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PC DVD-ROM: DVD Player Software and the Holy Grail

by Jesse Shanks

When buying a new computer, there is often the option of adding a DVD-ROM drive along with a CD or CD-RW (rewriteable) drive. There is even the potential of a DVD rewritable drive, although these have not yet hit prime time. The main advantage of DVD-ROM as a storage device is the disc capacity. Once upon a time, the 650MB available on a CD seemed adequate, but in this era of massive files (such as MP3s, QuickTime movies and DVD video) it seems small indeed. Enter the DVD-ROM disc that can contain over four gigabytes of data. Besides, storage, another benefit of a DVD-ROM drive is the capability of playing DVD movies and accessing special features that are designed to work with the computer.

As with anything on the computer, these extra features take various forms. An entire web site can be placed on the disc and accessed through a web browser. Special browsable files can be added to the disc such as bibliographies, filmographies and other information about the movie. Web-enabled DVDs can contain hyperlinks that reach out and connect to web sites on the Internet. Interactive games are another feature that can be found on DVD video discs. The possibilities are endless, it seems. For more information, see these articles:

PC DVD-ROM: InterActual Technologies Leads the Pack
Episode II: PC DVD-ROM
Darth Mac: Phantom Menace Exposes Apple DVD Problems

Some studies have shown that people are not really watching DVD movies on their computers in great numbers. Likewise, very rarely are users putting these discs into the DVD-ROM drive of their computers and accessing the special materials. When calling a Macintosh reseller to investigate the configuration of a new machine, the sales representative noted that Apple was moving away from offering a DVD drive that was only capable of playing discs in favor of a (more expensive) drive capable of burning discs as well. In the PC world, it seemed that a similar movement was in progress, with CD burning a more favored choice over DVD playing, except in the case of laptops, where the user might want to watch a movie while traveling.

Of course, one of the issues here is the size of the screen. With a 17-inch monitor providing only 15 inches of viewable space, a movie that is in its original widescreen aspect ratio can be pretty small. Ben Hur is a good example, as it is 2.76:1 and appears as a very narrow band across the screen. It is rare for a disc to contain both a widescreen and a full-frame version of the movie, although some do. Some types of DVD software provide the ability to zoom in on portions of the screen.

Another big issue of viewing DVDs on the computer is processor power. The video on the disc is heavily compressed and must be decoded in order to appear on the screen. This decoding is quite processor-intensive and is one of the main reasons that, in most cases, it is better to watch DVD exclusively on the computer and not attempt to work with other applications at the same time. Older computers will have problems in providing the horsepower necessary to provide DVD playback. This can lead to crashes during movie playing. There has been talk of bringing the computer processor, hard drive and Internet connection to consumer set top boxes (DVD players) that will allow users to access the special DVD-ROM capabilities in their living room, on their TVs. But most estimates place this as at least a year off, and there is no estimates of what such a machine might cost and how exactly these features will be implemented. One can only imagine that there will be several competing standards until one drives all the others out of business—we've seen this before.

When I installed a DVD drive in my PC, it came bundled with a software program for playing the discs (Powerlink CyberDVD). When investigating the various alternatives available for DVD playback, I found that the choice is not very broad for Windows machines, and non-existent for Macintosh computers. Below is an overview of the various DVD player programs I have found. Also included is the InterActual Player, which is not a stand-alone DVD player, because it requires a software decoder to be available on the machine. The InterActual Player is a free download that allows a user to access proprietary content that is developed for specific DVD-ROM discs, using InterActual's software.

I was able to check out the full, registered version of CyberDVD most extensively and enjoyed many of the features that are unique to watching a DVD on the computer. I downloaded the severely limited trial version of WinDVD 3 and found it to be very similar in function to CyberDVD, although it's audio implementation seemed to be markedly superior. In both cases, right clicking on the video window brings up a context menu that provides quick access to many of the controls. Both programs provide floating controllers that serve as virtual remotes. One can imagine that other applications provide similar capabilities.

