The misadventures of Blu-ray in HTPC land

If you'll humor me, I'd like to take a brief break from all the CES coverage to complain about the sad state of Blu-ray on the PC. We've been, err, blessed with this format for more than five years now, yet the simplest task of watching a movie is still frustratingly complicated and expensive. I've taken a live-and-let-live position on the issue, but recent events have broken the proverbial camel's back and prompted this outpouring of negative emotions.

I should probably preface this rant by explaining the current state of my home theater. In short, it's a mess. In recent years, the bulk of my income has been diverted to finance causes like college, vehicles, rent, and occasionally some beer and ramen noodles. As a result, the home-theater setup I've assembled is really just the culmination of random, opportunistic acquisitions over the years. This motley collection consists of an aging 4:3 projector, some respectable tower speakers, a pre-HDMI Pioneer receiver, several game consoles, a DVD player, and a basic HTPC. If I want to watch something at a resolution above 800x600, I turn to my desktop PC.

Notwithstanding the high-def deficiencies of my living room, Blu-ray discs appeared in my stocking over the holidays. Even though my primary PC has had a Blu-ray drive for a couple of years now, the number of Blu-ray movies in my pre-Christmas collection is relatively small. My enthusiasm for the format waned after installing the drive and wasting several hours of my life discovering that my monitors were too old and lacked the necessary HDCP support. Very few things frustrate me more than having hardware that's willing and able to do the job, but can't because of artificial restraints.

About a week ago, I realized there was an Asus Blu-ray drive collecting dust in my parts closet, so I decided to give the ol' HTPC some upgrade love. A full HD projector is on my short list of near-future toy purchases, and I figured that preparation would be the Boy Scout thing to do. My current projector uses an analog VGA input, and I vaguely remembered reading somewhere that HDCP specifically required a digital connection to crash the party. In addition, software developers have had a couple of years to refine their playback solutions. What could possibly go wrong this time?

The short version: after two hours of researching and downloading various software titles to watch my new copy of Terminator 2, I shelved it and popped in the DVD version instead.

Now, my HTPC is nothing special—it's powered by a 2.7GHz Athlon II X2 running on a 785G motherboard, but it certainly has enough grunt to decode a Blu-ray movie. As it turns out, the issue I encountered was an artificial restriction present in newer versions of PowerDVD that limits Blu-ray playback to HDCP-compliant digital outputs. The VGA rebellion had been crushed. You win again copy protection. Best three out of five?

A few days later, I thought I found salvation in an older version of PowerDVD that still supports analog outputs. For whatever reason, that version crashed upon loading the Blu-ray menu. After few more swings and misses on the software front, and I finally stumbled upon a trial version of Arcsoft TotalMedia Theatre 5 that actually worked. At last, my shiny circular coaster could project its Schwarzenegger-laden wares onto my wall.

To celebrate this victory over my digital oppressors, I fired up T2 and sank into my Sumo beanbag with a can of Mountain Dew and the butteriest bag of popcorn I could find. This celebration was short-lived when I realized that the trial would eventually expire, forcing me to shell out $99 for the privilege of watching my movies in Arcsoft's theatre. No thanks.

Because I don't have a lot invested into Blu-ray movies at this point, I'm uncertain that I ever will. Already, the vast majority of my viewing is dominated by streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus. I don't even subscribe to basic cable anymore, opting instead to funnel the savings into a fatter Internet pipe. By the time I get around to upgrading my home theater equipment to something more awesome (and high-def), HD media streaming should be coming into its own, rendering Blu-ray superfluous for my purposes.

The inevitability of streamed entertainment doesn't mean that content producers want to make the transition easy for us, as Cyril recently lamented. I get funny the feeling that the ongoing back-alley knife fight between producers and distributors is partially intended to prop up Blu-ray sales while the industry figures out the most efficient way to extract every possible cent from streaming content.

Still, things didn't have to end up this way. While production companies and studios blunder about trying to boost Blu-ray sales and reduce piracy with iron-fist tactics, they are actually shooting themselves in the foot. Had my original attempts to play Blu-ray discs on the PC been successful, I guarantee that I would own more than a handful of titles today. Even today, if I could play Blu-ray discs reliably using VLC or Windows Media Player, I'd be more inclined to purchase more Blu-ray titles. I doubt that I'm alone in this situation.

To promote the format, Blu-ray content providers should encourage and subsidize the development and distribution of playback software instead of locking the format down so tightly that people look for a path of lesser resistance. I can't think of a similar garden with comparably high walls surrounding it; Apple may tightly control its products, but it opted to bypass Blu-ray in favor of streaming.

I'm not here to argue the financial merits of such a move. Undoubtedly, many good trees were lost to analysts printing projections of various ways to pimp Blu-ray media and licensing agreements to the masses. I'm simply here to state that, from a PC enthusiast's perspective, I think things could have been done a lot better. There is no reason that Blu-ray and streaming services shouldn't coexist on an HTPC. Streaming HD feeds are likely to remain highly compressed in the near future, ensuring that physical discs offer a superior experience, at least from a quality perspective.

Unfortunately, there are many question marks regarding the future of Blu-ray on the PC. HTPC communities have been clamoring for native playback support in the forthcoming Windows 8, but so far the outlook is grim. There are also some extensions in the works for the popular media playback software VLC. Libbluray is an open-source "research project" library for VLC that enables some Blu-ray playback capabilities on PC, Mac, and Linux. The development of this library is still in its infancy, and it must be compiled from source, which will scare away most casual tinkerers. Hopefully, the library will become easier to use as the project matures.

For now, I think I'll continue taking a wait-and-see approach to Blu-ray. If good playback software becomes available at a more palatable price point by the time I upgrade my projector, I will probably take the plunge. I like the consolidation and expandability that HTPCs offer over their set-top-box counterparts; I just wish somebody would throw us enthusiasts a bone.

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