Play HD Movies on (Almost) Any PC

ATI's Radeon HD 2600 (left) and nVidia's GeForce 8400GS support good HD playback at a low cost.
ATI's Radeon HD 2600 (left) and nVidia's GeForce 8400GS support good HD playback at a low cost.
Improved software and drivers, and a new generation of high-definition-assisting graphics cards, allow nearly any PC to play HD movies. ATI and nVidia have added VC1/AVC/h.264 decoding and other HD-assisting features to their latest graphics products.

ATI's Radeon HD 2600 and nVidia's GeForce 8400GS, which cost a mere $90 each on the street, do a fine job of offloading high-def chores. For better gaming performance and additional video-processing features, spend a few dollars more for ATI's Radeon HD 2900 (about $300 online) or nVidia's GeForce 8500GT ($100 or so online) or 8600GT (about $120 online). Many graphics cards that tout their support for HD don't completely offload the decoding chores. At this writing, only the cards mentioned above fully offload video processing--using ATI's Universal Video Decoder and nVidia's VP2, respectively. ATI's entry-level Radeon HD 2400 is a special case: Though it offloads HD processing, in my tests it rendered movies at only 720 lines of vertical resolution. Since 1080 lines are high-definition movies' raison d'etre, I can't recommend this card for HD movie playback.

The Software Side

Software to play HD DVD and Blu-ray movies on your computer costs more than some HD-assisting graphic cards. Cyberlink's $99 PowerDVD is the most versatile and reliable program I've found. Intervideo's WinDVD 8 Platinum HD BD, which supports only nVidia-based cards, is available at the online store of new owner Corel for $70. The company says that support for the ATI cards is in the works.

For owners of Nero 8 Ultra Edition, there's a $30 HD DVD/Blu-ray plug-in for the suite's ShowTime player, but this app supports only commercial HD DVDs--it plays back only non-HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) consumer BD-AV discs, which lack advanced menus and other interactive features. ShowTime will play back commercial Blu-ray titles via a free upgrade scheduled for release early this year. Unfortunately, ShowTime supports HDCP over an HDMI connection only, which is adequate for TV output but not for PC use, since most people use DVI to attach their displays.

The Drive You Need

Cheaper Blu-ray drives are expected very soon, but for now your lowest-cost option for Blu-ray is Pioneer's BDC-2202, a $300 internal DVD burner that reads Blue-ray discs. Microsoft's $179 Xbox USB external HD DVD drive can play HD DVDs on a PC, though the company doesn't publicize or support this capability. Still, the product is plug-and-play on both XP and Vista, and it's often on sale. HP's similar HD100 costs about $200.

To burn Blu-ray discs, you need to pony up $600 for an external drive, such as the second-generation Sony BDW-200S or Philips's SPD7000, or spend $500 for the Lite-On LH-2B1S. Unfortunately, you can't upgrade your current PC or laptop with internal read/write or read-only HD DVD drives, which thus far are available in this country only in new systems.

HD Minimum Requirements

To determine how slow is too slow for a CPU to play high-definition movies smoothly, I put together two relatively tame test beds: a PCI Express system with a K8N51PVM9-RH nForce 6150 motherboard from Gigabyte, 1GB of DDR 400 memory, and a single-core Athlon FX-53 CPU; and an AGP system consisting of an Abit KV8-MAX Via K8T800-based motherboard, an Athlon 64 3200+ CPU, and 512MB of DDR 266 memory. I used the Xbox drive to play HD DVDs on each system, and I used the BDC-2202 to play Blu-ray titles. In all cases I used a Dell 2407 monitor with a maximum resolution of 1920 by 1200--the resolution required to view high-def movies in their full 1080 splendor.

I gradually underclocked the FX-53 from its native 2.4 GHz down to 1 GHz to see how low I could go before playback deteriorated. Unfortunately, the 3200+ was locked at 2 GHz, so I was forced to extrapolate results based on CPU usage.

I tested four graphics cards on the PCIe system: MSI's ATI-based HD 2400 Pro and HD 2600 XT, and XFX's nVidia-based 8400GS and 8600GT. Visiontek's Radeon HD 2600--the only fully offloading AGP card I've located--was used with the KV8-MAX.

I used Cyberlink's PowerDVD 7.3 software player to play the Blu-ray version of Casino Royale and the HD DVD version of Lucky Number Slevin, both of which are encoded with AVC--the most processor-intensive codec. I did all the testing under Vista, but I disabled the Aero interface and Windows Search. I eyeballed the movies for smooth playback and I monitored CPU usage.

After I updated PowerDVD to build 3502 to eliminate a glitch I encountered when playing Lucky Number Slevin, all of the PCIe cards proved extremely efficient at offloading HD movie playback. Even MSI's budget 2400 Pro managed to play Casino Royale acceptably at 1 GHz, albeit at its 720p limit, with about 95 percent CPU usage. Its more-capable HD 2600 sibling hit about the same CPU usage at 1 GHz, but it rendered at full 1080p resolution. I had to set the CPU to at least 1.2 GHz to smooth playback of Lucky Number Slevin with either ATI card.

Neither the XFX 8400GS nor the 8600GT managed acceptable playback at 1 GHz, but at 1.2 GHz and higher they played both movies flawlessly, and they ran every other HD DVD and Blu-ray title I threw at them just as well.

The AGP Visiontek HD 2600 was equally facile with the test bed running at 2 GHz. Though I couldn't underclock the system, it was using only 65 percent of the CPU cycles, suggesting that I could have dropped the processor speed to at least 1.4 GHz before encountering any noticeable glitches.

It's impossible to create concrete system requirements on the basis of my small test sampling, but clearly you don't need a state-of-the-art system to play high def, as vendors often suggest.

My results indicate that any PCIe or AGP system with a 1.4-GHz or faster CPU--single- or dual-core, AMD or Intel--and a reasonably fast hard drive should suffice for high-def movie playback, if you use one of the graphics cards I tested. Even if your similarly configured system can't quite make it up the HD hill, upgrading to a CPU that can handle the load will cost you only about $50. Browse to How to Replace Your CPU - PC World Video for step-by-step instructions.

How Slow Can High Def Go?

You don't need the latest PC configuration to play high-def movies. In our tests, even inexpensive graphics boards and relatively slow CPUs supported acceptable playback quality.

How Slow Can High Def Go?
You don't need the latest PC configuration to play high-def movies. In our tests, even inexpensive graphics boards and relatively slow CPUs supported acceptable playback quality.
Graphics board (maximum resolution) Hardware configuration Slowest CPU speed for successful playback
XFX nVidia GeForce 8600GTS (1080p) $170 Gigabyte K8N51PVM9-RH nForce 6150 motherboard, single-core 2.4-GHz Athlon FX-53 CPU, 1GB of DDR 400 memory 1.2 GHz
XFX nVidia GeForce 8400GS (1080p) $60 1.2 GHz
MSI ATI Radeon HD 2400 Pro (720p) $50 1.2 GHz
MSI ATI Radeon RX2600XT (1080p) $170 1.2 GHz1
VisionTek ATI Radeon 2600XT AGP(1080p) $180 Abit KV8-MAX Via K8T800 motherboard, 2-GHz Athlon 64 3200+ CPU, 512MB of DDR 266 memory 2 GHz2
1 HD DVD showed occasional minor stutters at 1.2 GHz. 2 CPU was locked, but mild usage (65 percent) suggests that significantly slower CPU speeds would have worked.

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