Blu-ray and HD DVD: Is Your PC Ready for it?


True HD - The Necessary Evils

Hardware Requirements


CPU - Raw Processing Power

The very basic requirements are simple, like regular DVD-capable PC, you'll require a Blu-ray or HD DVD optical drive, software capable of playing back Blu-ray or HD DVD movies and a sufficiently powerful CPU/GPU combo with hardware accelerated decoding. Of course, you'll need a monitor capable of actually displaying Blu-ray and HD DVD in full resolution, though that's the least of your worries. The tricky part is in knowing what exactly you need in order to optimize performance and compatibility. The following table is a generic hardware table derived from NVIDIA's own HD recommendation checklist document that details the minimum and recommended CPU specifications needed to properly playback Blu-ray or HD DVD:

Blu-ray and HD DVD CPU Requirements.
CPU Family Recommended
(H.264 Blu-ray / HD DVD)
Minimum
(General HD)
Pentium 4 (Prescott) Not Recommended 541 (3.2GHz)
Pentium D 8xx Series (Smithfield) Not Recommended 840 (3.2GHz)
Pentium D 9xx Series (Presler) 945 (3.4GHz) and above 930 (3.0GHz)
Pentium M (Dothan) Not Recommended 755 (2.0GHz)
Core Duo (Yonah) T2500 (2.0GHz) and above T2400 (1.83GHz)
Core 2 Duo (Allendale/Conroe) E6300 (1.8GHz) and above Any
Turion 64 X2 TL-60 (2.0GHz) and above TL-50 (1.6GHz)
Athlon 46 X2 4200+ (2.2GHz) and above 3800+ (2.0GHz)
Athlon 64 FX FX-60 (2.0GHz) and above Any


GPU - Hardware Acceleration

Even with today's powerful dual-core CPUs, pure software decoding of Blu-ray and HD DVD is almost impossible and there comes the need for hardware acceleration. Most of today's GPUs from ATI and NVIDIA - the two main competitors in consumer graphics - have some level of video acceleration built into the GPU. ATI's AVIVO is an all-encompassing technology that can be found in any of their latest X1K series or graphics cards or their Theater 550 and 650 series of TV Tuners. Take note however for Radeon X1K graphics cards, not all of them can smoothly handle full HD resolutions of the 1080p standard. Due to the way ATI's graphics processor handle video acceleration within their main graphics pipeline, it is recommended to own at least a fast mid-range or better yet, a high-end ATI graphics card to tackle full HD resolution acceleration fluently.

On the other hand, NVIDIA's PureVideo technology is split into two versions. The original PureVideo is available from all GeForce 6 series and above GPUs, and already capable of H.264, WMV, and MPEG-2 hardware acceleration. The newer PureVideo HD standard is a superset extension to the existing PureVideo standard and designed for Blu-ray and HD DVD playback. PureVideo HD is only available on GeForce 7 series and above graphics cards. With both ATI and NVIDIA, enabling AVIVO or PureVideo HD is required through latest set of GPU drivers. NVIDIA specifically used to bundle their PureVideo decoder as a separate software purchase, but is now bundled with the latest ForceWare drivers.

Blu-ray and HD DVD GPU Requirements
Generic GPU Feature Recommended (H.264 Blu-ray / HD DVD) Minimum (General HD)
ATI AVIVO Technology High-end ATI Radeon X1K Series w/ Catalyst 5.13 drivers and above ATI Radeon X1K Series w/ Catalyst 5.13 drivers and above
NVIDIA PureVideo HD NVIDIA GeForce 7 Series w/ ForceWare 92.91 drivers and above NVIDIA GeForce 6 Series* or newer
Bus PCI Express PCI Express
Clock Speed 500MHz and above 400MHz
Memory Clock Speed 500MHz and above 400MHz
Memory Size 256MB and above 128MB
HDCP w/ CryptoROM Required Non-Required

*NVIDIA GeForce 6 Series of cards only support PureVideo and not PureVideo HD.

