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PC Cinema: DVD Players on Your PC (6/2000)
by Douglas Dixon
See Windows DVD Players: Watching DVD Your Way
How cool: movies on your PC! Instead of having a plain old CD-ROM drive on your PC, you can step on up to a DVD-ROM, so you can play DVD movies right on your PC display. Now, some dullards might ask why anyone would want to play DVDs on a PC, and you can try to explain how fun it is to use the computer to browse through the DVD to skip to your favorite parts and play through the additional special features. But if they still don't get it, just say that it's so you can access educational material like large encyclopedias that are too big to fit on a CD. Then chase them away so you can get back to stepping through the cool special effects in "The Matrix."
If you're buying a new PC - desktop or laptop - or thinking about upgrading your current system, then don't just get a standard CD-ROM drive. Instead, you can get a DVD-ROM drive for around $50 that can play both DVD movies and CDs (including audio CD, data CD-ROM, and writable CD-R/CD-RW). You can also add a second optical drive to your system, or get an external drive, and have both a CD-ROM and a DVD-ROM (or, even better, a writable CD-RW and a DVD-ROM). Note that I'm just talking about read-only DVD-ROM here; the writable DVD formats like DVD-RAM are still getting settled and are much more expensive.
Once you get a DVD drive, however, you also need a DVD player application, software that lets you play the DVD movie, interact with its menus, and also go beyond its pre-programmed structure to explore its contents. If you buy a new PC with a DVD drive, it probably already comes bundled with a player application. But if you're upgrading, or want more flexibility in looking at movies, then I have some more options for your consideration: a collection of inexpensive ($20 - $40) and fun Windows DVD player applications that you can download and try out. These applications make it really easy to poke around the contents of a DVD, and to instantly change settings like alternate languages, subtitles, and even multiple views without the pain of having to back up through the DVD menu structure.
DVD on PCs
Not so long ago, playing even low-resolution jerky video (say 320 x 240 at 15 frames per second) was something of a miracle on a PC. Now, with DVD, we're talking about full-resolution full-rate video, 720 x 480 resolution at 29.97 fields per second. Even more, both the digital video and audio are compressed with high-quality algorithms: The video is compressed in MPEG-2 format, and the audio is stored as Dolby Digital AC-3, 2-channel stereo or full 5.1 surround sound. The processing required to decode and play this broadcast-quality material is implemented in hardware in consumer set-top DVD players. How can it work on PCs?
One answer is to use a hardware decoder board to do most of the hard work of decompressing the digital data. This has the advantage of off-loading the main processor, so that you can do other work on your PC while watching a movie. DVD decoder boards also have video and audio outputs, so you can connect them to an external television and sound system. For the additional cost (around $60), and another slot, you get the best of both worlds: DVD on your PC, and a DVD feed for a near-by TV. For example, the Ravisent Hardware CineMaster 98 board is bundled by several major manufacturers including Dell, and includes a player application with a nice collection of controls for navigating and exploring DVDs.
But unless you really need the highest performance, and to watch DVDs while working on your PC, you actually can play DVDs quite well with a software-only player. These days even home PC's have enough processing capacity and internal bus bandwidth to decode and display even full-rate DVD movies without any external hardware. Of course, the DVD player applications do take advantage of any extra processing capabilities built-in to your system, including CPU enhancements like Intel's Pentium MMX and Streaming SIMD extensions, video features like AGP graphics and video decode support in major graphics chip sets, and multichannel sound capabilities in leading audio boards.
"The average Pentium III system has access to the sheer brute force required to run these DVDs," says Jeremy Oldland, Product Manager for the SoftDVD MAX player from MGI Software. "We don't want to have to rely on specific hardware. We optimize for the top-selling components."
In fact, much of my testing was done on an older 266 MHz Pentium II system without advanced video acceleration. These software player applications actually ran surprisingly well, with only occasional skips.
DVD under Windows
Of course, these DVD player applications work best on newer PC's under Windows 98 (and now Windows 2000). Most also support Windows 95, and even NT. Microsoft built preliminary support for DVD players into Windows 98, but only officially supported two hardware decoder adapters: the Toshiba DVD decoder adapters on Infinia systems and the Quadrant (now Ravisent) Cinemaster decoder adapters included with Dell XPS computers. Windows 98 also includes a built-in DVD Player application, but it is hidden until you install a supported DVD decoder adapter. Only then is the Windows DVD Player revealed, installed under the Entertainment menu and made available in the Windows Setup tab in the Add/Remove Programs control panel.
