Blu-ray, HD DVD, and Vista

Summary:As part of my ongoing Vista Media Center project, I'm about to add Blu-ray and HD DVD playback capabilities to my new living room system. Unlike most upgrades, though, this one isn't a simple matter of plugging in a new drive and loading some updated drivers. You'll need to jump through no fewer than six hoops to get Blu-ray or HD DVD working on a Windows PC.

As part of my ongoing Vista Media Center project, I'm about to add Blu-ray and HD DVD playback capabilities to my living room system. I already know that the system is fully capable of recording and playing back over-the-air high-definition content. Now I'm about to find out if it can handle the more demanding high-definition optical formats.

Unlike most upgrades, though, this one isn't a simple matter of plugging in a new drive. No fewer than six separate hardware and software pieces must be in alignment before high-def media playback is possible:

  • A compatible drive. The good folks at LG USA have sent me a pair of their new second-generation Super Blue Multi Drives drives, which handle both Blu-ray and HD DVD formats. The GGC-H20L ($399) reads both formats and has standard CD/DVD writing capabilities; the GGW-H20L ($499) can write to Blu-ray media as well. Both drives should be available for retail sale beginning in September.
  • Playback software. Windows doesn't include its own native software for playing back either Blu-ray or HD DVD media. For that, you'll need a third-party program. The LG drives arrived with an OEM version of CyberLink's Power DVD Ultra, which works on Vista and on Windows XP SP2.
  • Sufficiently powerful discrete display adapter. You'll want an Nvidia, 7600-series GPU or better (with an 8500 series or better recommended); for ATI, a Radeon X1600 series is required, with an HD2400 or better recommended). In either case, you'll want a minimum of 256MB of onboard video RAM and up-to-date drivers. (According to CyberLink, Intel's latest 945/965 integrated graphics will work as well, but I'd need to see that to believe it.)
  • An HDCP-ready video subsystem. To get full high-definition output, your video card and display must both have digital connections (DVI or HDMI) and both must support High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP). If any portion of the system is lacking, you can still get analog playback, roughly equivalent to a standard DVD.
  • A CPU that can handle the load. Decoding and delivering a full AACS-encrypted 1080i/1080p HD signal takes a fair amount of CPU power. Any dual-core CPU running at 2.0 GHz or better should be sufficient.
  • And, of course, high-def media. I used my Netflix account and had three HD titles delivered to me last week, one in HD DVD format, two in Blu-ray format.

CyberLink includes a handy Advisor program that allows you to profile the current system and see how well it measures up to the challenge of HD media. When I ran it on my living room Media Center system, here's what I got back:

Blu-ray and HD advisor report for Windows Vista Media Center

I expected the red bullets next to the drive and player entries; those will turn green as soon as I install the drive and the accompanying software. The CPU is above the minimum standard and should be able to deliver a consistently good experience. The graphics card is a bigger problem. The Radeon 1300 Pro is just below the minimum standard; it would probably deliver a few glitches under extreme loads. More importantly, it is not HDCP-ready, which means it would provide only analog output. And the selection of HDCP-ready video cards in a low-profile format is limited; MSI is sending me a review unit of their Nvidia 8500GT-based card with the necessary low-profile bracket for testing. (It's available for $77 at Newegg.)

I won't be watching any Blu-ray or HD DVD movies in the living room until the fresh video adapter arrives, but meanwhile I've been able to confirm that all the other pieces work well. A test machine in my office includes all the necessary pieces, including a 1080p display. I was able to connect the LG drive using a SATA-to-USB adapter and no trouble playing back movies in both formats.

Performance on this system was impressive, with smooth, glitch-free playback and an impressive level of detail, better than any cable or satellite HD program I've seen. I checked the CPU load on the 2.0GHz AMD processor (similar to the one in my living room system) and it was consistently in the 60%+ range. One advantage of the Nvidia 8-series boards is that they handle much of the decoding directly, sparing the CPU, so I'm hoping that the video upgrade will mean lower CPU loads.

Topics: Hardware, Microsoft, Processors, Software, Windows

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

zdnet_core.socialButton.googleLabel Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.