Equipment Review No. 1 •  January 2003

Silicon Image Iscan Ultra Line Doubler
$1199

Line doubler using Sil 504 chip and 12-bit video DACs designed for displays capable of progressive scan (31.5 kHz/ 480/ 576P). Accepts PAL, NTSC, and SECAM signals. Allows connection of 2 component, 2 s-video, 2 composite, and 1 pass-thru input (VGA connector). Outputs are via DVI and VGA (either RGB or YpbPr). Remote control. Digital display that indicates adjustment of brightness, contrast, saturation, hue, YC delay, sharpness (edge enhancement & fine detail), and a chroma filter. Individual adjustments are available for every input. Aspect ratio control (full frame, letterbox, squeeze modes) is available for use with 16x9 shape displays. 1 year warranty. 17” W x 10.4” D x 2.2” H; 5.45 lbs. Includes ears for rackmounting.
Silicon Image, Inc.
1060 E. Arques Avenue
Sunnyvale, California 94085
408-616-4000
http://www.siiimage.com/
dvdo/iscanultra.asp/


Equipment Used

Marantz PV5580W rear projection television, Toshiba SD-4205 DVD changer (transport), Arcam DV27 (for comparison), Barco 808 projector, Echostar 4900 satellite receiver, Toshiba M-754 VCR, Audioquest component and video cabling, Ultralink VGA-VGA cable, Comprehensive VGA-RGB cable, Smart Devices GC-120 and Rotel RLC-1000 power conditioners.


Setup

Setup on the Iscan Ultra was very straightforward. The unit comes with a few basic cables (composite, S-video, component), but most people will either upgrade these, or need a VGA and/or DVI cable in addition. I tried it in a few different configurations to experience the full flexibility and capabilities of the unit.

Like the previous Iscan products, the Ultra is designed to take an interlaced video signal (in any format), and turn it into a progressive signal that can drive a HDTV, a computer monitor, a plasma television, a projector, or any other display device capable of accepting a progressive signal. Even if you have a HDTV you may have to get a special cable or connectors in order to make the Ultra work with it. Only a few digital displays (like plasmas) have DVI inputs these days, so most people will stick with the analog (VGA) output. A cable that goes from a 15 pin VGA plug to 5 BNC connectors with adaptors will be the normal configuration. The Ultra is configurable to allow separate sync, composite sync, sync on green, as well as component output that is standard on most HD sets. On pages 8 through 10 the manual details most of the connection possibilities. A full manual is available for viewing on the Silicon Image website http://www.siimage.com/documents/SiI-UG-iscanultra.pdf.

I read through the entire manual just to make sure I didn’t miss any of the capabilities of the Ultra. It is well laid out, concise, offers descriptions on everything I could think of, and is easy to follow.


Operation

Silicon Image really seems to have listened to users of previous products and made several significant improvements. Remotecontrol is now standard and you get duplicate adjustments of everything that is on the front panel. There are direct inputs for all the sources, although you have to toggle through the aspect ratio choices. (For custom applications it might be nice to have direct access to these modes.) The old Iscan Pro only had a single input of each type while the new unit has multiple inputs of every type including a pass-thru for a computer or a HD signal! Note: The pass-thru will not come out of the DVI connection, so if you are using the DVI and the pass-thru input, connection of the VGA output is still necessary. And, obviously, none of the adjustments work on the pass-thru either.

Not only are there more adjustments offered for picture control from the previous unit, but also there is a large digital display on the front where a numeral indicates the actual adjustment value. For anyone who has used the Iscan Pro, you will probably be jumping for joy at this inclusion. A large range of adjustment also helps in dialing in exactly the proper setting for each control. There is also a lock that will prevent accidental changes in the controls, so if you want you can set and forget.

The aspect ratio controls are quite flexible. There is a full-frame setting that leaves the image in the ratio presented by the signal source. There is a letterbox setting that zooms the image—perfect for non-Widescreen enhanced discs. There are also three different squeeze modes. The squeeze modes are basically for insetting a 4:3 image in the center of a 16:9 frame. The only difference is the darkness of the bars on the side. There are three gray settings and black. If you are one of those people who cringe just by the mention of “burn-in” then you will love the curtain feature. It allows you to crop an image that may already have black bars on the sides and thus adds gray to the side of the image.

