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UPDATE: Adding monitors that support HDCP technology.

Modern computers will not be able to playback some of the next-generation high-definition digital video discs because they do not support high-bandwidth digital content protection (HDCP) technology required to do that. Future computers are likely to support playback capability, but contemporary will need to face certain changes to acquire the capability of Blu-ray disc (BD) and HD DVD playback.

The high-definition video formats – H.264 also known as MPEG 4 AVC – allows users to watch videos in high-resolution formats of up to 1920x1080 progressive scan, whereas typical DVDs sport resolutions of up to 720x480. Generally, the new format is used to transmit HDTV in Europe, for instance, high-definition television is transmitted as H.264 stream by channels like Pro Sieben HD and Sat 1 HD. Moreover, the H.264 and HD WMV, another high-definition video format, are used for videos available around the web. But additionally, the H.264 is used for the next-generation BD and HD DVD players.

In order to track-down the piracy, movie studios vowed to implement HDCP onto content distributed using the BD and HD DVD media. For consumer electronics the situation is relatively simple: BD and HD DVD players support appropriate connectors by default and high-resolution TVs in their majority also feature necessary technologies. But given that the vast majority of computer graphics cards and current monitors do not support this features, playback of encrypted content will not be possible.

Typically, the playback of HDCP content should include an HDCP transmitter (computer or player), a digital interface (DVI or HDMI) and an HDCP receiver (a display or a TV-set). The content is encrypted at the transmitter and the signal is transmitted to the HDCP receiver a special bus where it is decrypted before viewing. Both the transmitter and the receiver should comply with the standard, which means that computer users will need a BD or HD DVD drive, an appropriate graphics card and a monitor that support HDCP.

In fact, not all DVDs support Macrovision protection technology. Similarly, not all the BDs and HD DVDs are likely to feature HDCP, thus, high-definition video in H.264 (MPEG 4 AVC) format will playback fine using typical component, VGA or video outputs.

“Not every Blu-Ray DVD or HD-DVD needs to be HDCP protected. HDCP is a copy protection like Macrovision, meaning that it can be adopted by Movie distributors, but it doesn’t have to. However, HDCP is important, especially in North America, as they will use it in some of their broadcasts, and not only on DVDs,” explained Rene Froeleke, a technical specialist from ATI Technologies, the world’s largest maker of graphics chips for computers.

Right now leading designers of graphics processors used in personal computers (PCs) – ATI Technologies and Nvidia Corp. – support the HDCP technology in their chips that have been available for years, however, not all graphics cards makers have enabled it in their graphics cards.

“Add-in card partners can build HDCP-capable graphic adapters, all they need to do is order an HDCP compliant BIOS from us which includes the keys,” Mr. Froeleke said.

The latest series of graphics processors from ATI – the Radeon X1300, X1600, X1800 and the yet-to-be-announced X1900 – already support decoding of H.264 codec, all the graphics cards makers need is to enable HDCP from the BIOS. Ujesh Desai, who is in charge of desktop graphics chips at Nvidia Corp. also said that a new driver version will enable H.264 decoding on graphics cards starting from the GeForce 6600. All Nvidia’s graphics chips starting from the GeForce FX support HDCP as well.

A problem for owners of graphics cards who manage to download appropriate BIOS will still be very rare availability of HDCP-supporting monitor, which are currently nearly unavailable on the market: to date we are aware of only three models that feature HDCP, including Dell 3007WFP, Gateway FPD2185W and HP F2105. It will be possible, however, to use an HD LCD TV-set, but users will need to either a DVI-to-HDMI cable, or a graphics card with HDMI outputs.

To date, only Sapphire Technology has developed a graphics card supporting HDMI connector and HDCP based on the Radeon X1600-series graphics processor for the mass market, whereas Sony uses a proprietary GeForce 6200-based board for its recently unveiled Vaio media center computer. But there should be more of them later this year, when the BD and HD DVD formats start to ramp.

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