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FEATURE

 

A BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO REGIONAL CODING

 

INTRO

Regional coding has become the bogeyman of DVD; HE takes a close look at its origins, how it works and where it's going…

 

COPY

Contrary to what you may have heard or read regional coding on DVDs wasn't contrived specifically to annoy movie fans, it's not a threat to democracy and there's nothing particularly sinister about its implementation, it's all about simple economics. Time for a brief (promise…) history lesson…

 

Movie making is an incredibly expensive business and a fair proportion of the cost is tied up in duplicating the prints that are distributed to cinemas. With several hundred thousand cinemas around the world it would be almost impossible to simultaneously release a movie in every country (at the moment anyway, we'll come back to that later…). Since most movies are made in the US – at least the one's that are likely to be seen by a worldwide audience – American cinemas get first dibs on the prints, after that they are sent out to other countries. This is a time honoured process and it can take as long as six months between a movie premiering in the US and it being shown for the first time in some of the more out of the way places, however the point is that all the time those prints are earning money from box office receipts.

 

The VCR threatened to upset the applecart and since the early 1980s movies routinely went to video (and later Laserdisc) in the US three to six months after the cinematic release. This meant that in theory a movie could be seen on video in some countries well before or very soon after it was shown in local movie theatres. Clearly this could have had a very damaging effect on cinema attendance and the Hollywood studio's all-important bottom line.

 

In practice it proved not to be such a big problem. Differences in the TV and video standards between the US and Europe meant that tapes made in the US would not play on most European VCRs and Laserdisc players and remember, this was long before the Internet took off so it was comparatively difficult for the average Joe to buy movies direct from the US. In the UK a few speciality shops imported US movies on tape and disc but it was a relatively small-scale affair and pirating was never the threat a lot of people feared as the quality of knock-off tapes was usually so poor.  

 

Whilst VCRs and Laserdisc proved to be only a relatively minor irritant to the movie industry's grand distribution plan, the prospect of DVD scared the pants off the Hollywood moguls and bean counters.

 

Ironically the idea for 'movies on a CD' was first mooted by a film industry committee in 1994 and it provided the catalyst for the consumer electronics industry to push ahead and develop a high quality digital disc-based storage system for video. By early 1995 two consortia had developed viable products, largely based on existing optical disc technologies.

 

Within a few weeks of each other the Philips-Sony joint venture had showed its Multimedia CD (MMCD) format and Toshiba and Warner demonstrated its Super Density (SD) System. After a brief tussle the two groups came together and settled on a unified format in late 1995 and DVD as we now know it was born. The key technical specifications were agreed in September 1996 but throughout the ratification process representatives from the Hollywood studios, were expressing concern about copy protection and, what we now refer to as regional coding.

 

Everyone involved knew that without Hollywood's support DVD would be a dead duck so not surprisingly in October 1996 an agreement between the movie studios and the manufacturers over digital copy protection and regional coding was reached. In fact it was a foregone conclusion since by that time Japanese consumer electronics companies had a significant stake in American film industry.

 

HOW IT WORKS

A lot of myths, legends and conspiracy theories have grown up around Regional Coding and it's not hard to see why. For obvious reasons it's not something movie-makers and DVD player manufacturers like to talk about and the technology is shrouded in a digital mist of bits and bytes that confuses the hell out of most people, but we'll try and make some sense of it. Firstly Regional Coding has nothing to do with scrambling or encryption, it's a simple code or 'flag', (made up of a group of six 'bits', since you ask) recorded in the 'lead-in' area at the start of a disc that the player reads as soon as the disc is loaded. This code simply tells the player whether or not it is allowed to play the disc.

 

At this point it's also worth laying to rest a couple of other rumours. Region Codes on discs are not time sensitive, the coding is permanent and discs won't mysteriously unlock on a particular date or after a certain time. (This story was rife at the time of the launch of an ill-fated DVD-based sub-format called Divx a couple of years ago). Regional coding also has nothing to do with TV standards this is an entirely separate issue. Although the information on a DVD is stored as digital data it is configured for local TV systems. All you need to know is that almost all DVD players sold in the UK -- which uses the PAL TV system -- will play American and Japanese NTSC discs – providing the Region Code matches. Most players convert the NTSC signal into what's known as a Pseudo PAL video signal (also known as PAL 60), which most modern TVs can display. Some players also output a 'raw' NTSC' signal but this can only be viewed on 'multi-standard' TVs and video displays.

 

So now it's time to meet the regions, which you may also see referred to as 'Zones' or 'Locales'. Incidentally the region codes on discs and players can be identified by a little 'world' icon with a number in the middle. There are actually 8 regions though you are only ever likely to come across six of them, they are: 

 

Region 1 -- US, Canada and US territories

Region 2 -- most of Europe (including the UK), Japan, South Africa, the Middle East and Egypt

Region 3 -- Southeast Asia, East Asia and Hong Kong

Region 4 -- Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands, Central America, Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean

Region 5 -- Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Indian subcontinent, Africa, North Korea, and Mongolia

Region 6 – China

Region 7 – presently unallocated

Region 8 -- Special international venues, such as aeroplanes and cruise ships

 

Note that there is no such thing as Region 0, that's another urban myth; there is such a thing as 'All Region' playback, however, which basically means a disc will play on any DVD player, anywhere in the world.

