been due to the quality of the DVD player (a sub $200 unit). I tried it with and without progressive scan, but there was little difference in picture quality. Many tests I’ve read (and lots of experimentation on my own) have left me to believe that using the progressive scan on low- to mid-level DVD players will often yield a worse picture than the interlaced output assuming use of an external processor or a monitor/television with good internal processing.
Back to an old standby…I put on chapter 10 from The Fifth Element—the scene where Leeloo jumps off the ledge. The close-up on her face is usually impressive, but with some systems it is scary how good it looks. I wasn’t disappointed with the iScan. Just for kicks I compared it to my Home Theater PC (HTPC) using Powerdvd 6 as the software DVD player. The computer uses an ATI 9600 video card and I hooked the VGA out directly to the projector using the same cable that was coming from the iScan. It was a close call. I’m not using ffdshow (a utility that allows all different types of processing to improve picture quality), nor have I tweaked the PC out to the nth degree. Of course, I wasn’t using a first-rate standalone DVD player either, so it wasn’t a completely unfair test. The performance wasn’t entirely different. The close-up look great as it did with the processor. When the camera was pulling back Leeloo’s teeth seemed a bit better delineated, but the difference was slight. Having something that works 100% of the time can’t be discounted (re: the processor).
Video Test Material—Satellite
Motion viewed through the iScan was excellent. I happened upon Clear and Present Danger on A&E, and the picture was superb. I tried a few different resolutions—all with excellent results. In the case of the projector, it would just be a matter of using the test patterns and determining which resolution gave the best image. In case you get lost, you can always push the “info” button on the remote and the display will show the resolution, the input, the signal type, the audio source, the aspect ratio, etc. When I tried setting the framerate to 48 Hz the picture seemed to jump every so often. I switched it to 60 Hz and this effect went away. After switching back again I didn’t notice the jumping. I finally set the rate to “unlock” and let the iScan take care of the selection internally.
I went on to sample many different movies and TV shows during my time with the iScan and it never hiccupped or gave any hint to its operation. Even though it was scaling the image, I never felt it did so in an obvious manner yielding artifacts or causing visual anomalies. It was easy to get lost in watching films like Seabiscuit as there wasn’t much in the way to complain about the image. Vertical and horizontal pans were smooth and didn’t jerk.
I tried the audio lipsync function which allows you to lag the video or the audio in 1 millisecond increments. Even without the lipsync adjustment I wasn’t really having any audio delay problems, but it is nice to have it in case it is an issue. I was glad to find out that the iScan will convert an optical input to a coaxial output and vice versa (I assume).
In System 2 I made a few different video connections to gauge the performance advantages of the iScan processor. I connected an S-video cable directly to the plasma monitor and ran an (interlaced) component and composite video cable into the iScan which was connected to the monitor via a DVI cable. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an HDMI adaptor available or I would have made some comparisons with the DVD connected digitally to the TV versus the analog video connections.
First, I went into the processor and set the output resolution to match the monitor—1365×768. Then I shifted the image to the left so that it was even with the frame of the TV. Depending on the viewing material, there was a very slight border around the image that varied from DVD to DVD. It would have been possible to eliminate it by expanding the size, but I didn’t want to alter the resolution from the native resolution. The picture was very colorful and clear (even before calibration), but there was a flickering effect that was immediately noticeable. As soon as I pointed this out to a friend he was bothered by it too. I made sure the DVI was set to video and not computer (to achieve proper video levels), but it turns out that the refresh was set to 48Hz and that by changing it to 60Hz the problem completely disappeared.
Then I realized that the aspect ratio needed fixing, so I went into the format section and choose 16×9. The picture filled the screen properly and looked beautiful. I wanted to do a later comparison with the component into the monitor as well, but first…
I calibrated the display using the THX Optimizer on Monster’s Inc. Luckily, each input of the Fujitsu is adjustable separately and so are the inputs on the iScan. I used the monitor’s controls for the S-video input, and the controls on the iScan for the component and composite out of the DVD.
**As an aside, I don’t really understand why so many people want receivers and processors with video upconversion—it means you have no way of independently adjusting each source for the best picture (unless the source itself is adjustable). Sounds like a big drawback to me, although if you only have the option of running one set of cables to (or not enough inputs on) the TV it does make life easier.
Video Test Material–DVD
I enlisted the aid of two friends to help judge the picture. I used Chapter 5 on the Monster’s Inc disc. I went back and forth between the inputs using the remote controls and skipping back to the beginning of the chapter. As you’d expect, the results were predictable. There wasn’t as much difference between composite and the s-video as there was with the component. Still, the s-video connection to the monitor was a bit cleaner in comparison to the composite fed through the processor.
The connection from the DVD via component and then out to the monitor DVI was amazing. Later I tried to use the VGA to component adaptor that I had with the colorspace set to YUV and the output set to RGB, but I couldn’t get a proper image on the display. I finally gave up as the DVI would seem to be the preferred method anyway based on my later tests with a direct component feed.
When I switched the component cable from the processor to the TV directly I was a bit surprised. Fujitsu has just upgraded these models to a new version with improved video processing which is only shipping presently—I haven’t seen them yet. However, the older models are known for their impressive video processing capabilities. Although the picture looked good direct, it was not as good as the feed with the video processor. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this processor with this monitor—for the price it would be clearly worth it. In addition to Monster’s Inc, I watched video from The Fifth Element and The Messenger. The differences were clear. The image was sharper with more detail, colors were more vivid, and there was no pixilation or visual distortion around the edge of objects as they moved. It was as if the processor eliminated some edge enhancement and made the transitions between different colored objects more striking and at the same time smoother. My friend commented that it looked more like HD and I would have to agree. It was the best DVD image I’d ever seen on this set.
Rarely do I have to think hard about something critical to say about a component, but that is the case with the iScan HD. I have to admit some bias, because it was nice to plug something in easily, push a couple of buttons, and have it work 100%. Every time I wished I was able to adjust some control—there it was. Need time delay for the digital signal? No problem. Need a resolution for a DILA projector? Got it. How about a 1080p?! This unit will handle it no problem.
The menu system was superb and made operation a breeze. The remote had most of the commonly used controls, so I didn’t even have to enter the menu. The test patterns were useful and easy to access, and changing resolutions and further adjustment was a snap.
Then there is the price. A few years ago you would have had to pay $20,000 to get this kind of performance, but economies of scale and advancement in video processing have been tremendous. I’ve reviewed a few of the older iScan products, but they were always limited in one way or another. In practice, this product has overcome all my objections of the previous products. It can be utilized with just about any display, will handle any type of standard definition programming you throw at it (including videotape), is built nicely, and worked flawlessly for the couple months I had it in use. It handily outperformed the processing in a $9000 plasma monitor, and considering the price, is highly recommended.
– Brian Bloom