A Blu-ray / HD DVD update

A Blu-ray / HD DVD update

Summary: I have a stack of shiny high-def discs, a Windows Vista PC, and a new combo drive that plays both Blu-ray and HD DVD formats. Here's how I went from bare metal to home theater in 60 minutes or less. And the best part of all? No Vista DRM. Yes, you read that right. I've got the details right here.


Last week I listed the six essential hardware and software pieces you need to successfully play back a commercially produced high-definition disk in either the Blu-ray or HD DVD format. Over the weekend I had a chance to put both formats to the test. Setup took minutes, and the results were literally breathtaking. Oh, and despite the dire predictions of DRM doom-and-gloomers, I didn't have to deal with Vista's DRM at all. (Yes, you read that right: no Vista DRM. Keep reading for the details.)

I didn't bother trying to play back either disk on my living room Media Center machine - because its video card doesn't support HDCP, I knew the effort would have been pointless. (I've arranged to get my hands on a couple samples of HDCP-compatible low-profile video cards for a later test.)

But I had all the other necessary pieces, including two Blu-ray movies and a documentary in HD DVD format, delivered in bright red Netflix envelopes. So rather than let those discs gather dust, I decided to use a Dell XPS 410 as my temporary testbed. This machine, which I purchased about eight months ago, is ideal as a Media Center (in fact, it's currently the only PC that Dell offers with a CableCARD TV tuner option). It has an Intel E6600 2.4GHz dual-core CPU, 2GB of RAM, a Creative X-Fi XtremeMusic sound card with Dlby Digital 5.1 support, and a new ASUS EN8600GT video card built around an Nvidia 8600GT graphics chip. I just priced this system at Dell and the total, with shipping, was $949 with Windows Home Premium. (You can probably shave $100 or more off that price by waiting for one of Dell's many promotions.)

Here's what I did:

  • To start from a clean slate, I installed a fresh copy of Windows Vista Ultimate. (I could have used Vista Home Premium, and the results would have been identical.)
  • I allowed Windows Update to download and install the latest updates, including the most recent signed drivers from Nvidia.
  • Windows didn't supply audio drivers for the Creative card, but a pop-up message from the Windows Vista Problem Reports and Solutions applet included a link to Creative's support site, where I followed the prompts to download and install the latest drivers.
  • Finally, I installed the PowerDVD Ultra software, plugged in the LG combo drive, and watched as Windows installed the drivers automatically.

All pretty straightforward stuff, none of it requiring any special expertise. Total elapsed time? Roughly 55 minutes. At this point, the machine was still in my office, connected to an older, non-HDCP display. Just to see what would happen, I slipped in one of the Blu-ray discs and launched PowerDVD. After about three seconds of play, I received an HDCP error message from the PowerDVD software:


I could have switched to an analog connection and watched the movie at DVD resolution, but why bother? Instead, I decided it was time to move the system out to the living room for a proper workout. I used a DVI-to-HDMI adapter (a supported HDCP-compatible configuration) to connect the PC to the big-screen TV, plugged an optical cable into the sound card, turned on the PC, and slipped in the HD DVD disc, which contained the first three episodes of the BBC series Planet Earth.

Ah, so that's where the "wow" was hiding. Seriously, I think I said "wow" at least a half-dozen times in the first 10 minutes of the first episode. Part of that reaction, of course, is due to the amazing camera work by the BBC crews, including some close-up wildlife photography that is literally breathtaking. But it was also eye-opening to see how much detail a high-definition picture can contain, especially in contrast to a standard DVD or the compressed HD signals that cable and satellite companies deliver.

Here are a few observations:

  • It didn't take a lot of CPU. Some Vista critics say that HD playback makes enormous demands on the CPU. My testing didn't bear that out. For the Blu-ray discs, CPU usage averaged approximately 9%. For the HD DVD title, I recorded average CPU usage over a half-hour at approximately 24%. In either case, there would have been more than enough system resources to handle other tasks, including recording one or more TV programs.

