CyberLink PowerDVD 13 Ultra review

Pros

  • Impressive interface
  • Smart built-in picture enhancements
  • Useful mobile app
  • 4K support

Cons

  • Rather expensive
  • Somewhat feature-laden

You might have CyberLink PowerDVD on your PC and not even know it, as the software comes preloaded on a good many consumer PCs. However, your bundled version can't do a fraction of what this premium piece of software can manage – upscaling, Blu-ray playing, streaming to DLNA devices like newer HDTVs, using your mobile devices as remotes and for streaming playback, and playing back Dolby 5.1 surround sound, to name a few features.

I also found that even on some new laptops, you only get a two-generation-old version of the software. PowerDVD 13 comes in three flavours, with the no-holds-barred Ultra version weighing in at £74.99, a midrange Pro version at £59.99, and a no-Blu-ray Deluxe version at £34.99. We took the Ultra edition out for a spin – it really is the ultimate in video playback, but the lesser editions may have everything you need for a fair bit less cash.

Setup

You'll need Windows 8, 7, Vista, or XP to install PowerDVD 13; you'll also need a PC running at least a 2.2GHz Intel Core2 Duo CPU. You can try the software out with a 30-day fully functional trial download. The in-between version, PowerDVD 13 Pro, carries most of Ultra's features, minus 3D and streaming to your DLNA devices. If you download the installer software, it's 161MB, which isn't a problem for today's broadband Internet connections, but you've been warned if you don’t have a decent Internet connection.

Unfortunately, the installer tries to add superfluous software to your PC, which I find unbelievable for software you paid over seventy pounds for. It also installs Visual C++ 2005 runtime software, which hardly seems the most up-to-date thing. The whole installation process took four minutes on my test Windows 8 laptop, a Lenovo G580 with 4GB of RAM and integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000. If you buy the boxed software, it comes with a pair of 3D red/blue (flimsy paper) glasses.

Interface

CyberLink has made a good job of the interface, which is clear and easy on the eyes, once you get everything set up. When you first start up PowerDVD 13, you'll see its welcome screen, not only welcoming you to the software, but offering video tutorials and media library preferences. Hitting Continue takes you to a product improvement program opt-in. But you're not done yet: Next the registration form appears, but you can skip this. Finally you're in the player software proper. It detected my connected external Blu-ray drive, and an ad popped up at the bottom for another CyberLink product.

The startup interface shows a left side panel with all your potential sources of media, starting with the Media Library, which locates all your movies, videos, photos, and music. You'll also find entries in the side panel for devices and the 7digital music store, online media from Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and home DLNA media. You can customise this sidebar to just include the entries you want.

Playing discs

Windows has been able to play DVDs by itself since Windows 7, but PowerDVD adds Blu-ray support (even Blu-ray 3D in the software's Ultra edition), and some nifty viewing improvements for DVDs, with its TrueTheater technology that adds enhancements like HD upscaling, and corrections for lighting and colours.

When you first start playing a DVD or Blu-ray in PowerDVD, you'll be asked to enter your region, since the movie industry has rules about what countries can watch which movies and when. The player handles DVD menus with no problem, as you'd expect. An icon at the top, shaped like an old fashioned TV, puts you in Cinema mode, which is for watching movies across a room using a remote.

If your PC has a graphics processor that supports Nvidia Cuda or AMD APP technology, PowerDVD takes advantage of that to accelerate video decoding for smooth clear playback. To get PowerDVD's TrueTheater enhancements, which sharpen, colour correct, and smooth the motion of your video playback, you have to turn off hardware video acceleration in favour of software rendering.

You can right click, choose Settings… and press the TrueTheater/Hardware decoding button to change how the video displays. You can even see a side-by-side view of the video with and without TrueTheater. To me, the TrueTheater default settings looked clearer and brighter, if a bit over-sharpened. It’s also possible to go in and adjust its enhancements with slider controls.

The stabilisation tool is only available for your own (or at least non-commercial) video content. I tried using it with some video I shot of a football game with an iPhone, and the results were smoother, though as with all implementations of this kind of effect, the edges of the image were cropped. Since the video content was HD, the software by default wanted to play it back with hardware decoding, but doing this would mean I couldn't use the TrueTheater enhancements, including the stabiliser.

A nice plus point is the Rotate video button, since Apple video and photo plays upside-down by default on Windows PCs. I didn't find a similar capability in Corel’s WinDVD 11. One thing both apps let you do is snap still images from video you're watching. Another is its clever ability to do time-stretching – this way, if you only have an hour and a half to watch an hour and forty-five minute movie, the software will squeeze it for you.

