New DVDs already sparking copy-protection confusion

Consumer confusion over what computers will need to play the new high-definition DVDs is already beginning.

When the first high-definition DVDs finally hit shelves this spring, a mad scramble may ensue--not for the discs themselves, but to figure out what computers and devices are actually able to play them in their full glory.

Unraveling the mystery won't be easy. Many, if not most, of today's top-of-the-line computers and monitors won't make the cut, even if next-generation Blu-ray or HD DVD drives are installed.

That's because strict content protection technologies may automatically degrade the DVDs' picture quality, or even block them from playing at all, if the right connections and digital protections aren't in place. Even the most expensive computers sold today mostly lack those features.

Acronym soup

A glossary of DVD and content-protection terms.

  • Blu-ray: The high-definition video format backed by Sony.
  • HD DVD: The high-definition DVD format backed by Toshiba.
  • HDMI:High-definition multimedia interface, a digital connection technology increasingly used for computers and HDTVs. Usually associated with HDCP.
  • DVI:Digital visual interface, a digital connection technology often used with computer monitors.
  • VGA:Video graphics array, the analog connection technology widely used for computer monitors today. Does not support content protection.
  • HDCP: High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection, an Intel-created technology that encrypts content as it passes from the computer to the monitor.
  • AACS:Advanced Access Content System, a set of content protection technologies that will be used on both kinds of next-generation DVDs.
  • Indeed, the consumer backlash has already begun. Graphics-chip makers such as ATI and Nvidia are drawing criticism online for marketing products that are "ready" for these new copy-protection tools but that nevertheless lack critical features needed to let the discs play at top quality.

    "This is a sticky issue," said Richard Doherty, an analyst with the Envisioneering Group. "It's going to be very confusing for consumers, and it's going to be very daunting" for computer makers.

    The copy-protection muddle stems from Hollywood studios' desire to avoid the film piracy that was born when tools for unlocking the encryption technology on today's DVDs began spreading online in late 1999.

    Along with a picture quality upgrade, the new generation of DVDs will be shipped with new digital rights management controls, with strict computerized rules attached saying exactly when and how a movie can be played.

    For people who buy standalone DVD players and HDTVs, this mostly won't be a concern, as the right plugs will generally already be built in.

    But computer buyers will face a far more challenging landscape. The everyday analog plug that connects most computers to monitors today doesn't support copy protection, and so is viewed as unsafe by Hollywood studios. Movies playing on a computer over this ordinary analog connection will likely be downgraded to near-DVD quality.

    Even worse is the so-called DVI plug that sends high-quality digital signals to a monitor but also doesn't support copy protection.

    That offers an even greater risk of copying in Hollywood's eyes. Studios have persuaded Microsoft to add a feature in the upcoming Vista operating system that can shut down that connection altogether, unless the computer has an Intel-created encryption technology called HDCP, or High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection, turned on to guard the signal all the way to the monitor screen.

    Put another way--if the DVD doesn't like your plug, your monitor may go black.

    A newer connection technology called HDMI almost always comes with built-in encryption. If both the computer and the monitor have this installed, everything should work as planned.

    Simple question--will it work?
    Today, it's extraordinarily difficult to find information that explains whether a company's products will be compatible with the new DVDs.

    Part of the problem is that the copy protection technology for the

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