Note that the GPU specifications are based on recommended scenarios derived from NVIDIA. Actual performance may vary from system to system. For more in-depth and detailed GPU information and specifications, please visit the respective manufacturer's site as it is beyond the scope of this guide.


Optical Drives

The next thing you'd need is of course a Blu-ray and HD DVD optical drive to playback your discs. As of writing, you'd find it easier to get a Blu-ray drive for the PC instead of HD DVD - discounting the built-in drives from noteboooks and the XBOX 360 console of course, which have been reported not to work on a PC anyway. For a Blu-ray drive/burner, expect to spend around US$700-1000 for some of the initial models out today like the Sony BWU-100A or the LG GBW-H10N.

The table below shows the available drive models that are already in the retail channels or going to be launched soon. This list is by no means exhaustive or final, but those we're able to confirm with appropriate model numbers.

PC Compatible Blu-ray and HD DVD Optical Drive Table
Retail Blu-ray Drives
  • Pioneer BDR-101A burner
  • IO Data BRD-UM2/U burner
  • Panasonic LF-MB121JD burner
  • LG GBW-H10N 4X burner
  • Sony BWU-100A burner
Upcoming Blu-ray Drives
  • BenQ BW1000 and EW100G burner
  • Philips SPD7000 burner
  • Samsung SH-B022 burner
  • Plextor PX-B900A burner
Upcoming HD DVD Drives
  • Toshiba SDH802A, TS-L802A and SD-L902A
  • NEC HR-1100A


DRM Limitations - The Sticky Issue

Blu-ray and HD DVD discs will feature a new content (read: copy) protection technology called Advanced Access Content System (AACS) based on a broadcast encryption technique. Users do not really have to worry about the intricacies of AACS, but you do need to know about HDCP or High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection. HDCP is a form of DRM for high definition content delivered through DVI or HDMI connections. Because of this, you will need a graphics card that is not only HDCP-capable, but actually includes the necessary HDCP crypto-ROM chip that has the keys required to encode protected HD content. Without HDCP, you can have the best GPU decoder out there and you won't be able to playback your protected Blu-ray or HD DVD discs over DVI/HDMI. Additionally on the receiving-end, which is your monitor or HDTV, these too have to be HDCP compliant to display protected HD content.

Up till now, we've only talked about HDCP limiting DVI and HDMI connections, which is true for high-end monitors and TVs, but on a PC, there really isn't any restrictions of you were to say output HD through VGA or even composite cables - for now. HDCP has an additional DRM component called the Image Constraint Token (ICT), which can be used to force downsizing of protected HD 1080p video to SD resolutions (480p/540p) even on analog connections. Luckily, because first generation consumer hardware like HDTVs are non-HDCP compliant, the powers that be have decided to hold the implementation of ICT till the 2009-2012 timeframe, which gives consumers a few years to get themselves fully HDCP compliant. While technically you can still get by for at least the next three years without a HDCP compliant display or graphics card, most NVIDIA and ATI cards today that support H.264 acceleration should already be HDCP-enabled, though users should check with their respective vendors first to be doubly sure.


Software Requirements

Besides meeting all the hardware requirements to play Blu-ray or HD DVD, you will need capable playback software. While Blu-ray and HD DVD compatible authoring software is available, getting your hands on a player is not as easy. At the present moment, only Cyberlink and Intervideo seems to have developed Blu-ray and HD DVD support into their popular PowerDVD and WinDVD software. Due to the different standards though, both players have separate versions for Blu-ray and HD DVD support. Alternatively, you can probably try Nero ShowTime 3.


Checklist

To summarize the above, here is a compressed checklist on the basic requirements needed to setup your own Blu-ray or HD DVD capable PC:

  • Blu-ray or HD DVD optical drive
  • A reasonably powerful dual-core CPU
  • Graphics card with H.264 acceleration, HDCP-compliant with crypto-ROM chip and preferably with 256MB memory
  • A display that's HDCP-compliant (for future proofing)
  • Blu-ray or HD DVD playback software