The range of the picture controls was more than enough (similar to the older Iscan product), but having + and – numbers made the adjustments quick and easy to reference. Each input has a different memory for all of the control adjustments. This makes fine-tuning for each source particularly easy. I used the AVIA disc to set levels, and then tweaked a little bit by eye with various material. Some of the adjustments are in such fine increments that I had to increase or decrease them a good deal to notice a difference. I did not have use for the YC Delay although its effect on the picture was quite obvious. I did not have an occasion to try the chroma filter either.


Viewing I – Rear Projection and Arcam DV-27 comparison

I have always wondered how much difference there is when progressive scan is done inside a DVD player versus an external component. That is exactly what I intended to shed light upon in the first section of my review. In some cases I think it is quite similar to the laserdisc debate about using S-video connections and whether the comb filter is better in the display device or better inside the player. Many will argue that it is not the same because the data on the DVD can be directly converted to a progressive signal as opposed to reduction to an interlaced signal and then back again. At first I intended to use the Arcam DV-27 ($2600) as a transport and compare the output back and forth with its interlaced output sent to the Ultra. I then realized that a more useful test would be with a much cheaper DVD player used as a transport—the Toshiba SD-4205 ($550). In effect, why would someone use a higher end DVD player and only use it in interlaced mode? If a cheaper player and the doubler could perform at least as well as the more expensive player, then at least in terms of video performance, there would be a good reason to keep your current player (possibly) and purchase an Ultra to use in combination in order to receive an improvement in video performance.

It turns out that the Arcam uses a Silicon Image chip for line doubling. This player has been highly regarded in other magazines for both its audio and video performance. In their higher models, Denon also uses Silicon Image chips. The chip used in the Ultra is supposed to be the newest and best chip.

The test system for this comparison included the Marantz Widescreen television and the Toshiba SD-4205 was used as the DVD player feeding an interlaced component signal to the Ultra. The components were plugged into the Rotel power conditioner. I used AVIA to adjust the television to the Arcam. Then I used the Ultra to compensate for any differences. All the picture controls needed a little adjusting to get approximately the same picture.

The first material I viewed was chapter 2 from The Lord of The Rings- The Fellowship of the Ring. This scene starts with some credits and Frodo sitting in a garden at the Shire with lots of greenery in the foreground, the background, and all around. Gandalf arrives with his wagon with the picture containing a somewhat darkened area. Then, there is a closeup of Frodo’s face and Gandalf’s as well. I had to play with saturation and brightness to get the video to look similar. The Arcam had a noticeably warmer/browner cast to the image. Changing the TV to the normal setting from warm eliminated this effect. I forgot that the TV was color balanced in this setting as opposed to the warm (which in the case of this TV) is normally the closest to 6500 K. General picture detail was very good with both setups. Before the color temperature change the Ultra cleared looked sharper and more natural. Detail in the dark areas was good with both. The fact that I could adjust the Iscan’s picture controls so easily was a huge positive. I didn’t notice any video distortions, excess noise, stair stepping in the vertical or horizontal, or any other obvious problems. At least with this test, the difference in color and tone were the most obvious things. A fellow observer preferred the Arcam until I changed a few settings on the Iscan and then he changed his mind.

I followed with chapter 4 from Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 DVD. This material is in 4:3, so I got a chance to play around with some of the Ultra’s aspect ratio controls. Unfortunately, when this TV is driven with a progressive image there is no way to correct for aspect ratio errors. In this instance the Arcam could not display the material in 4:3 unless I changed the picture size to 4:3 in the setup menu—clearly a hassle if necessary on a regular basis. There were some jagged lines noticeable with the Toshiba/Iscan combination, but I wasn’t sure whether it was the fault of the Ultra or the interlaced output of the Toshiba. I do not normally see visible scan lines on this TV. I experimented with the aspect ratio modes and they worked just as advertised.

With chapter 4 from Woman On Top I slightly preferred the image with the Ultra. It seemed to have more depth and pop--it just seemed more accurate. This scene has Penelope Cruz wearing a chef’s smock and sitting in front of multi-colored peppers (along with other foodstuffs). The colors of the peppers were quite vibrant and the flesh tones were extremely believable. As before, depth was good and when the camera is on the students, they appear clear and distinct from one another.

