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Enhancing Your DVD Movie Watching on the PC (4/2005)
(CyberLink PowerDVD 6, InterVideo WinDVD 6)
by Douglas Dixon
If you enjoy watching movies on DVD, your viewing experience just got even more fun with new releases of two DVD player applications for the PC: CyberLink PowerDVD 6 and InterVideo WinDVD 6. On your home PC, these players can enhance the video quality, boost the audio, and help you explore and enjoy the full contents of the disc. And on your laptop, these applications let you enjoy a movie while traveling without your battery running dry, and even can speed up the playback slightly so you can finish the movie before you arrive at your destination.
With this ability to customize the viewing experience, plus today's higher-resolution displays and surround-sound audio systems, PCs actually make great platforms for watching movies on DVD. While you may lust for the latest home theatre equipment, built around a big-screen plasma display in a large viewing space, today's PC displays are plenty big enough for a more intimate audience.
After all, today's PC monitors (at around 1280 x 1024 pixels) have much higher resolution than analog TV sets. Even laptop LCD displays have more actual pixels than some of today's "digital" LCD TVs (with actual resolutions down to 640 x 480), or even 720p widescreen HDTV monitors (1280 x 720 pixels). Plus, the PC's processor can perform sophisticated video processing to optimize the DVD video to fit your display and viewing conditions.
So let's explore how you can set up and tweak these DVD player applications to enhance your DVD viewing pleasure.
Both CyberLink and InterVideo updated their popular DVD player applications in the second half of 2004. Both offer two versions, a basic version at around $50 U.S., and an advanced version around $70 that adds support for higher-quality formats, especially higher-fidelity audio. And both have updated the products with new add-in packs to add enhanced features. Plus, while these players are tuned for performance on high-end machines to take advantage of new processors, video cards, and audio hardware, they still support older systems, from Windows XP and 2000 back to ME or 98SE.
So which should you use? Actually, CyberLink PowerDVD 6 (www.gocyberlink.com) and InterVideo WinDVD 6 (www.intervideo.com) are quite similar in their core capabilities, but the design of the interfaces and details of specific features are different enough that you may find one more appropriate than another for your particular needs and interests. Both offer free trial downloads of the full product (expiring after several weeks), so go ahead and install one or both of them to try out.
Launch these DVD players and let's see them in action. The players will attempt to automatically find and play a DVD disc in a drive attached to your computer, much like when you insert a disc in a set-top DVD player.
However, this automatic playback can cause conflicts if multiple players are fighting over the same inserted disc. Plus, the Windows AutoPlay option also can launch another player, or start up a computer application from the disc. To protect your sanity, you can disable these automatic playback options.
When playing a DVD on a PC, you can use the mouse to click buttons on the DVD menus, and use the floating control panel like a DVD remote control to pause and resume, skip chapters, and much more. The control panels also display playback status information and play time (PowerDVD also offers a detailed Information overlay including video and audio formats).
Both player windows are studded with logos for the wide array of technologies that they support. Both use a separate floating control panel, although the WinDVD panel can be docked to the video window, and the PowerDVD panel appears as a second application in the Windows task bar (and oddly does not hide when the main window is minimized).
PowerDVD 6 Interface
The top of the WinDVD window includes various option buttons, while the PowerDVD window is bare, with all the buttons on the control panel (which can make it tricky to find an empty space to click and move the panel). Both applications use pop-out subpanels to provide access to additional controls.
PowerDVD provides audio and video enhancement options on the left pop-out, and DVD navigation on the right. WinDVD simplifies the main panel by switching between six pop-out panels on the right side for specific navigation and effects, although other options like the Audio Booster Pack are displayed separately.
PowerDVD 6 controls
With so many buttons and fields in these players, it's helpful to be able to hover your mouse over a control to display a pop-up tool tip. And you can always right-click in the video window (not on the control panel) to display an impressively long pop-up menu to select from a wide variety of DVD and playback options.
As is clear from the product names, PowerDVD and WinDVD are primarily designed for DVD playback. Besides commercial DVD-Video discs, they also support Video CD (VCD) and Super VCD (SVCD) formats, and the VR (Video Recording) formats used by set-top DVD recorders to allow discs to be updated and re-recorded. These are all logical data formats, so they should be playable on any type of physical disc that your drive can read, whether mastered DVD-ROM or recordable R or RW. You also can play regular audio CDs, and PowerDVD will even display audio visualizations from Windows Media Player.
InterVideo WnDVD 6 - DVD-Audio
For higher-fidelity sound, both these players now support viewing DVD-Audio content, combining DVD's visual menus and interactivity with up to 6 channels of MLP lossless 24-bit / 96 kHz audio, including a low-frequency bass channel. DVD-Audio discs typically have a main menu that accesses the tracks, still images or slide shows to accompany the songs, plus bonus material such as music videos.