HD DVD playback on Vista takes less CPU than you might think

  • It just worked. With this particular system, I was able to go from bare metal to home theater in 60 minutes or less. If I had purchased this system with a Blu-ray drive and software already installed, I could presumably have been up and running in little more than the time it took to unpack the box and plug in the cables.
  • Inexplicably, you can't play an HD disc in Media Center. With a registry hack, you can add a menu option that allows you to start an external player from the Media Center interface, but that is, to put it charitably, a kludge. This is a feature that needs to be added to Media Center sooner rather than later.
  • The price is dropping, but it's still high. Last winter, a Blu-ray or HD DVD drive would have set you back a thousand dollars or more. The new LG drive I looked at costs $399, and because it supports both formats it's future-proof. That's a lot better, but it's still a hefty premium, which means that HD-compatible PCs are still for enthusiasts and the idle rich. A year from now, we'll probably have a better idea of which format will emerge as the winner, and the cost could well be under $100. Which leads to the big question:
  • Is the difference in quality worth it? When it comes to audio and video, I'm a fanatic, which puts me in a distinct minority. For most people, compressed audio tracks from the iTunes store are good enough, and so is plain old DVD output, especially on a screen that's smaller than 42 inches wide. So the real question is, does the improvement in visual quality justify the extra cost? For me, the jury's still out. I need to get a copy of that BBC documentary in plain ol' DVD format so I can do a fair comparison.

Oh, and about that DRM? CyberLink's PowerDVD software doesn't use Microsoft's Media Foundation Protected Pipeline (Mfpmp.exe). The PowerDVD software is perfectly able to enforce the restrictions encoded on the media by the disc's producer, without relying on any Vista-specific features. In fact, the software runs on Windows XP with SP2 as well. Presumably, Microsoft will deliver an HD-compatible edition of Windows Media Player someday, which you'll be free to use or ignore, just as you are today.

Topics: Dell, Hardware, Microsoft, Processors, Software, Windows

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  • Thanks for providing real world testing!

    Question for the linux users: Does anyone have a link to similar articles/blogs showing results for MythTV or LinuxMCE ?

    How do the features compare? How difficult is it to set up and use?
    • MYTH-TV

      Setup is like a kick in the nuts an probably won't work unless you have exact recommended hardware which also happens to be more expensive than many of the Media Center alternatives. At least it was like that when I tried MYTH-TV. Maybe those particular capture cards are cheaper now.

      Now MYTH-TV in my opinion kick Media Center's arse. It's much nicer in my opinion. I liked the interfaces better and there was a lot more freedom to do something semi legal(if DMCA like laws affects you) things like ripping you DVDs to movie library that allows you be only a remote click away from your movies. Something I really like but you can't seem to easily on MC.

      NOTE: I haven't tried MYTH TV with Blue-Ray or HD-DVD. I might not even support those formats yet due to Linux drivers not being available. I don't have an HDTV so it's not something I'm even planning on trying. Personally I think I'll wait for the next format that offers all the quality and something better than an Optical disc. Maybe a flashram type device. I suspect you will see something like this in 2010.
      • There's also

        Myth's neat feature of being completely network based, distributed and scalable.

        Myth's "recommended" hardware is no more than for WMC. It's just that some things work better than others. Sure, that store brand capture card will do the trick, but you'll be much happier with Hauppauge cards, given they have mpeg encoding in hardware.

        The only thing Myth really asks for is a decent video card. The one in this particular WMC setup would work without a hitch.

        Setup the first go 'round is a bit tricky for the new user to figure out, but after doing it you'll find it to be easier than you expected.
      • Ripping movies?

        What's complex about using ripped movies in Media Center? I started to rip my DVD collection in Media Center a few months ago and everything works fine so far...
  • RE: A Blu-ray / HD DVD update

    Some of this leaves unanswered questions. What resolution were you playing the HD content back at? 720p, 1080i or 1080p?

    DD 5.1 is still compressed audio - so you are not getting the true benefit of HD Content (Blu-Ray especially - which often offers 7.1 uncompressed audio - but only on HDMI 1.3).