Screen capture is pretty cool, the ability to save a frame from a movie. In the case of CyberDVD, the configuration could be set for capture to the clipboard, as desktop wallpaper or to a file. WinDVD saved a bitmap file into its application folder. This is one of those features that is not particularly useful, although I can see some limited applications for personal use. I do have a nice 2001: A Space Odyssey (link) desktop wallpaper on my PC right now.
Both of these players come with the ability to "skin" the interface with many different looks that range from the "not too strange" to the "really weird." Perhaps, I just dislike Windows too much in general, but most applications in that system are just plain ugly and working with them consistently is just an unpleasant experience. For example, imagine you have skinned your player with a light-blue sort of techno look and then you click on a pop-up and one of those default gray menus come up and looks terrible. The total effect of the cobbled together 3-D clip art effect of the skins and the operating system is just not good. One can only hope that Microsoft has improved their ability to copy the Macintosh with Windows XP and pray that application designers for Windows take the extra step of recognizing the importance of consistency and usability in programs that are used most often. Somehow, the outlook seems doubtful.

The bookmarking feature is very useful and one of the best parts of using discs on the computer. You are able to bookmark scenes in the movie that can then be accessed through different menus. This is certainly a feature that would be very handy for informational discs, as well as fun for movies. A feature that I have desired is the ability to program the player to play a sequence of scenes of my choosing; basically, to edit my own version of a movie. The theory being that in multiple viewings, one need not endure long scenes of exposition or unfortunate subplots and can limit the movie to the scenes that are worth repeated viewing. Perhaps this bookmarking feature is a step in that direction.

Other capabilities with quick access include multi-angle, subtitles, languages, and parental controls. These provide a much more interactive experience with the DVD when played on the computer as opposed to the more passive viewing on a set-top player. Studies have shown that users are not interested in this interactive capability and few use it. In fact, similar studies in the game console realm show that users are not using those features there, either. It is an interesting question, with the failure of such systems as Interactive TV and the unwillingness of typical web users to participate in the community features found on Internet websites.

I popped in the Monty Python and the Holy Grail DVD and WinDVD recognized the web links. These were typical, default Windows buttons that, when clicked, opened a website in Internet Explorer. Not very fancy and far short of what is available when using the InterActual Player and its extensive ROM capabilities. The features that are designed for the InterActual Player are not available for either CyberDVD or WinDVD, so one needs to download and install the InterActual Player to view them.

One can only imagine that most of these features, or something like them, will make their way into any computer-enhanced set-top players that will emerge for consumers in the future. Game consoles have moved quickly forward with powerful processors and graphics cards along with Internet connections, as well as DVD playing capability. It seems only natural that DVD players will move in the same direction. It evokes a vision of a Frankenstein-like device for the livingroom that plays any DVD or CD, connects to the Internet, connects to a cable or satellite system and plays games. Much like the personal computer that I have now, except instead of keyboard and mouse input, it would use a tablet or a remote source.

A quick look at the Macintosh side of things, where the joke has been that one could see the PC of 5 years from now, we find that despite the high profile of DVD on the Mac, there is very little that is superior to what is found on the PC and, in many ways, way behind. There is no choice of DVD players, with Apple Computer's bundled application the only program available for playing DVD video. The Apple DVD Player for MacOS X is a lovely application but lacking in features. No bookmarks, no capture and only the basic navigation available. There is access to multiple angles, subtitles and different audio tracks. I have yet to find a web-enabled DVD that this player recognized and used. The older implementations are similar for the Mac and have provided some confusion for users as to what player can be used on what computer with what version of the operating system. Apple has focused on the ability of users to burn their own DVDs with their Superdrive (CD,CD-R,CD-RW,DVD,DVD-R) and have heavily promoted their iDVD software that allows for quick creation of DVDs for personal use. Look for a story about my experiences with this software in the near future.

No doubt, it is the pirating of DVDs that is the leading cause of difficulties with these technologies. In the same way that music companies and artists are horrified that computer users have the ability to digitize and share music files, movie companies have been aggressive in their legal attempts to prevent the ability of users to burn copies of DVDs. Various software programs out there allow this and their status ranges from illegal to unethical, as many of the legal questions have been quickly outstripped by advances in the technology.