Since many DVD Video players do not support the format, DVD-Audio discs typically include both the DVD-Audio content (in an AUDIO_TS folder), plus the same content in DVD-Video form (in the usual VIDEO_TS folder). The new versions of these software players now allow you to choose between viewing either the DVD-Video or the DVD-Audio content. Of course, the quality of your experience depends on your sound card and speaker system; for example, WinDVD can provide full fidelity DVD-Audio playback with the Creative Labs Audigy 2 series sound cards (www.us.creative.com).
Beyond basic playback, what makes these PC players so interesting is the ability to explore the contents of the disc. Instead of just navigating through the disc using its built-in DVD menus, you can use the player controls to view the entire contents and jump directly to a specific point. Use the right-click menus to select from a list of all the Titles (major sections), and Chapter within the titles. PowerDVD also provides a separate Browser window with a hierarchical list of titles and chapters (though it disappears each time you use it). Or use WinDVD's subpanel to browse through titles and chapters, or have the Bookmark feature scan the disc and display thumbnails of each chapter.
Particularly with WinDVD, you can set up your software players like a set-top device: choose the default audio and subtitle languages, set region and parental controls, and choose to display subtitles and/or closed captions. PowerDVD adds the ability to display two different subtitle tracks simultaneously, which can be helpful in learning a new language.
When playing commercial releases, WinDVD also offers a limited Movie Encyclopedia window that provides links to more information about the title, and an add-in InterActual Pack, with built-in support for PC-based enhanced DVD (DVD-ROM) features such as interactive games and Web access. PowerDVD also has announced a similar add-on; otherwise you can use the separate InterActual Player application included on all such enhanced discs (player.interactual.com).
These players also offer screen captures of still frames from the DVD video. Since video playback uses dedicated video memory for decoding and display, normal screen grab applications will capture only the user interface, with a black area for the separate video overplay plane. Instead, you can grab frames in PowerDVD to the clipboard, a file, or as screen wallpaper. Or WinDVD provides a thumbnail manager for grabbed frames, and the new Quick Clip option to grab a short sequence of frames as a low-res (240 x 135) animated GIF file of up to 30 seconds.
But we're mostly interested in DVD playback, and that's where these players really shine. You can skip directly between chapters, and save your favorite scenes with bookmarks. You can drag sliders on the control panels to scan rapidly through the disc, but these really are not precise enough to move cleanly to an exact point. The PowerDVD control panel has a mouse-controlled shuttle dial to scan forward or reverse up to 32X, while WinDVD has single-click Fast Forward and Reverse controls to skim rapidly through the disc up to 60X. Then use the single-frame Step controls to move to an exact frame. You can Repeat a chapter or title, or use A-B Repeat to mark a specific segment to view repeatedly. WinDVD also has handy keyboard commands for Instant Replay / Skip Ahead to instantly jump back or forward a small number of seconds.
Even better, you can play a disc slightly faster (to skim through it at up to double-speed), or slightly slower (to take notes at down to half-speed), and still have intelligible audio. WinDVD provides a convenient slider in the Time Stretch subpanel to adjust the playback speed (or click the tortoise and hare icons to slow down or speed up). You also can specify the amount of time you have available, or a finish time, and WinDVD will adjust the playback speed to meet your deadline.
Besides playing back various disc formats, these applications also serve as general media players, supporting a variety of common video and audio computer file formats. Both support basic Windows formats, AVI and Windows Media, Wave and MP3 audio, plus MPEG-1 and MPEG-2, and now in high-definition formats, including WMV-HD. WinDVD 6 now also supports QuickTime and RealPlayer formats.
The big addition for both applications is support for MPEG-4 and DivX (www.divx.com) out of the box. PowerDVD also supports DivX Pro, and offers the add-on MPEG-4 AVC (H.264) Pack to support the new, improved MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding compression. However, both players struggled with some test MPEG-4 files, especially from camera phones (3GPP format).
PowerDVD provides a nice Playlist editor to assemble a list of files to play, with convenient save and load options, and displays the name of the currently-playing file. WinDVD has a less convenient and more cramped pop-out panel. However, neither really provides a comprehensive set of tools to reorganize and manage a collection of lists.
Perhaps the most powerful capability of PC-based DVD playback is enhancing the video display to optimize it for the type of material and your viewing conditions. You can peak up a dark movie to be much more visible in a bright room, or tone down a splashy film to watch it in a dark room. Then you can play the movie full-screen, or on top of your desktop, or even as the desktop wallpaper behind your applications, or even on a second monitor or TV output, if available.
