The PC in HD

The PC in HD

Much has been said about High Definition in regards to home theater setups and next generation console systems, but what impact does HD have in the PC community? We look at the highs and the lows of HD on the PC and what the future might hold.

Introduction

Almost everyone has heard the term “HD” these days, even if they don’t know exactly what it means. The marketing definition is “better looking TV,” and while that’s good enough for most people, actually getting that “better looking TV” can be difficult and quite expensive. Every related product has taken advantage of those two letters. Advertisers have even used it to refer to mundane products such as window cleaners (“for a high definition shine!”). It can be a confusing technology for those just looking to purchase their first HDTV unit, but for those looking to enter the world of High Definition through their PCs, it can be even more complicated.

What is HD?

We don’t want to throw a lot of numbers at you before you have a basic understanding of what High Definition means. To do this, we’ll think of a television in terms of a PC display resolution. For your normal television set, the highest resolution that can be shown is 704x480. That’s 704 pixels across by 480 pixels down. In determining resolution, it is the number of pixel lines going down the screen, the “vertical resolution,” that determines how much information is available to produce the image. Standard definition television provides 480 lines of resolution to make up the picture being displayed. Note that this is irrelevant of the actual screen size. A larger screen does not necessarily mean that there are more pixels.

When High Definition was introduced, there were two resolutions that could be referred to as “HD.” The lower of these is 1280x720, commonly referred to as “720p.” The higher resolution is 1920x1080, which is referred to as “1080i” or “1080p.” The letter designations stand for either Interlace or Progressive scanning. PCs deal only in progressive scan, so we’ll be talking about that variant for the purposes of this article. Of course, there’s still more to High Definition content than just resolution, but this explanation will get us talking the same language for now.

Is My PC Already HD?

The lowest resolution that Windows XP will run under is 640x480, which is a standard definition aspect. However, with larger displays and more advanced video cards coming standard with many current OEM systems, it’s not uncommon to have Windows running in screen resolutions of at least 1280x1024, or even higher. This is the realm of HD, and with these settings, the desktop is effectively being viewed in High Definition.

If the Windows XP desktop can be viewed in HD, what about games? The lure of next generation gaming consoles is their ability to display games in HD. Yet, the PC has been doing so for a long time. Games have long allowed the user to set their resolution to at least 1024x768 and above, which are all HD resolutions. However, before we get too excited, there is a caveat to game resolutions.

Most electronic stores carry DVD players that are labeled as “upconverting”. DVDs are encoded in a resolution of 480 (so that they will play on standard definition TVs). Upconverting DVD players scale that image up to HD resolutions of either 720p or 1080i. Of course, the image isn’t nearly as good as it would be from an HD-DVD or Blu-Ray disc, which has the information encoded at a full 1080 lines of resolution.

This same concept applies to some of the first gaming titles that supported HD resolutions. While the game could run in 1280x1024, it was designed to run in 640x480 - more akin to Standard Definition. The game’s image quality will remain essentially the same as it would if running at a lower resolution.

Thankfully, this only holds true for the first gaming titles that could handle the higher resolutions. It doesn’t apply to PC titles from the last few years, as they were designed from the ground up with higher resolutions in mind. So while consoles tout HD resolutions as a key selling point, PC gamers have been enjoying their games in HD for a while now. And there’s still more to come. As hardware gets beefier and memory expands, these games can be run at higher and higher resolutions. Just look at the Real-World Gaming CPU Comparison with 8800 GTX SLI article from [H] Enthusiast. The Dell 3007WFP 30” LCD used in the article is able to run the Windows desktop and games at 2560x1600, which means that with the advent of higher resolution displays, PC technology is already pushing far beyond the bounds of traditional HD.

Take Me to the Movies!

By far, the most successful digital format for movies is the Digital Video Disc or DVD. The hardware and software necessary for playing back movies in this format are very inexpensive, and most DVD playback software will upconvert the standard definition image to a high definition resolution. The PC tends to do a slightly better job at this process than a stand-alone upconverting player, but even so, it’s not true High Definition content. It’s merely faking it, so how do we use this new wave of technology?