The Windows DVD Player application provides all the basic controls for playing the disc: you can navigate through the DVD menus, play the movie, skip forward and back to the next chapter point, and control the playback direction and speed (forward and reverse, fast and "very fast").
You can also control the display, switching between windowed and full-screen, and adjust the aspect ratio among wide-screen, letterbox, and pan-scan. For a more theatrical experience, movies on DVD are often released in widescreen format (often called "16 x 9" or "2.35:1 aspect ratio"), which is best viewed on a widescreen TV, or will be "letterboxed" (shown with black bands at the top and bottom) on a normal TV. Many movies are provided in both widescreen and full-screen ("1.33:1" cropped) versions, one per side of a double-sided DVD.
The Windows DVD player also allows parents to use the ratings information stored on the disk to set password-protected access restrictions to prevent the playback of more intense material.
Exploring a DVD: InterVideo WinDVD
WinDVD from InterVideo Inc. has been a very popular software DVD player; both for Web download and bundled by major PC manufacturers including Compaq, Dell, Gateway, HP, IBM, Toshiba, Micron, Creative Labs, and 3Dfx. WinDVD version 2.0 (WinDVD 2000) is available for $29.95 and runs under Windows 98, 95, and NT. A trial version is also available for Web download, and provides the complete functionality of the full purchase version, except that it limits playback of DVD movies to a maximum of five minutes and expires after 45 days.
WinDVD adds convenient user interface features, hardware acceleration, advanced quality, and full support for video and audio formats. It is designed to support a wide range of different CPUs and graphics chips (supporting the Microsoft DirectX interface), and takes advantage of advanced graphics subsystems with hardware-assisted video decode.
To enhance video quality, WinDVD performs full-precision video decoding, without using shortcuts that save processing time but reduce visual quality. It also provides also more accurate scaling to different window sizes and blending of the video data. But all this quality does require more work in software, which can bog down your computer and even cause the playback to stutter on slower machines. WinDVD therefore includes an option to provide user control over the quality level, so you can still play DVDs on a slower machine, or suck up less of the CPU when a DVD is playing.
The WinDVD user interface is modeled on a consumer set-top DVD player. The main video window includes Windows-style basic control and status toolbars for push-button access to playback and navigation. But WinDVD also provides a separate styled floating Player controller with buttons for playing the movie, front-panel status indicators, and a time search slider bar to scroll through the movie contents. The control also expands with additional floating buttons to provide full access to every aspect of the DVD. To perk up the interface, WinDVD also supports user-selectable "skins" with different interface looks and styles.
This is the fun part of playing DVDs on a PC: You can explore the contents of a DVD, independent of its built-in menu navigation structure, and find all the cool and even hidden features that may otherwise be buried deep in some non-obvious menu option. With WinDVD, you simply right-click on the video window, and up pops a menu that lets you select and jump directly to any menu, title, chapter, or subtitle on the DVD. This also lets you explore the disc's structure to find out how it was designed and authored on DVD. The same pop-up menu also provides direct access to the alternate subtitle, audio, and view angles provided on the disc.
In fact, the DVD format provides so many features and options that player applications like WinDVD end up with lots and lots of little buttons squeezed into the available user interface control. Unless you understand all the icons, or memorize all the hot keys, you become very dependent on the mouse-over text tooltips to identify the controls. It's really irritating to interrupt playback by accidentally hitting a menu or even eject button, and then have to restart the disc and navigate all the way back to the clip that you were watching.
Another cool feature of playing DVDs on a PC is the ability to adjust the brightness and color balance of the video. Particularly for dark scenes, or movies like "The Matrix" that are mostly dark, this lets you see more of the details in the scene that are otherwise washed out on a TV screen.
Finally, WinDVD and some other players provide the ability to not only play packaged DVDs, but also to play individual video and audio files, including MPEG video, AC3 audio, and MP-3 music. Like many MP3 audio players, you can create a playlist of video and audio files, played from DVD, CD, or hard disk. In addition, if you are authoring your own DVDs, or need to share DVDs on a corporate server, WinDVD can play files in the DVD packaged VOB format.