While decoding and processing the video, these players also can tweak the color and brightness. The WinDVD Color control panel includes TV-like color controls, with presets for different types of displays (CRT, LCD, Projector, etc.). To further improve the display, PowerDVD uses CyberLink Eagle Vision to enhance the picture's visible detail, or WinDVD's Video Effect subpanel offers similar options including Cinema Enhancement and Sharpness, plus effects like Vintage and Negative. Both provide handy split-screen options to preview the enhancements.
PowerDVD video enhancement
For display on computer monitors, PowerDVD and WinDVD include sophisticated processing to resize and adjust the aspect ratio to the displayed video window. The player window automatically resizes to match the aspect ratio of the material on the disc, typically standard 4:3 for the menus and additional material, and widescreen 16:9 for the main movie. In addition, WinDVD includes an amazing Smart Stretch feature that non-linearly stretches between standard 4:3 material and a widescreen 16:9 display monitor (or vice versa), in a way that minimizes the distortion at the center of the picture and distributes it more to the edges. WinDVD also can Zoom in on the video and Pan around in it as it is playing.
WinDVD Smart Stretch
These players automatically deinterlace DVD video to convert the interlaced television fields stored on DVD to the progressive full-frame PC display. WinDVD Platinum also offers Philips Trimension DNM (Digital Natural Motion, www.trimension.com) technology to convert DVD's film rate of 24 frames per second to PC monitor refresh rates of 60 Hz or more. This processor-intensive motion compensation is derived from high-end television systems to smooth out artifacts from fast-moving objects.
For the audio aficionado, PowerDVD and WinDVD provide a huge variety of options for audio enhancement and surround-sound processing. You configure your preferred audio output device and speaker arrangement, and they will map the DVD's audio accordingly. Both players offer licensed Dolby technology (www.dolby.com), and PowerDVD also offers similar CyberLink audio processing alternatives.
For stereo material, you can use Dolby Pro Logic II to extract ambient and directional surround sound to play on 5.1 or even 7.1 channel systems. CyberLink's Multi-Channel Environment Impression (CLMEI-2) also expands up or down from 6-channel to a 4, 7 or 8-channel surround sound field.
For playing surround sound on stereo systems, you can use Dolby Virtual Speaker to play cinematic surround sound on two speakers. Similarly, CyberLink Virtual Speaker (CLVS) performs cross-talk cancellation, reverberation and positioning to simulate living room, theatre, and stadium listening environments.
And, especially for notebook users, Dolby Headphone provides an omni-directional surround sound experience on headphones. CyberLink Headphone (CLHP) uses similar reverberation and audio positioning processing to create a simulated surround speaker environment, providing the sensation that sound is arriving from external sources.
Both players also include a profusion of audio effects, including multi-band equalizers, dynamic range compression or expansion for quiet or noisy environments, and environmental processing to simulate a theatre experience. They also support voice suppression during playback of Karaoke discs.
The built-in WinDVD Audio Booster Pack adds additional DSP effects for different musical styles, SRS enhancement for Dialog Clarity and True Bass (www.srslabs.com), and Karaoke mode with pitch adjustment for any source.
WinDVD Audio Booster Pack
These updated DVD players, CyberLink PowerDVD 6 and InterVideo WinDVD 6, offer significantly enhanced video and audio playback for enjoying your DVDs on a PC. You can enlarge the picture to full-screen and brighten and sharpen it for your viewing environment, and then optimize and enhance the audio for your speaker configuration.
On a desktop system, the result can be a great viewing experience for a small group, even on a typical PC display and with stereo speakers. Both CyberLink and InterVideo also offer wireless Remote Control products ($25 to $30) to navigate DVDs from your sofa.
And for notebook users, these players turn your system into a portable theatre, with full-screen display and surround-sound through headphones. They even can speed up playback to fit your time constraints, and optimize the processing to preserve battery life.
So check out the trial downloads, and decide which features work best for you:
- CyberLink PowerDVD 6 was released in November 2004. The Standard version is $49.95 U.S. (box or download), and the Deluxe version is $69.95, with added support for high-def formats including DVD-Audio, DivX Pro, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, and DTS.
CyberLink offers two additional add-ins: the Mobility Pack for laptop users ($19.95), and the MPEG-4 AVC (H.264) Pack for the latest MPEG-4 support ($24.95).
- InterVideo WinDVD 6 was released in June 2004. The Gold version is $49.95 (download), and the Platinum version is $69.95, with added support for high-def formats including DVD-Audio, WMV-HD, DTS, and SRS.
InterVideo offers the add-in InterActual Pack, supporting enhanced DVD features including games and Web access ($19.95)
CyberLink - PowerDVD 6
InterVideo - WinDVD 6
Philips Trimension DNM
Creative Labs - Audigy 2