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High Definition Video on the PC: What Will You Need

While the graphics card and microprocessors definitely play a key-role in media playback, there are several other devices and features that are needed to playback high definition movies from Blu-ray/HD DVD media as well as from the Internet.

Given that officially distributed HD video usually comes in 1280x720 (720p) or 1920x1080 (1080p) resolutions, the minimum monitor or TV-set required for HD playback is the one supporting 1280x800 resolution, which is not something extraordinary these days for computer displays, but may still be unavailable on cheap LCD, Plasma and other TV-sets. The so-called full-HD resolution, or 1920x1080, is available on pretty expensive TV-sets and higher-end monitors, e.g., 23” and upwards, so, if you want to experience the high definition in all its grace, you will need to have a proper output device.

One thing that should be kept in mind when acquiring equipment for future HD video playback is the support for high-bandwidth digital copyright protection (HDCP) technology: both output device and graphics card should better support it. Unfortunately, it is not easy to determine which devices support HDCP: most of high-end LCD displays do, but when it comes to lower-end and mainstream models, you have to check with the manufacturer. It is easier with the TV-sets: all the devices that are marked as “HD Ready” should support HDCP.

All of the graphics cards that have HDMI output support HDCP, but not all of the graphics cards with DVI do. There is a list of boards over an Internet forum that lists many of those devices, in spite of this, we would recommend you to double-check HDCP support on the option that you want to obtain.

In case one of the mentioned does not support HDCP, some Blu-ray discs or HD DVDs will not be performed in full resolution, but in to 540p (960x540), which would make the HD look is a bit better than 720x480 resolution of typical DVDs. Nevertheless, currently there is a program called AnyDVD HD that overrides both HDCP and advanced access content system (AACS) and allows to watch HD content on equipment that does not support HDCP. Unfortunately, some modern graphics cores cannot support 1080p output with HDCP, hence, the software may be required even when everything is HDCP-compliant. Moreover, Sony Vaio notebooks with Blu-ray drive cannot output Blu-ray movies via built-in HDMI port. It remains to be seen whether SlySoft’s AnyDVD HD cures this problem too.

When an appropriate output device along with graphics card is acquired, a new-generation optical drive that supports either Blu-ray or HD DVD format (possibly, some companies, such as LG, may be working on a unified device as well, but it’s not here yet).

Currently there are several Blu-ray drive models available on the market, though, at pretty pricing from $500 to $1000, but Pioneer promised to release a more reasonably priced BD in Q2 2007, which will definitely make it easier to assemble an HTPC with the Blu-ray. Unfortunately for HD DVD camp, there are no HD DVD drives in the retail, however, the external HD DVD player for Microsoft Xbox 360 produced by Toshiba and available for $199 works perfectly with Windows XP-based PC, users would still need a software player that supports HD DVD and a special driver if they want to use HD DVD for something else apart movie watching.

To sum up, for the best high definition video experience on the PC you will need:

  • A new generation optical drive (Blu-ray or HD DVD)
  • A powerful graphics card that supports HD video acceleration and HDCP (latest drivers recommended)
  • A monitor or other output device that supports full-HD (1080p) resolution and HDCP
  • A software player that supports Blu-ray/HD DVD playback
  • If your setup is not fully compliant, special utilities may help
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