High-Def Video Superguide

Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD are here. Who makes the best next-generation movie player?

High-Def Movies on a PC

So you want to play HD DVD or Blu-ray discs from Hollywood on your existing computer? Well, it's going to cost you--not only in cash, but also, if your experience is anything like mine, in frustration. The hardware you'll need is expensive, the software is immature, and your graphics card or monitor, even if recently purchased, may not measure up.

Though I got my setup to play Blu-ray movies, I had difficulties with HD DVD movies, proof that the upgrade path to high-def playback isn't ready for the masses just yet. Playing high-def movies on your PC requires more than just adding a new optical drive to your existing rig. Hardware and software vendors recommend at least 1GB of memory and a dual-core processor.

The bigger gotcha to playing back both Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD movies, though, concerns copy-protection schemes. Commercial movie discs are encrypted with the new Advanced Access Content System (AACS) protocol; but Intel's High Definition Content Protection, a hardware handshaking/security protocol embedded in device firmware, is the real roadblock. All of the hardware in your PC's chain--the HD DVD or Blu-ray drive, the graphics board, and the monitor--must be HDCP-certified to play back copy-protected content at full resolution via a digital connection, either DVI or HDMI.

Shopping for HDCP-certified devices remains tricky. If the box doesn't say "certified," don't buy the product. Some graphics cards state HDCP compliance in their specs, or boast HDTV output, but don't actually implement HDCP (only implementation earns the "certified" moniker). Look for a card based on an nVidia GeForce 7- or GeForce 8-series GPU with PureVideo HD drivers, or AMD's ATI Radeon X1650 or a better card with the latest Catalyst drivers. Even if a board has one of these chips, however, that doesn't guarantee that it implements HDCP. nVidia grants its PureVideo HD logo only to certified cards; AMD doesn't have such a logo at this time.

Because of HDCP, the hardware you'll need to play high-def Hollywood movie discs at top quality on your computer gets expensive quickly, beginning with a US$500 hd100 HD DVD-ROM drive from HP or a Blu-ray burner such as Sony's US$700 BWU-100A or Lite-On's $600 LH-2B1S. Add to this an HDCP-certified video card (US$150 or more) and an HDCP-certified monitor of reasonable size (expect to pay at least US$700 to get 1920 by 1200 resolution for full 1080p; though less-costly HDCP monitors exist, many don't accept 1080p output). The total upgrade bill could easily top US$1500 if you were starting from square one.

Getting It to Work

To see just what it takes to upgrade a system to play HD, I tried a number of components in search of the perfect setup--which I subsequently redefined as one that actually worked. My own Dell UltraSharp 2405 monitor let me play high-def only through the analog VGA connector, so I switched to ViewSonic's US$799 VX2435wm and Dell's US$1399 UltraSharp 2707WFP (24 and 27 inches, respectively) HDCP-certified wide-screen displays. Replacing my existing graphics card with a GeForce 8800-based card completed the HDCP chain.

I then turned my attention to watching movies. I had to install several versions of CyberLink's Power DVD Ultra 7.3 software before I managed to get Blu-ray movies to play. Alas, HD DVD was more problematic. I never got my ad hoc test system to play HD DVD movies via my monitor's DVI connection; even the PowerDVD 6.5 HD DVD Edition app that came with HP's hd100 drive took me only as far as the FBI warnings, titles, and menus before a black screen kicked in. HP and CyberLink were at a loss to explain this.

You can avoid compliance worries by buying an expensive yet decked-out machine that's preconfigured for high-def playback. Doing so worked best for me: I had no issues using HD DVD on a preconfigured HP Media Center PC.

Is watching movies on your PC worthwhile? Yes and no. The picture is a visual treat, visibly better than DVD, even on a screen that's small compared with a gargantuan plasma or LCD TV. The question is, will you get playback to work on your PC? Unfortunately, you may not know this until you actually jump in and give it a try.

-- Jon L. Jacobi

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