2001 has been a year of succeeding advancement in the features of DVD on the computer and the way has been paved for an astonishing convergence of technology to come. The possibilities of the DVD player-computer are endless for the fan of the DVD format. One can only imagine the capability of watching a movie and clicking on an actor and getting a full biography and filmography. Or clicking on a character and having the ability to buy jewelry or clothes that character is wearing or devices that character is using. Another useful feature would be informational annotation, such as when one is watching a movie about ancient Rome, a quick click would bring up a time line or some encyclopedia information about a figure or event. Or, dare I say it, the ability to let the computer colorize a black and white movie... OK! OK! I give. Maybe not that one...

Technical Specs of DVD Software for PC and Macintosh:

WinDVD 3

Time Stretching - Adjust the playback speed from half-speed to double-speed while maintaining natural audio quality.
Personalized Thumbnail Bookmarks - Creating your own bookmarks.
Fully-Adjustable Zoom and Pan - Click and drag to zoom in on any part of the screen.
Video Decoding - Progressive scan, 24 and 30 fps decoding, proprietary de-interlacing and scaling algorithms, and support for Hardware Motion Compensation from major graphics vendors.
Advanced Audio Decoding - Software decoding of Dolby Digital 5.1 and (optional) DTS soundtracks for PCs with 6-channel sound cards. Optimization of sound for mono, stereo, notebook and 4-channel speaker configurations. Dolby Headphone creates realistic surround sound for private listening at home or on the road.
New Format Support - In addition to DVD-Video, VCD, SVCD and CD Audio, WinDVD 3.0 plays back the new VR (Video Recording) format for DVD-RW and DVD-RAM media. The VR format is being used by major Consumer Electronics manufacturers for their next generation of set-top recorders and camcorders. And with the DTS version, you can even play back DTS multi-channel CDs!
Supported Formats
DVD-Video, VCD 2.0, SVCD and Audio CD discs
MPEG, ASF, AVI and MP3 files
VR (Video Recording) format for DVD-RAM and DVD-RW
CSS support for all DVD regions (5 changes on non-regionalized drives)

Audio Decoding
5.1-channel Dolby Digital decoding
Optimization for mono, stereo, and 4-channel systems
3D Surround for 2-channel systems
Dolby Headphone for surround sound in headphones
CD playback and LPCM tracks on DVD
MPEG Audio decoding
S/PDIF pass through (compatible hardware required
DTS decoding of DVD and DTS-CD titles (DTS version only)

Video Display/Quality
Full ISO-compliant MPEG decoding
Full-screen or video-in-window playback
Letterbox and Anamorphic video support
PAL and NTSC support
Software de-interlacing and scaling
Contrast, brightness and color controls
Multiple monitor support
Wide-screen monitor support
Zoom/pan to any size
On-Screen Display

Playback Features/Controls
Four sets of controls for user convenience
Control Panel
Control buttons in video window
Pop-up control menu
Time stretching (0.5x to 2.0x with normal audio)
Thumbnail bookmarks
Jog/shuttle dial with smooth FF/REW up to 20x
Full DVD navigation and transport controls
Autoplay on disc insert
Password-protected Parental Controls
Drag-and-drop playlist for file playback

Hardware Optimization
Support for Hardware Motion Compensation
Support for Hardware IDCT
DXVA support
Power management support

Trial version of WinDVD has the following limitations:
The free trial version will expire after 30 days
Playback of DVD movies limited to a maximum of five (5) minutes per title.

CyberLink PowerDVD

DTS Digital Surround Decoder
Dolby Pro Logic II Decoder
SRS TruSurround XT
Virtual Speakers Setting
Enhanced Screen Capture
Auto Resume Playback
Adjustable Color Cast Controls
Bookmark with Import/Export Option
Customizable Toolbar Navigator
Video Always on Top Option
Mouse Scroll Settings
New Skins with Minimize Feature
Compatible with All DVD/CD Media & Drives
MP3, CD, VCD, SVCD Multi-channel Playback
Windows XP & DirectX VA WHQL Certified
Main Features
i-Power: Gateway to the Web
Enhanced On Screen Display (OSD)
Dual Subtitles & Closed Caption Decoder
Dolby Headphone Technology
Dolby Digital Decoder
AB Repeat
Digital Zoom
Region Code Settings
Advanced Video Decoder
Multiple Navigation Controls
Express Menu
Dual Playback Modes for Widescreen Titles

30-Day Free Trial

MGI - softdvd max
File Open
VOB Support
Multi-Language Support
Dolby Digital 5.1 channel
Parental Rating Lock to protect children from inappropriate content. Exclusive! AutoSense™ auto-detection of video cards, audio cards and CPUs
Web Link - goes online without leaving SoftDVD MAX.
Dolby Headphone technology
Frame-based and interlaced content is shown in full frame.

