CyberLink PowerDVD 13 Ultra review

After 15 years of development, it’s probably no surprise that PowerDVD has become one of the most powerful and comprehensive media players around. Music, video and movies, DVD and Blu-ray, 3D, DLNA, mobile device syncing, Flickr, Facebook and YouTube – the program does it all.

There’s still plenty of room for improvement, though, and PowerDVD 13 Ultra takes the package forward with a range of new additions. There’s even wider file format support; enhanced video quality for HD footage; a new movie library, complete with cover art (for files as well as discs); a smarter, simplified interface; an all-new subtitling engine; and a new focus on performance to try and make this “the fastest, most responsive PowerDVD ever”.

Of course, while this all sounds very promising, media players of this complexity also have plenty of room for problems. Could the reality live up to the press release? We installed a copy of PowerDVD 13 Ultra on our test PC and took a closer look.

Playback and Performance

PowerDVD 13 Ultra supports a wide range of file formats, particularly video. The current list includes 264, 26L, 3GP, ASF, AVC, AVI, BSF, DIV, DIVX, DVR-MS, FLV, H264, JSV, JVT, M1V, M2T, M4V, MK3D, MKV, MOD, MOV, MP4, MP4V, MPG, MPV, MTS, MVC, QT, TIVO, TOD, TP, TPD, TRP, TS, TTS, VC1, VOB, VRO, WM, WMV and WTV.

It’s no surprise that the program handled all our test files without difficulty, then, opening and playing them just as we expected.

And this included some intentionally “difficult” files, in particular a few old and oddly structured AVIs. We tried these with VLC Media Player, and on several occasions it either refused to play the audio, the video, or both; PowerDVD 13 Ultra got everything right, first time.

When viewing HD footage – on file or disc – you’re now also able to turn on PowerDVD’s TrueTheater technology, which aims to sharpen images, enhance colour and lighting, and generally deliver what CyberLink are calling “quality beyond HD”. It’s one of the headline new features, in fact. So we were surprised to find that, when we viewed an HD YouTube video with it turned on, an alert told us “High-definition content detected. We recommend that you turn off all TrueTheater video technologies… when playing high-definition content.”

Still, if you ignore any such alerts, and you’ve a powerful enough PC, we felt that TrueTheater generally delivers great results. Whether it’s particular important to have “quality beyond HD” is another issue, but it’s good to have the option.

Elsewhere, PowerDVD 13 Ultra now supports playing AVCHD 2.0 format video (including AVCHD progressive and AVCHD 3D).

Audio enhancements see new support for playing the lossless APE format, and the introduction of a new music miniplayer. In a couple of clicks the standard interface can reduce to a 175×175 pixel square with basic playing controls, perhaps handy if you want to listen to music while working on something else. (Although, annoyingly, this is supposed to use your music file cover art, and for some reason PowerDVD ignored ours entirely.)

And in another headline claim, CyberLink are saying this all happens faster than ever, with anything up to a 58% improvement in Blu-ray movie launch speed (we couldn’t completely verify this, but it is noticeably faster), and “instant” playback for music, video and photos.

Instant? We decided to put this to the test with a 2.5 GB MPEG video, and it turned out that while PowerDVD opened this in around 1.25 seconds, VLC Media Player managed the same task in about 0.95 seconds (other files showed similar results).

If you care about fractions of a second, then, you probably won’t be impressed. But even if it’s not quite as “instant” as the competition (which, to be fair, offers far less features), PowerDVD Ultra 13 does fire up quickly, and the program isn’t nearly as bloated and overweight as some people would have you believe.

Interface Improvements

While PowerDVD 13 Ultra initially looks much the same as previous editions, take the time to explore and you’ll find plenty of new features.

Playback is now smarter. PowerDVD 13 automatically rotates photos and videos shot in portrait orientation, for instance. And it automatically resumes file-based movies from where they were stopped, although you do have to click “Stop” for this to work. (If you pause the movie, then click Back, when you play the same video it’ll start at the beginning again).

There are new ways to manually control playback, too. Clicking the Fast Forward or Rewind buttons launches the Play Speed Navigator, where you can set precise playback speeds up to 32x, or rewind speed up to 16x. You can just press the left key to jump back 8 seconds, the right key to jump forward 30 seconds, a quick way to zoom in on the point you need. Or if you’re heading back further, just hovering your mouse cursor over the navigational slider will display thumbnails of scenes you’ve watched already, helping you find the right spot in just a click or two.

