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:
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:
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.