PowerDVD's TrueTheater enhancements also let you "smart stretch" content with a different aspect ratio to your screen. WinDVD has this, too, and it's something built into a lot of HDTVs. The centre of the image is left alone, while the edges are stretched, for a more natural view.

While watching a movie, if you hit the Movie Info button, you'll be prompted to accept a MovieLive membership. This online service lets you comment on or add the movie to your favourites. You can also create and share "Remixes."

Web video

PowerDVD 13 comes with three entries nestled in the sidebar’s Online Media section: Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr. You just sign into your account, and can then view the online videos directly inside the app. Unfortunately, there's no way to add more sources, such as the popular Vimeo or DailyMotion video sharing sites.

4K Ultra HD

PowerDVD is in the vanguard with support for 4K Ultra HD video content – something other playback software can't yet boast. The software played back most of my sample 4K clips from a GoPro Hero3 Black Edition, but it wasn't able to play a file with Protune enabled. A message read "PowerDVD does not support the playback of this media format.” That's a shooting mode that delivers a much higher bitrate – and higher bitrate clips taxed my midrange laptop's hardware, producing somewhat jerky results.

All that said, there's really not much reason to play 4K footage on a laptop, since almost all laptop screens are far lower than 4K resolution. If you're using PowerDVD with a home cinema PC for display on a large screen, it may make sense. That is, when 4K movies become available.

Performance

PowerDVD delivered perfectly smooth playback for Blu-ray discs, but when I taxed the software by applying stabilisation or 2D-to-3D simulation to home HD videos, playback stalled at first on my mid-range laptop. The application even stopped responding occasionally, though it didn't crash the way Corel WinDVD did. Of course, those effects require software video encoding, which is much slower than the software's supported hardware encoding.

Music and photos

Despite its name, PowerDVD is about more than just playing movie discs or files: It's also a capable player for music, and displayer/organiser of digital photos. It can play AAC, MP3, M4A, FLAC, MID, WAV, WMA, and even DTS music formats. And not only can the software play music you already have, but the integrated 7digital store lets you purchase new music from all major labels. PowerDVD's photo viewer can handle raw image formats from popular DSLRs, and lets you rotate and present slideshows. It even lets you apply 2D-to-3D conversion as with video, and it looks better than you might expect.

Mobile and extras

Recent versions of PowerDVD have made good use of mobile devices. The software's main competitor, Corel WinDVD, hasn't made this leap to mobile devices. The CyberLink iOS and Android apps let your devices act as remote controls, as well as playback displays and media sources.

There are two apps in the stores, PowerDVD Remote and PowerDVD Mobile, in both free and paid versions, which can be rather confusing. If you have the Ultra version of PowerDVD, you can use the free Mobile app – otherwise it costs £13.99 (so if you want that app, then you should definitely get the Ultra version of PowerDVD 13 rather than Pro, as you’ll be paying the same amount for the Pro version with the Mobile app fee on top). However, when it comes to the PowerDVD Remote app, you can get that for free with any version of PowerDVD 13 – and also with PowerDVD 12 Ultra – otherwise, it will set you back £2.99.

After I installed the app on my iPhone, I hooked it up to the same Wi-Fi network as the laptop running PowerDVD. The attractive wood-panelled home interface of the app features just four choices – Music, Video, Photo, and Camera. Choosing video and then tapping the screen icon at the top offered the choice Home Media. This attempted to find the software server on my laptop, but failed. That was because I was using the Devices tab: You see, each of the two apps connects to the desktop software in a different way. I'd really argue that it would be best to have just one mobile app that connects in just one way, to ease setup for the consumer.

To use the PowerDVD Remote app, you navigate down to the Home Media section of the PC app's sidebar. This uses DLNA for the device connection. On my first attempt here, the Wi-Fi network had too much security for it to work, since it required authentication. When I switched networks, I finally saw my PC's video library on the iPhone. I could watch any video in the library – even 4K videos! – thanks to the software's scaling for the target device. Pressing the app's HQ button slowed down the time to load the video, and unfortunately I couldn't tap to fit the video to the screen size; black bars were always present along the edge.

Verdict

PowerDVD 13 offers a combination of video playback capabilities found in no other software. The ability to play 4K and stream to and from mobile devices is really ground-breaking. However, the application’s TrueTheater video improvement features will probably be of interest to more users, as will its online community features. PC home cinema enthusiasts should not be without this very impressive piece of software from Cyberlink.