The interface has plenty of small tweaks, which help make it easier to use. So you can drag anywhere on the video screen to reposition the PowerDVD window. When playing a movie in full screen, the caption bar shows the current time of day, and hovering your mouse cursor over this will display the time it’s due to finish. And if you don’t want to see any controls at all, just move your mouse cursor to the side of the screen and they’ll disappear (move it away to bring them back).

And new customisation options help you to organise the interface just as you’d like. You can decide exactly what you’d like to display on the caption and playback bar, for instance. And you can also reassign program hotkeys and mouse wheel actions to your preferred tasks.

Probably the largest addition, though, is the new Movie Library. Point PowerDVD at the folders containing your movies; it’ll display them, automatically assigning cover art; hovering a mouse cursor over a thumbnail will display basic information (genre, release date, studio name, a rating from other users); and you can search for, or filter movies in various ways (“10 recently played movies”, say, or “movies not watched yet”).

There are links to information on most films via CyberLink’s MoovieLive service, too: you can view cast details, a synopsis and reviews, as well as reading user comments or adding your own (if you’ve a MoovieLive account).

There are issues here, too. Cover art mismatches are common (our “Panic Button” got assigned the “…Benjamin Button” cover, for instance); the online content isn’t particularly compelling, and the interface is sometimes less than intuitive. But the library is already a neat way to view and organise your movies, and on balance we think it’s a positive addition to the package.

New Features and Functionality

While we’ve tried to pick out what we think are some of PowerDVD 13 Ultra’s highlights, the program has plenty of other additions to explore. Like the new subtitle engine, for instance, which allows you to play two subtitles simultaneously for both Blu-ray and MKV/ MP4 movies, as well as setting their size, colour, position and more.

Elsewhere, Cinema Mode (the simplified interface optimized for remote control) has new touch screen support, and can be used for file playback, as well as discs.

PowerDVD can now share content on USB or NAS devices, while CyberLink also claims to offer improved DLNA performance (we couldn’t verify the latter, but it’s a complex area and we may simply not have used the appropriate test).

There are multiple tweaks to try and help address performance issues, including a reduced number of background processes, and a less system-intensive scanning of your media library (with an option to pause this, if required). Which is welcome, although arguably there’s still work to do. We left the program idle after playing, for instance, and found it was using four processes (PowerDVD13.exe, PowerDVD13ML.exe, PowerDVD13Agent.exe, PowerDVD.exe), and consuming around 450MB RAM in total.

And of course all this builds on a host of pre-existing PowerDVD features, including support for playing 3D files (and displaying 2D media in a 3D format); YouTube, Facebook and Flickr integration; smart device syncing; full 7.1 audio support, and mobile and remote control apps which now come in iOS, Android and Windows 8 forms.

Is PowerDVD 13 Ultra for you, then? That depends. It’s still fairly expensive, and hasn’t changed radically in this build: if you didn’t like version 12, you probably won’t like this one, either.

For PowerDVD fans or the uncommitted, though, it’s a different story. PowerDVD 13 Ultra is noticeably faster than before, and a host of small interface and playback tweaks help make the program much easier and more comfortable to use. If you’re particularly interested in one of the areas which has seen a notable upgrade -- subtitling, say -- then you’ll definitely appreciate the latest developments, and on balance it’s definitely worth giving the trial build a spin.

Please note, while we’ve discussing the high-end Ultra version here, there are two other editions available. If you don’t need 3D, 7.1 audio, smart device syncing or full DLNA support then we’d consider the Pro build. And the base Deluxe edition is cheaper still, but it doesn’t support Blu-ray – you get standard media and DVD playback support only.

Verdict: It may not deliver any single revolutionary change, but CyberLink PowerDVD 13 Ultra is still a welcome update, delivering a media player which is faster, easier to use and handles more file types (and offers more playback control) than ever before. If you need a very powerful player -- and you don't mind the price -- we'd give it a try.

We Like: Wide and reliable file format support, enhanced performance, movie library automatically finds cover art, YouTube/ Facebook/ Flickr support, simplified and customizable playback interface, easier movie navigation, excellent subtitle support.

We Don't Like: It's not cheap, regular movie cover art mismatches, still requires plenty of system resources, didn't display our audio cover art, in one or two areas the interface can be confusing.

Photo Credit: FotoYakov/Shutterstock

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