HDTV Insights: Using a PC for Blu-ray or High-Definition DVD

PC manufacturers are starting to equip their high-end PCs with Blu-ray disc drives. This makes a lot of sense simply because high-definition DVD formats can hold a lot more data than standard DVDs can (ten times as much, or more, depending on the format). So you might guess that using an HTPC with a Blu-ray or HD DVD drive would be an easy way to bring these high-definition video formats to your big-screen HDTV.

Well, that's actually an iffy thing. Both HD DVD and Blu-ray are built with a very strong copy-protection system called HDCP (high-bandwidth digital content protection). This system is designed to prevent unauthorized copying and distribution of movies by limiting the devices that can digitally connect to your HD DVD or Blu-ray disc player. When the player is inside your PC, the only way you can use an external monitor or HDTV to view a movie in its full high-definition resolution is to use an HDMI (or DVI) connector that supports HDCP.

Seems pretty simple, but in fact, very few PCs have video cards with HDMI connectors, and even fewer have HDMI connectors with HDCP support. So, to watch a high-definition movie, you have to jump through some pretty major hoops right up front. And if you pass these initial tests (HDMI connectors and HDCP support), you're still not guaranteed that everything will work as advertised. The consensus seems to be that Blu-ray or HD DVD playback on an HDTV might work.

Unfortunately, in many cases, the following two issues seem to crop up:

  • HDMI and HDCP implementations might differ between the PC and the HDTV, keeping the HDCP system from making a proper "handshake" that would authorize the system to play a movie.
  • The HDCP systems on the PC just don't have enough computing horsepower to keep up. A PC's CPU can max out trying to keep up with the HDCP decryption, and this can cause the movie to break up in a very distracting fashion.

Don't give up on HTPCs and Blu-ray and HD DVD, but also don't expect this combination to be better than a stand-alone player. If your HTPC is a laptop, you won't have problems viewing these movies on the laptop screen — and that alone might make the extra expense of an HD DVD or Blu-ray drive worthwhile.

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