    A true HT setup can be had for less than your HTPC that supports one (or the other but not both) HD formats with uncompressed audio and HDMI 1.3.
    • 1080i

      If you follow the earlier links you'll see those specs.
      Ed Bott
      • guttman was refering to 1080p; not 1080i

        so am unsure what this test really means. Can you run follow up test in 1080p as this seems to be area of controversy (something I would really like to know also). Aprreciate that you took time to run some actual tests hope you dont mind the request for one more run through at 1080p. I tried to find the dell that you were referring to but could not find any dell with the 8600 gt card that you used or any comparable card for the price of $949 but did see the dell inspiron with the 8300 card for that price.. I think anatech did not recommend the 8300 card for hd playback but am unsure (or confused). I see a lot of reference to lower end cards being cabable of playing back of hd in the various blogs by zdnet related to hd; but anatech did not recommend the use of some of these cards. Be nice if you could simplify this down to a list of video cards and what you gain or lose as you go from low to high end; but maybe anatech already did that-- only a suggestion as it might help prevent confusion as it still sometimes confuses me. Also, would like to know what dell system you were referring to as it remains unclear if system i tried to find was right system.
    • I am playing HD at 1080p

      I have a slightly different setup with an almost identical machine but with an ATI 2600XT and the XBOX 360 HD DVD USB drive connected. My setup supports full 1080p but the sound is always compressed since there are no drivers today that will deal with uncompressed sound. Currently, the only way to play uncompressed sound is to have a sound card with 7.1 analog output. At least this is the consensus on AVS forum where I participate. I will add I am also playing back HD television due to two internal DCTs I have installed in my system. It is a wonderful experience for most of the time, not perfect though.
  • It didn???t take a lot of CPU.

    And it may not have if the HD content didnt require encryption between the video card and the motherboard
    • 8600GT is doing the job

      8600GT is doing most of the job in playing High Definition DVDs. I have tried not using any hardware accelaration in playing high definition video using C2D 4300 at 3.0Gh the CPU utilization is about 70 to 80% for playing 1080p video.
      • Exactly right

        And that's why I am using this video card, which is not expensive. This technology will be completely mainstream next year at this time.
        Ed Bott
  • That was the...

    "We are Microsoft, and we are in bed with the media companies and fully support their draconian DRM requirements because it makes us look good - now shut up and go buy a new monitor" dialog box.
    • Except...

      That wasn't a Microsoft dialog box. It was from a third party app.

      Thanks for playing.
      Ed Bott
  • Reg-hack

    What was the reg-hack for Media center?
    • Here it is


      I've updated the post as well.
      Ed Bott
  • Maybe should have tried ATI?

    I never saw that "HDCP" with the ATI HD2600 card I tried with my machine. nVidia seems to be falling behind once again in video playback.
    • No, you misunderstand

      I would have gotten the same message with an ATI card. The error was caused because the monitor I was using was connected to a digital output and the monitor was not HDCP-compliant.

      And I would have had the same error if I had connected my HDCP-compliant TV to my non-HDCP ATI X1300 Pro video card.

      All the pieces of the video subsystem have to support HDCP for the system to work through a digital output..
      Ed Bott
  • RE: A Blu-ray / HD DVD update

    Come on everyone, get green and get real. Nobody needs a "media centre" PC. All we're doing is using more electricity to watch the same rubbish. If you really must have HD then just buy a player for it (don't watch your films on a PC - it's a complete waste of power).
    • I have two power meters on order

      So I'll be able to put your rant to the test. Stay tuned.
      Ed Bott
    • I agree with nbarnes...

      Why on Earth should you waste an entire computer system on something a HD-DVD player can do (usually) better and cheaper?

      Then, there is the cost of electricity, which, even in my part of the US, is going nowhere but up. (largely thanks to most of the nuclear plant's output being sold to Consolidated Edison for folks in New York State to use!)

      Something's WRONG with this country when people won't permit enough power capacity to meet demand. Power loss through transmission lines is a known fact, and the longer the supply line, the worse the loss.

      IMNSHO, California and the East Coast both need to get a life, realize that Three Mile Island was barely a hiccup (and was contained with no injury) and that newer nuclear facilities are even safer than Three Mile Island's design!

      In my opinion: If you don't want a power plant nearby, then conserve energy, because the rest of the country shouldn't have to feed your A/C and power-hungry computer gear!
      Raymond Danner