 

As you doubtless know most players can be modified by various means to enable them to play discs from other regions, or the region lock can be disabled altogether. This practice, which incidentally is not illegal, set the alarms bells ringing once again in Hollywood. This time, with US Region 1 DVDs readily available through the Internet there was perceived to be a real threat to the movie industry's carefully formulated distribution system, so cue a new twist in the Regional Coding story, called RCE.

 

RCE stands for Region Code Enhancement a trick that can stop some Region 1 discs playing on some Region 2 (and regions 3, to 6) players. RCE was first introduced in October 2000 by Warner and Columbia and like it or not, it's a very clever idea. It works like this. The code on the disc tells the player to check whether it is set for single region playback – as is required under the terms of the DVD licensing agreements. If the player detects that it is set to all region playback, or any region other than Region 1 the disc will not play. A message usually appears on the screen saying something to the effect that the disc is okay, the player may have been altered and is therefore incompatible with the disc, and it usually rounds off by apologising for the inconvenience…

 

Naturally enough this has been like a red rag to a bull for many movie fans and it posed a challenge – albeit only briefly – for the army of hackers and crackers determined to fight for a region-free world. It soon emerged that RCE only affected players set to all region playback, and then not all of them, moreover it could be easily side-stepped by switching the player to Region 1 only playback and some players let you play the disc anyway, if you know which buttons to press. Rumours of an even more powerful RCE type coding system have yet to materialize.

 

It seems very unlikely that regional coding will go away, at least not in the short term, though developments elsewhere in the movie industry could one day render it obsolete. The only reason it exists is to allow the big studios to control the timing movie distribution but within the next ten years there is a strong possibility that movies will be digitally encoded and distributed to cinemas via satellite and high-speed data links thus cutting out the need for costly prints and the staggered release of new movies, so there will be no need for regional coding any more. Well, that's the theory…

 

BOX COPY 1 – THE BASICS

 

One of the more irritating aspects of regional coding – from the consumer’s point of view -- is that it seems to be down to the luck of the draw whether or not a particular player can be ‘hacked’. The only certainty is that you can’t unlock machines made by either Panasonic or Sony who, as founding members of the DVD Forum must be seen to maintain the rules, but other core members of the Forum, notably JVC and Hitachi, and big name brands like Akai, Grundig, Philips, Sanyo, Thomson and so on, appear to take a more relaxed view and market players with ‘hackable’ locks.

 

A similar situation exists with the anti-copy system Macrovision. This is part of the DVD spec and all players must be equipped with a Macrovision chip that puts a spoiler signal onto the analogue video output. TVs ignore the signal but it confuses the hell out of VCRs and tape copies of DVDs usually have wildly fluctuating brightness and colour. However, on some players Macrovision can be disabled from a hidden menu or simple handset hack, but there’s no way of telling form the outside which machines are affected.

 

Nevertheless, there are a couple of fairly reliable clues to a player’s hackability and they are the make and model of the decoder chipset -- used to turn the digital data on a DVD into pictures and sound -- and the country of manufacture. Only around half a dozen companies manufacture DVD decoder chips and for reasons of economy and logistics most are designed to be set to a specific region by the player manufacturer. On some chips the country code can be permanently locked or ‘burned’ into the chip, and these ‘hard-coded’ players can only be persuaded to play Region 1 discs by being ‘chipped’, on the rest the region code can be changed from a hidden ‘service menu’ or by entering a simple code.

 

Since it is highly unlikely that most dealers will willingly open up a player to let potential buyers poke around inside the country of origin remains the best guide. To date almost all of the players that can be handset-hacked are made in China, and it is no coincidence that those well-known brands mentioned a moment ago also happen to source some of their players from Chinese factories.

 

Despite threats from the DVD Forum to withdraw manufacturing licences the supply of hackable and all-region enabled players is unlikely to dry up and if push came to shove there’s little doubt rogue factories would simply produce unlicensed ‘compatible’ players. The movie industry, which insisted on Regional Coding being included in the DVD specification in the first place, has also attempted to plug the dyke by modifying the data on regionally coded discs.

 

Region Code Enhancement or RCE is a clever tweak that prevents Region 1 DVDs playing on equipment modified for all-region playback, however all the user has to do to defeat RCE coding is to switch their players to Region 1 playback only and on other players there are simple workarounds that will allows discs to play. There’s plenty of up to date information on the Internet and for the latest news, lists of RCE coded discs and tips and tricks to get your player to play have a look at: http://www.dvdtalk.com/rce.html

 

 

BOX COPY 2 – WHY THE MYSTERY?