I viewed additional scenes from Shrek, Pleasantville, and U-571 among others. The Ultra did very well with motion in any direction, and the image was always detailed, crisp, with little to complain about. It is possible that a comparison to a much higher-end player like the Krell DVD Standard would have shown some differences in video performance, but I can’t imagine the Ultra being surpassed at anywhere near its price for a line doubler. And that brings us to the next section of the review…


Viewing II – Front projector w/ satellite and videotape

The Barco 808 I use for some of the video testing is not really well matched with line doublers. What does this mean? It means that the scan lines are quite obvious and the image appears to be slightly dim, because the processor is not utilizing enough of the (8”) tubes capabilities. Even with this knowledge, it was still useful for this review.

I used the S-video connection and delighted in how sharp and clean the satellite guide display was. With my current processor (a computer) this display flickers and is slightly soft and fuzzy. I watched The Rookie, Regarding Henry, The Croupier along with some television. One of the big tests for motion processing I find is the scrolling credits at the end of films. In the case of the Ultra they were almost as good as it gets! The letters were intact and easily moving up the screen without any skipping, breaking up, shifting, or any other strange effects that you often see. I kept forgetting that I was supposed to be reviewing and not enjoying the movies and television. There was nothing amiss with the image as far as I could tell. Most HD televisions are deficient in their ability to properly handle standard video material. This is where an upgrade to the Iscan Ultra would give the most benefit.

Next, I hooked my VCR to the composite input on the Iscan. Pre-recorded tapes worked perfectly, as did the image from the satellite running through the VCR. However, when I recorded something from satellite and then tried to play it back I encountered some difficulty. Every few seconds or more the image would change in brightness level and then change back. This was not present with the pre-recorded tape I tried, and this effect was not present when the video signal was run from the VCR through the computer directly to the projector. I contacted Silicon Image to determine what the problem was. I sent them a sample tape that I had made and they wrote:

“The anomaly is caused by the interaction between the video tape that was sent to us and the video decoder in the iScan. The video tape when played back on a VCR generates a signal that feeds the video decoder. The decoder looks at the synchronization section of the signal to determine what gain level to set for proper output. The video tape was recorded in EP mode which generates a noisy signal. The noisy signal causes the decoder to occasionally increase the gain when it's not supposed to. The noise level is also dependent on the VCRs used. Our consumer grade VCR exhibited the problem. Philip's consumer grade VCR does not exhibit the problem during normal play.”

So it seems that this may or may not be a problem depending on the VCR and whether you record in SP or EP. I know, I know, shame on me for using the EP mode!


Viewing III – Plasma via DVI

I was anxious to try the DVI connection with the Ultra and a plasma TV that I had access to during the review. I could not get it to work no matter what I tried. I (mistakenly) thought that I would just plug the DVI cable (that Silicon Image was nice enough to send along with my sample) into the TV and voilà! Well, no voilà. The TV I tried was the new Fujitsu PDS-5004. The manual seemed very clear that all I had to do was select the proper RGB input on the television, but nothing happened. It was as if there were nothing going to the TV whatsoever. I looked in the Iscan manual, and made sure the output was set to DVI and not VGA. I then tried both different computer shapes that are options on the Iscan Ultra. There is a 640x480 mode and a 720x480 mode. I’ve heard so much about the superiority about this connection that I did not give up. I managed to find another TV to try. On the Fujitsu PDS-4233 I thought I might get lucky. Nope. This time the TV said “out of range,” so at least I knew it was getting the signal—only that it wouldn’t work. I tried the 720 and 640 modes again. Nothing. The 50” plasma had adjustments that might have made a difference, but this TV had no type of adjustment that would give me a picture. If you have a digital display then it is certainly worth trying this connection, although hopefully you will have better luck than I.


Conclusion

With the exception of the videotape problem, I give the Silicon Image Iscan Ultra two thumbs up. Do you have a TiVo, a satellite receiver, or cable box? If the answer is yes and you have a HD capable set as well then you are a prime candidate for the Iscan Ultra. For those who have 8 or 9” CRT projectors (front or rear) then you might want to consider a scaler, tripler, or quadrupler. For the rest, and especially anyone considering a processor under the $1500 price range, the Iscan is the one to get. It always delivered an excellent picture and should have enough inputs for most everyone. The fact that all the inputs are independently adjustable and can be selected from the remote makes it undeniably flexible.

- Brian Bloom big_brian_b@hotmail.com

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