Monday, June 23, 2008

Blu Ray Hardware/Software for your Home Theatre PC

One of the key pieces of your home theatre PC (HTPC) if you plan on experiencing high definition audio and video is the Blu Ray drive and the software that drives it. At the moment, there are many Blu Ray drives for the PC with a wide range of prices. This article lists out some of the commonly available Blu Ray drives for your PC and also takes a look at the software available to play Blu Ray discs.

Blu Ray Hardware

  • Lite On Blu Ray ROM Drive (DH-4O1S-11): This is the Blu Ray drive that powers my HTPC. I was able to get one at my local Fry's for about $100 on sale. These retail between $130 and $180 at most online retailers. For its price, this is an excellent Blu Ray drive and effortlessly plays all Blu Ray discs that I have thrown at it so far. This is a SATA drive, which means less messy cabling inside and plays Blu Ray discs at 4x speed. This is a relatively quiet drive which means it doesn't detract from your home theatre experience. It comes with a default black bezel which can be replaced with an included silver front bezel if you so choose. The software that is bundled with this drive is the PowerDVD OEM version. This version of PowerDVD will play Blu Ray discs with one small problem: the OEM version will only output 2 channel stereo sound. So you cannot hear any of the high definition Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio formats which really sucks. To upgrade to the version of PowerDVD that supports the high definition audio format, you need to shell out about $80 which in my opinion is a rip off. Back to the drive, please note that this is a BD-ROM only which means you cannot write Blu Ray discs, neither can you write CDs or DVDs. This drive has an internal 8 MB cache and CD's are read at 32x and DVD's at 12x speeds.

  • LG Blu-Ray/HD-DVD ROM Drive (GGC-H20L): This drive can read both Blu Ray and the now obselete HD-DVD discs. This drive can only read Blu Ray and HD-DVD discs but also has the capability to read and write CD/DVD's. The drive like the Lite-On drive above connects via SATA. This drive can write in dual-layer mode which means that you will be able to write 8.5 GB of data to one dual-layer DVD. This drive can read CD's at 40x speed, DVD+R/DVD-R at 16x speed and DVD+RW at 8x speed. LightScribe technology available in this drive allows you to burn images of your custom art-work directly on media that supports LightScribe.

Blu Ray Software

  • PowerDVD: This is the software that came bundled with my Lite-On drive. It has a very slick interface and works quite well. My only gripe is that the OEM version bundled with my drive only plays audio in 2 channel stereo mode, which means that I can only hear audio from my Blu Ray discs in stereo. To get access to the high definition audio formats, you will need to upgrade to the retail version which will cost you between $80-$90 extra.
  • ArcSoft TotalMedia™ Theatre: This is another software that can play Blu Ray discs. It costs $90 and includes support for Dolby Digital, DTS-HD Master Audio formats.
  • AnyDVD HD: This software has full support for Blu Ray and HD-DVD discs including decryption of Blu Ray and HD-DVD movies. This software also costs between $80 and $90.

ASUS/Auzentech HDMI 1.3 Audio Card Review

My current project is building a home theatre PC system. I have most of the pieces in place with one exception. I currently do not have any way to output Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio encoded in Blu Ray movies directly from my PC via HDMI to my receiver. However it seems that companies are looking to address this area - two companies Asus and Auzentech have products aimed squarely at this market. Keep in mind that these are first generation products and are not yet available for purchase and may be very expensive when they are eventually available and may have bugs that need to be ironed out. Nevertheless, the fact that these products are making an entry means that over time these products will get cheaper and more reliable and who knows even be integrated directly into motherboards. For now we have to be content with drooling over these bleeding edge audio products; let's take a quick tour of the two offerings at hand:

  • Asus Xonar HDAV1.3: The Asus product is an integrated HDMI 1.3a compliant audio/video card. This card is basically an onboard graphics processor and has the capability to output lossless high definition audio and video from Blu Ray discs via a single HDMI cable. This card can decode and output Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master audio from your Blu Ray discs. The main advantage of this card is that it is Protected Audio Playback Systems (PAPS) and Advanced Access Content System (AACS) certified which allows it to pipe the high definition audio directly to your receiver via HDMI. Your receiver needs to be HDMI 1.3a compliant and must have the ability to decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master in order for this to work. The simplification that this card allows by having a single HDMI cable transfer both your high definition audio and video makes it a must have for serious home theatre PC enthusiasts. However as we mentioned, this is a first generation card and will be bound to be super expensive. It might be worth waiting and watching for more of these products to hit the market.

  • Auzen X-Fi HomeTheater 7.1: This product is from a relatively unknown company, however this card uses the rock solid Creative PCI Express X-Fi audio processor at its core. The Auzen X-Fi HomeTheater 7.1 accepts video from either an internal or external connection, mixes it with digital audio, and outputs the combined video and lossless multichannel audio via a single HDMI™ 1.3 port. Similar to the ASUS card above, this card allows you to get access to lossless digital audio formats such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio from your Blu Ray disc. The main difference between this card and the Asus card is that the Asus card is also a graphics processor, whereas this card will mix video provided from an external or internal connection with audio and combine both into a single signal transmitted via HDMI.