 

You are unlikely to find the unlock code for a player from a well-known brand in the instruction manual – that would not go down very well with the DVD Forum – but the procedure is normally available from sites on the Internet, often within hours or days of a player hitting the market. Obviously an A or B brand manufacturer could never tout a hackable region lock as a selling point but a cynic might surmise that if that information did somehow become available it certainly wouldn’t hurt sales… 

 

There are other reasons for keeping unlock codes secret, on some machines the option is on a service menu that may also contain critical configuration settings and fiddling with them can kill some players stone dead. However, in the majority of cases changing the region code does no harm whatsoever. It’s also worth pointing out that it’s not illegal – what you do with your electronic apparatus in the privacy of your own home is your business – nor is it likely to infringe the manufacturer’s warranty as no physical changes are made to the machine. However it’s probably not a bad idea to reset the machine to its original setting, if it has to be returned for repair…

 

 

BOX COPY 3 – POPULAR HACKS

 

Please note that these ‘hacks’ are not officially approved by manufacturers or anyone for that matter; you try them entirely at your own risk and we accept no responsibility if your player turns into a smouldering pile of junk!

 

 

BUSH DVD-2002

Press Open, 7, Enter, Enter on handset

Service menu appears with Region code selection, 13 for all region

 

 

BUSH DVD-2004

Open drive tray

Press 2001, player now multi-region

 

 

GRUNDIG GDV-200/210

Open disc tray

Insert R1 disc, leave tray open

On the handset press 123 Play

 

 

HARMON KARDON DVD-10

Switch on, wait for ‘No Disc’ in display

Press 3141592 on handset

Enter region number (1 – 9)

Press Standby, wait 5 seconds, switch on

 

 

HITACHI DV-P315/515

Press and hold Play and Stop buttons on player

Language selection menu appears, choose English

Press Repeat on handset

Enter 3 8767, current region code appears on screen

Press region number (1 to 6 or 9 for all-region playback)

Press Open then Standby on the remote

N.B. To change back from R1 to R2 substitute code 29334

 

 

JVC XV-2000

Switch off, wait 5 seconds

Press and hold DVD Menu and On Screen buttons, switch on, release buttons

Press Standby ‘Test 2’ appears in display

Press DVD Menu twice

Display reads 000 5858

Use cursor up/down to change 000 to 02E

Use cursor left/right to change 5858 to 0000 (region free), 0101 (R1), 0202 (R2), 0303 (R3) and so on

Press Enter then Standby, wait 5 seconds, switch on.

 

 

LECSON DVD 900

Open tray, press Zoom, A-B, Up, Left, Down, Right

'Region Free’ appears on screen.

To switch to a specific region press Open/Close, 1, 1, 1, 1

Press region number (1-9)

 

 

LG DVD-3350E 

Switch on Press Pause, then 314159

Enter region number (1 –9 or 0 for All region)

Press Pause

Switch player off, wait 10 seconds, switch on

 

 

NAKAMICHI DVD 10

Switch off, press and hold Dimmer and Reverse Skip on front panel

Press Power on, display shows ‘Nakamichi’

Keep buttons pressed and display and changes to ‘-------‘

Press 1999, display shows A-00 D-02 (02 indicates region number)

Enter new region code (i.e.  01, 02, 03 etc.)

Press Enter on handset, display changes to new region number

Switch off, wait 5 seconds, switch on

 

 

NAKAMICH SOUNDSPACE 10/11/21

Switch off, press and hold Track Down on player

Switch on, keep button held until ‘------‘ appears

Release button press 1010 Enter

Display shows D-00, player now region free

 

 

PHILIPS DVD 612

Buy/get hold of OneForAll 6 (model URC 7650) universal remote

Use setup code 0539

Press the DVD button then the Magic button

Press 085, front panel displays ‘--------‘

Using player remote enter code 222 222 005 255

Press Play, display shows 'No Disc'

Switch off, wait 10 seconds, switch on

 

 

SAMSUNG SV-DVD1 (DVD/VHS Combo)

Switch on, press and hold FF and Pause buttons on player

Language menu appears, release buttons

Select English, press Setup then Repeat on handset

Enter 3 8767, current region code appears on screen

Press region number (1 to 6 or 9 for all-region playback)

Press Open then Standby on the remote

N.B. To change back from R1 to R2 substitute code 29334

 

 

THOMSON 28WT25 Combi TV/DVD

Open disc tray, insert disc

Press and hold Eject, Forward Search and OK on front panel

Onscreen display flashes and tray closes

Release buttons

 

 

WHARFDALE M5

Press Setup, 62836

Factory menu appears, select region number or 'All'

 

 

WHARFDALE DVD-750S

Open tray, press Step, Previous, Next, Region Free appears on screen

To preset a region open tray, press 0750

Enter region number

Close drawer, switch off, wait 5 seconds, switch on

 

 

---end---

 

Ó R. Maybury 2001, 0608

 

 

 

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