Disk Preparation
DVD Players and Disks and Regioning
Andy gets his panties in a wad over a locked DVD player
Disk Preparation

So there I was with my new pc-based entertainment system, enjoying the spectacle of the big screen in the comfort of my own lounge room. To celebrate I bought a couple of music DVDs from Wills on the Quadrant, as you do, and all was well with the world for a couple of weeks. I'm not quite sure when it started to happen, but when I swapped in my DVDs purchased from England I had to keep resetting the region to #2. That was the only clue.

Then the films from the rentals place started doing weird stuff. The DVDs would hesitate as if some background process was grabbing the CPU, although the task manager showed nothing obvious. A red herring maybe, because then the DVD player refused to play any rental DVDs and just spat them out at me again. No message, nothing.

I stomped around the room in an enormous rage and then staggered outside and hacked a couple of my neighbours to death with a meat cleaver. That helped a bit. On returning indoors calmed, I had a hypothesis; Ah the DVD drive's buggered then. After all the LG hi-fi DVD player still played the disks fine, so it wasn't the DVDs themselves. I purchased the Pioneer DVD-104 slot-feeder about 5 years ago, so I suppose that's a reasonable service length in this day and age.

A quick call to JTEK Computers to secure a new drive. M'man Jason-tech-dude-extraordinaire-Mizzi answered, "Have you checked it's not region locked?" he said. Good point I thought, although why this would happen after five years of problem-free service, I don't know. Anyway, after a bit of investigation it turns out Jason was right; what a clever chappie he is. I didn't have to buy a new unit after all and following a bit of research, the solution turned out to be reasonably straightforward.

Under Windows XP, hold down ALT while double clicking on My Computer. Go to System Properties | Hardware tab | Device Manager button:

System Properties

Double clicking on the DVD/CD-ROM drives entry reveals the installed optical drives and a right click on the device in question brings up its properties windows:

Device Manager DVD Properties

Behold the DVD Region tab. Observe the cautionary warnings:

DVD Region Settings

Although the above screenshot shows no region is currently selected (because this is after I fixed it) the original showed that it was indeed set and locked onto region #2 (UK) and I had no more changes left. Hence it wouldn't play Australian DVDs. Bugger.

So what's with this Regions thing?

A DVD player will have one of seven region codes encoded on it. These seven codes represent different regions of the world: #1 United States and Canada, #2 Japan, Europe, South Africa and the Middle East, #3 Southeast Asia and East Asia, #4 Australia, New Zealand, some Pacific Islands, Central and South America, #5 Indian Subcontinent, Former Soviet Union and Africa, #6 China, and #0 no region.
World DVD Regions
A DVD with a region #2 code on it will only play on a #2 DVD player. The same goes for the other region codes, except #0. Thus, if an American purchases a DVD in Australia (#4) and takes it home, they will not be able to play it in their #1 coded DVD player. On the other hand if you purchase a #0 encoded DVD you will be able to play it in every DVD player regardless of the region coding.

Why did they do it?

When studios initially release a film in theatres, the first country to see it is usually America. About six months later theatres in Japan and Europe show their first screening. Six months after that Asia and so on, following in the order of the region codes. Meanwhile, 6-18 months after a studio releases a movie in America, the American DVD (region #1) is released for home viewing. What often ends up happening is the Yanks and Canadians have the opportunity to own their own personal copy of a movie before someone in China can even see it at the pictures!

The problem lies in the potential for cashing in on the time difference. If the codes were not implemented, people in America could purchase American DVDs and sell them to people in China, who in turn would not go to the theatre to see the film. This time lag, without region codes, would have meant tremendous box office losses (or lack of gains) in other countries. What it also means is that I can't visit another (DVD region) country and purchase a DVD to play when I get back to Australia.

Region codes also allow studios to sell their DVDs to match different market demands. In some countries where per capita income is lower and consequently people have less disposable income, DVDs are priced less. Conversely in America where people have more disposable income and where the demand for DVDs is greater, the prices are higher.

Some people believe that since the studios can sell the DVDs for less in some countries, they are ripping off the others. However economically speaking, if people are willing to pay a higher price then why would you lower it? Region coding is bad for the consumer but great for the studios.

How can I beat the system?

Ah, glad you asked. There are basically three options. Firstly, buy a region-free player. Secondly, accept the region on your current DVD player. Thirdly, change the region to #0 so you can play all DVDs. Since the region on almost any DVD player can be changed it's a matter weighing the risks and the benefits. Attempting to change the region codes on a stand-alone DVD player will void the warranty and could screw up the player. Computer DVD drives can be flashed to read all DVDs. Again the risks are a dead drive if you get it wrong. There's no point in doing it if you don't need to, but the cheaper prices for overseas films are a temptation.

Andy beats the system

My particular problem was that the bloody DVD software (WinDVD) had modified the firmware on my Pioneer DVD player so, as the third screen demonstrates, even reinstalling Windows or swapping the drive wouldn't help. Basically you're allowed to change the region about four times and then that's it; it's locked on the last one.

Fortunately we live in enlightened times camerades and there are many among us who do not like being pushed around thus. Inevitably such dilemmas have happened to somebody else already and a solution is out there on the internet. A Google search soon revealed a source of firmware upgrade for my Pioneer DVD player. As with flashing a BIOS, you've gotta do it properly and follow the instructions carefully, otherwise it could be goodnight Vienna for your hardware.

The third screenshot above shows the result of my flashing the drive from a DOS boot diskette. However flashing your drive with region-free firmware is only part of the solution. There are actually three locations where region settings exist and each needs to be addressed individually:
  • Within the DVD drive firmware
  • Within the Operating System itself
  • Within the software player (e.g. WinDVD, PowerDVD etc.)
To address the latter settings, I managed to procure a copy of the highly recommended DVD Region Killer from which is a great site with heaps of information on Pioneer and other drives. So now I've got me a working DVD player again for no cost and a little effort. More importantly I can give the middle finger to the studio suits in the good ol' US of A.

On a slightly different note, a UK website called Campaign for Digital Rights has some very interesting coverage on music CDs which have been doctored for copy protection. Might make this the basis for a future article..

Say NO to corrupt audio discs
SuperAndy does it again..hurrah!

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