As a result, you can use the advanced navigational controls of your DVD player when playing individual video clips. "Windows Media Player does not give you the forward / reverse and brightness / contrast controls," says Jeremy Oldland of MGI Software. "We also allow playback of DVD content which has been published on CD," adds Joe Monastiero, co-founder and vice president of sales and marketing at InterVideo. "This is important to bring encoding and DVD authoring into the home."
Another popular software DVD player is PowerDVD from CyberLink. Version 2.55 is available over the Web for $49.50, and runs under Windows 98, 95, and NT. A 30-day trial version is also available for downloading. PowerDVD is much like WinDVD in its general approach and feature set, even down to user-selected "skins" for the interface style, but offers some additional unique features.
The PowerDVD interface provides more precise control of DVD navigation and playback. To scan through a movie, you can select from a large range of slow- and fast-motion speeds, including 1/8, 1/4, and 1/2 speed slow forward, 1X, 2X, 4X, and 8X fast forward, and 1X, 2X, and 4X reverse. The control panel even has a "jog" control you can grab with the mouse to scan efficiently through the movie. In addition, PowerDVD has a single-step control that you can use to study special effects frame by frame. This kind of skipping around in the compressed video data is pretty tricky, since the MPEG-2 algorithm does not store each frame independently, but actually constructs each frame relative to neighboring frames both before and after it.
Like other players, PowerDVD provides a pop-up menu to provide direct access to DVD navigation and options. But it also has two additional navigation tools for exploring the contents of your DVD. The Browser window provides a complete hierarchical view of all the title sets on the disc, and all the chapters in each title. The Viewer window displays thumbnail views of each chapter in the current title set. It also supports a Bookmark function to mark, browse, and edit specific video scenes.
Another simple but nice user interface touch in PowerDVD is an on-screen display that confirms each button press by briefly displaying the name of the selected action in the video window (i.e., "Play", "4X Speed").
One unique feature in PowerDVD is the screen capture function, used to grab a copy of the video frame. Because the DVD video is decompressed off-screen and actually composited onto the display using special graphics hardware support, you can't do a normal screen capture of the Windows display. The video window area is just captured as black (actually, it's keyed through to the video frame). The screen capture function in PowerDVD actually extracts the video frame and saves it to the clipboard, as an image file, or to the desktop as background wallpaper.
The DVD player applications strive to provide the highest quality and smoothest playback by taking the best advantage of your specific PC hardware, and yet also attempt to be highly portable across a wide range of PC environments. The better your system, with faster processor and graphics acceleration, the better they will run. The best way to evaluate them for your needs is to download an evaluation version and try it out on your specific system.
Joe Monastiero of InterVideo is very clear about PC requirements for good DVD performance: "If a consumer has a system that is more than 16 months old, they should just buy a new system. Our biggest issues come from older core logic and graphic chips. Supporting all the new chips that are hitting the market is a continuous battle."
To try to get the best playback on your system, make sure you have installed the latest version of DirectX (6 or greater), and have upgraded your specific display / graphics drivers. Another key performance issue is to make sure that you have the DMA access option enabled for your internal DVD-ROM drive in order to stream the data efficiently off the DVD into the PC's memory. Check the release notes and Help file for your DVD player application for information on setting this option under Windows.
The players are also dependent on your screen display resolution, and typically run best in 800 x 600 format. You still can run into problems if you change your system configuration. For example, when I increased my display resolution, suddenly WinDVD just stopped working. What I had done was to change to a screen display format that the DirectX driver did not support with the advanced features required for decoding and displaying video.
The players do include numerous options to enable and disable advanced video and audio features, but you really should not need to spend your time experimenting with these. PowerDVD addresses this issue by including a separate System Diagnostic tool that is run automatically after installation. This enables DMA access to the DVD-ROM drive, and tests the video / graphics modes supported on your hardware. The Diagnostic utility also generates an extensive log file of system information that can be helpful in resolving problems. Within PowerDVD, the Configuration dialog also includes an Information tab that provides a fascinating summary of the special capabilities of your system.
So, get going with DVD on your PC. If you don't have a DVD-ROM drive, then think about getting one. And once you do have one, take a look at these DVD player applications. After downloading and playing with the evaluation versions, you may find that one works better on your machine, or you may just find that you like a particular user interface better.
Ravisent CineMaster - OLD
MGI SoftDVD Max - OLD