The successor to DVD comes in two flavors: HD DVD developed by Toshiba, and Blu-ray (BD) from Sony. Each format has its own unique features, but one similarity is that the movies are already encoded in 1080 HD so there is no upconverting needed. There are other formats available for providing High Definition content on the PC, but HD DVD and Blu-ray are the only two that are available on a significant retail level.

Gaming on the PC in High Definition is easy - the games already support it! However, things get complicated when trying to enjoy movies in true HD on your PC. The first requirement is having the right hardware. Standard DVD drives won’t recognize either HD DVD or Blu-ray, so first you need an optical drive upgrade. As of this writing, the hardware options are very limited. In the HD DVD camp, a surprising fact is that primarily laptops are being equipped with HD DVD drives. We could find no internal drives for desktops, and only one external drive. Microsoft has also made HD DVD available for the Xbox 360 in the form of an add-on peripheral, which also works on your PC.

In stark contrast is Blu-ray, which is available in both internal and external drive varieties, and even has its own fleet of laptops which support the technology. Interestingly, the Blu-ray drives are also Blu-ray disc burners. The HD DVD format has only recently produced a burner drive for the PC. Whichever format is chosen, prepare to spend upwards of $400 for the Toshiba, and as much as twice that for a Blu-ray device. Much like DVD at the birth of the format, the hardware isn’t cheap.

Once the hardware has been purchased, the next step will be to insure the proper software is installed. The copy of Cyberlink PowerDVD that comes with many of the systems we evaluate won’t cut it when it comes to playing either HD DVD or Blu-ray movies. For that, the latest version of the software, PowerDVD Ultra is required. NVIDIA’s PureVideo HD also provides support. Intervideo’s WinDVD promises HD DVD and Blu-ray playback, but it’s not yet available and will be an additional purchase for current customers upon release.

Break Out the Popcorn?

So you have the Blu-ray or HD DVD drive installed and the correct software up and running. We should be all ready to start watching our HD movies, right?

Not quite.

There are two additional hardware issues that must be addressed. First, High Definition content takes up a lot of space. Moving all of that data around can put quite a strain on a PC. Nothing would ruin the moment more than seeing a movie play back at half speed. Cyberlink recommends a dual-core processor, such as the Core 2 Duo or the AMD X2, and at least 1 GB of RAM if using their software for HD playback.

The other hardware issue is more frustrating. DVD copy protection turned out to not work so well in protecting the content as almost anyone who knows how Google works can make a backup copy of their disc, usually at full quality. The movie studios hate this, so to keep HD movie owners on the up-and-up, a technology called High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection, or HDCP, was developed.

HDCP is a complicated technology, but it is essentially a means to make sure that nothing is intercepting the signal between the graphics card and the monitor. Ripping a new DVD from this signal is a reliable way to make a perfect copy of the information being transferred. To prevent this on a PC, HDCP requires that the software, video card, and display device all be HDCP compliant. The good news is that that there are many HDCP compliant video cards (a great resource for HDCP video cards can be found on our very own forums). The bad news is that there are few compliant displays.

Some of this may be irrelevant because HDCP is activated by a flag present on the movie discs themselves. Currently, no currently released titles utilize HDCP protection, and rumors abound that it could be 2010 before movies with HDCP are released. Of course, it's possible that this could change at any time.

So now that we finally have the Blu-ray or HD DVD drive, the correct playback software, a Core 2 Duo or Athlon 64 X2 processor with 1 GB of RAM, and an HDCP compliant video card and monitor, we’re ready to nuke that popcorn, tear off the shrink rap, and sink back in our couch while enjoying the latest blockbuster film in High Definition.

HD is certainly an expensive enterprise, but the benefits in image quality might be worth the price to most consumers. Considering what is on the horizon for HD content, it might be best to get on the bandwagon sooner rather than later. At the very least, we can all start speaking the same language.


Additional Reading

You might also check out our NVIDIA's PureVideo HD Interview & Experiences from last September which explains many of the specifics about HD and your PC.


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