Practically every new PC used to come bundled with DVD playback software such as PowerDVD.
This is no longer essential as Windows Vista Home, unlike XP Home, comes with a built-in MPEG2 codec, allowing you to watch DVDs via Media Center without additional software. PowerDVD 9 still has plenty to offer, though, with features including image enhancement, a movie library and Blu-ray playback.
At present, there’s no free software that will play Blu-ray movies. Support for the HD format is the key difference between PowerDVD’s Ultra and Deluxe versions, with the latter limited to DVD playback. The Ultra version also supports the AVCHD and AVCREC formats, so you can play HD camcorder footage that’s been burnt to Blu-ray or DVD.
Both versions of PowerDVD can improve the appearance of standard-definition video, thanks to the TrueTheater post-processing tools. There’s detail enhancement, which can be left on automatic, or set with a simple slider. Set correctly, it boosts the impact of fine details but with a minimal increase in picture noise. Image upscaling is also impressive, with sharp edges showing no overt pixellation.
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Like many HD TVs, TrueTheater can be set to generate extra frames of video based on the existing ones, so as to match your monitor’s refresh rate. This results in far smoother and more natural-looking movement. There are free post-processing tools available with similar capabilities, such as the popular ffdshow, but these are not nearly as user-friendly.
On the audio side, both packages support Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. A big disappointment, however, is the lack of surround-sound DTS support in the Deluxe version. Both versions support a range of Dolby technologies, with Dolby Virtual Speaker and Dolby Headphone providing pseudo-surround-sound capabilities. Ultra can also decode the usual HD audio standards found on Blu-ray, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.
PowerDVD integrates smoothly with Media Center by adding an icon to the menu system. For Windows XP users, it also has its own Cinema mode, which can be used from a distance and navigated by a remote control.
Over time, you can build up an index of your DVD and Blu-ray collection. Every time you play a disc it can be added to your collection, with cover art and details retrieved from CyberLink’s MoovieLive site. There are free alternatives to this, such as Griffith (www.griffith.cc), but these rely on film information from the Internet Movie Database. MoovieLive may be less encyclopedic, but it can differentiate between Blu-ray and DVD versions of a film and different DVD releases. You can browse your movies using an iTunes-like cascade of cover art. The same interface can display DVD chapter thumbnails for navigating to your favourite bits.
If you’re simply looking to play Blu-ray movies, there are slightly cheaper options, such as Arcsoft’s TotalMedia Theatre (What’s New, Shopper 249) which costs $70 (around £48). For DVD use, a variety of free programs – VLC media player, ffdshow and Griffith – can replicate most of the Deluxe version’s features. That said, its ease of use, powerful post-processing and library features add up to make PowerDVD 9 a good buy for those who don’t want to mess about with lots of separate programs. It’s a hassle-free way of bringing a new lease of life to your DVD collection.