No Trial.

Varo DVD Player

Multi-Angle Viewing
Multi-language Audio
Parental Lockout Control
Full video commands (Play/Stop/Pause/FF/ Rewind/Eject)
Still frame advance
Volume control
On-Screen point and click
Interactive Menu Access.
16:9 / 3:2 letter box
Software Alpha blending
Software de-interlacing
Color control
Software scaling
Full precision decoding
The solid video engine has been fully developed by VaroVision and is unique.

No Trial

Ravisent CinePlayer DVD 4.0

DVD-Video navigation and decoding
DVD-ROM games and titles
VCD 1.1 and 2.0 navigation and MPEG-1 video decoding
CD-Audio navigation and playback
File playback (*.ifo, *.vob, *.mpg, *.ac3, MP3)
Screen-saver aware face

DVD Specific Features:
Multi-angle viewing (seamless and non-seamless)
Multi-language audio and subpicture
Closed captioning
Parental lockout control
Fast forward/fast reverse
Slow forward
Still frame advance
Skip chapter forward/back
Title menu/root menu/chapter menu access Auto-Detection Code built directly into the product for optimal configuration every time the product is run.
CPU: Intel Pentium MMX, Intel Pentium III, and AMD 3DNow!
VGA: Standard (Basic), Motion Compensation Accelerated, iDCT Accelerated, Subpicture Decoding/Alpha-Blending Accelerated, overlay, blit, and halfwidth decode support.
Audio: 2-channel stereo, 5.1 channel S/PDIF, VXD and WDM output.

No demo offered.

InterActual Player 2
Relies on existing software decoder
Web Link with DVD ROM and Online Material
Studio Link

System Requirements
Operating System:
Windows 98 SE, Windows 2000, Windows Me, Windows NT4 SP5 or higher, Windows XP
Internet Explorer IE 5.0 or higher is required for InterActual Player 2.02 to run properly.
DVD-ROM drive (6x or faster recommended)
DVD playback card or graphics card with software DVD playback capability.
A supported DVD decoder, such as: Software Cinemaster, PowerDVD, WinDVD, DVD Express, Hollywood Plus

Free Download

Apple DVD Player 3.0.1

Parental lockout control
Fast forward/fast reverse
Slow forward
Still frame advance
Skip chapter forward/back
Forward/Backward Scanning
Multi-language audio
Multi-angle viewing
Macintosh OS 10.1.x
Available only bundled with computer

Apple DVD Player 2.7

Parental lockout control
Fast forward/fast reverse
Slow forward
Still frame advance
Skip chapter forward/back
Forward/Backward Scanning
Multi-language audio
Multi-angle viewing
Macintosh G3 and G4 computers shipped with AGP graphics display cards.
It is not compatible with the DVD hardware in the Power Macintosh G3, PowerBook G3and Power Macintosh G4 (PCI graphics) series computers
Exception: PowerBook G3 (FireWire) is compatible with Apple DVD Player 2.7

Free download

Apple DVD Player 1.1

Parental lockout control
Fast forward/fast reverse
Slow forward
Still frame advance
Skip chapter forward/back
Forward/Backward Scanning
Multi-language audio
Multi-angle viewing
Installation Requirements
Mac OS 8.1 , 8.5 , 8.5.1
Apple DVD Software v.1.0
QuickTime 3.0 or 3.0.2, also available from the Apple Software Updates Web page.
Macintosh PowerBook G3 Series or the Power Macintosh G3 desktop computer.
Apple DVD ROM drive
Macintosh PowerBook DVD-Video PC Card for PowerBook G3 Series computers, or the Apple DVD-Video and Audio/Video Card for the Power Macintosh G3 desktop computers.

Free download