New connectivity options often drive product design, and DVI/HDMI is no exception. DVI and HDMI are interfaces that allow you to keep the signal in the digital domain throughout their journey, making hookup simpler, and providing a noticeably sharper picture when viewing digital content (such as DVD or HDTV) on digital displays (like plasma, LCD, DLP, or LCOS), as the signal is never converted back and forth to analog at all.
I've already written about how computer-like interfaces open up the A/V cable market to new entrants, but every product in the A/V chain may need to change as well. There are already DVD players with DVI outputs from Samsung, V, and others - some at prices barely above non-DVI equipped models. Most current HDTV tuners and set top boxes have DVI or HDMI outputs. TVs and front projectors have embraced the interface, but only partially - most offer just a single DVI or HDMI input. So how do you hook up two things to one interface?
While specialized switching gear exists, it's not usually cost effective, so A/V switching is a classic task for a receiver (along with audio processing and amplification). For the moment, the only receiver or processor that I know of that switches DVI for you is Sony's ES STR-DA9000ES flagship... a $3,000 behemoth. Outlaw Audio has announced a more affordable receiver due out... eventually (after botching the 950's product launch they've gotten a lot more conservative with their release date announcements).
LG has an interesting solution - combine the two most likely sources into a single component. The LST3510A combines an upconverting DVD player with an ATSC (over the air) HDTV tuner, and a single DVI output for both sources. It works extremely well... when it works. The manual is terrible, offering little actual information about either the DVD functionality or HDTV tuning. The on screen user interface is excellent - but it doesn't control output format (a variety of choices including 480i, 480p, 720p, and 1080i). For that, you need to use two switches on the front, which toggle back and forth between selection and change. While relatively simple, I found this maddening and have never successfully changed settings on the first or second try. It also precludes easily programming different resolutions for different displays or source material into a universal remote control. It's own remote control is pretty good - no backlighting, but buttons are differentiated by size and shape, and overall layout is reasonably intelligent.
HDTV tuner performance is exceptional, which was not surprising given Zenith's long history with the standard (LG owns what's left of Zenith, including their HD patent portfolio). The LG LST3510A locked in on some unamplified signals, indoors, in my basement, using a simple UHF loop antenna, when the signal meter read almost zero, and with a lot of multipath distortion (signals bouncing around off of obstacles - my house is not in an ideal HDTV location). This equals or bests any other HD tuner I've seen.
The channel guide did not reliably work, but that may be dependant on the broadcasters, so I'm not sure whether to fault LG here. The tuner is ATSC-only. No NTSC (regular TV), no analog or digital cable, no satellite. So even if the guide were to work, you’d be limited to seeing HDTV programming. There’s also no digital output such as IEEE1394 (Firewire) suitable for copying the HDTV signal to DVHS tape or to a hard drive like a ReplayTV or TiVo unit. Sure, over the air HDTV is incredibly detailed, but being forced to watch commercial television on the network’s schedule with no control over commercials is cruel.
DVD upsampling performance is also exceptional. I noticed no artifacts, excellent 3-2 pulldown, and there was noticeably more detail in upsampled 720p images over DVI than in 480i playback over component video from my "reference" Panasonic and Sony DVD players. Sure, those are budget decks, but then the LG isn't all that expensive either once you consider the cost of standalone HDTV tuners. The point is, if you go with an all digital signal path, you want there to be a difference, and in my experience, that difference is clearly noticeable. Not earth shattering, mind you, but clearly noticeable nonetheless.
This high performance convergence does come at the cost of audiophile friendliness – neither high resolution multi-channel music format is supported. I suppose truly serious audiophiles may simply add a dedicated DVD-Audio and/or SACD player to the rack – analog connections should be fine for the limited video content on those discs. Everyone else will continue studiously ignoring both formats.
Overcoming Initial Flakiness
As great as I found the HDTV and DVD performance to be, the unit as a whole didn’t always work at first, and I couldn't begin to tell you why, as I haven’t been able to replicate the problems. Most of the time, the unit started right up, the TV locked onto the signal, and everyone was happy. However, for the first two months I had the unit, once in a while it would start up in whatever mode you left it in (tuner or DVD), but if you subsequently switched modes, the TV wouldn't pick up the signal. Sometimes the audio signal sent to the receiver was out, too. And sometimes, the unit started up and neither audio or video were working.
Any number of things seem to reset the machine - or not. Turning the unit on/off, cycling through display output resolutions, switching modes, removing/inserting a DVD. I have heard numerous problems with DVI input/output incompatibilities, and HDCP copy protection on top of them, so my experience is likely not unique. While the video sync could be a problem interacting with my TV (lately, a 50" JVC D-ILA), the occasional audio sync problems suggest problems with the unit itself. Perhaps it was just getting used to its new environment – the gremlins seem to have completely disappeared.
Another problem I have with the unit is not it's own fault, but can be blamed on the dual-use nature: Logitech's Harmony remotes, which magically program themselves over the Internet, choke on the LST3510A. The big problem is determining whether the LG should be considered a DVD player or an HDTV tuner. It's both, but the Logitech software treats the unit differently depending on how you classify it. Logitech tech support assures me that they're working on the problem, and when I updated the remote to account for a new receiver several new commands for the LG showed up as well. Progress! In the meantime, I could simply program the Harmony remote manually, but if I'm going to do that, I could just use my Philips Pronto – if I had time to program that…
Until reasonably priced receivers with DVI and HDMI switching are common (and we’ve all been compelled to upgrade our existing gear), it makes a tremendous amount of sense to add an upsampling DVD player to an HDTV tuner in a single box with DVI or HDMI outputs. In addition to its sensibility, LG’s LST3510A is a bargain at only $399 – some less capable HDTV tuners cost more, making the DVD playback essentially free. However, there were clearly some glitches in my setup where the TV, receiver, and LG unit were not communicating properly with each other at first. I’m keeping my unit, but as much as the raw performance and value push me to recommend this product, I cannot do so unconditionally. Buy one, but make sure the retailer will take it back if your TV won’t play nice with it.