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HOW TO…   REGIONAL CODING

 

The major Hollywood film studios – many owned or controlled by consumer electronics manufacturers -- played a key role in the development of DVD. In order to maintain a tight grip on distribution and release dates the movie industry insisted that DVD players and discs incorporate a system called Regional Coding, to prevent discs sold in one region (also called ‘locales’ or ‘zones’) playing on equipment in another region.

 

There are eight Regions: Region 1 is the US, Canada and US territories, Region 2 covers most of Europe (including the UK), Japan, South Africa, the Middle East and Egypt. Region 3 is Southeast Asia, East Asia and Hong Kong. Region 4 covers Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands, Central America, Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean. Region 5 is Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Indian subcontinent, Africa, North Korea, and Mongolia. Region 6 is China, Region 7 is unallocated and Region 8 covers ‘Special International Venues’, such as aeroplanes and cruise ships.

 

Regional Coding has been an irritant for movie fans since day one, particularly as almost all feature films are released on DVD in the US several months ahead of the UK. In fact Region 1 discs are easy to acquire, by visitors to the US or purchased over the Internet. Initially this led to a healthy trade in imported players however various means were developed of hacking or ‘chipping’ European players, by modifying their electronic circuitry, though this invariably voided the manufacturer’s warranty.

 

More recently a lot of players, in particular many models built in China, can be ‘firmware’ hacked, allowing the Regional Coding to be changed or disabled (‘all-region’ playback), by tapping a simple code into the player’s remote handset. An example is the popular Bush DVD-2002, where the user simply presses Open, 7, 7 and Enter, then the number for the Region they want to watch. The Wharfedale DVD-750s is equally straightforward; with the disc tray open the code is 0, 7, 5, 0, followed by the region number. Although manufacturers rarely mention this in the operating manual it is freely available on the Internet, from sites such as

http://www.planet-dvd.ch/english.htm and http://www.dvdscene.co.uk/regionhacks/

 

Regional Coding has become less of an issue and more than 2000 Region 2 titles are now available in the UK. Nevertheless, considerable effort is still being put into strengthening regional coding resulting in the development of Regional Coding Enhancement or RCE. Many recently released Region 1 discs now contain RCE data and they may not work on players set to all-region playback. This is likely to cause major problems for owners of hardware hacked or ‘chipped’ players, however players that can be switched between Regions – which includes most firmware hackable machines – should still play R1 discs by switching them to the appropriate Region.

 

Owning a chipped or firmware switchable player won’t necessarily allow you to watch R1 discs on your TV though. Some players do not have the facility to convert a 525-line NTSC picture signal into a form that can be displayed on a European 625-line PAL television; the picture will probably be in black and white, or too unstable to watch. Fortunately many DVD players have a ‘PAL 60’ video output (when playing NTSC discs), and a growing number of TVs can display both PAL and NTSC pictures. Even so, if you are interested in R1 playback it’s wise to check the capabilities of your TV, especially if you are considering buying a chipped machine or paying to have your own player modified. Incidentally hacking a player, by whatever means and buying Region 1 discs for personal use is not illegal.

 

If you have a PC with an Internet connection buying Region 1 discs couldn’t be easier, thought there are pitfalls to avoid. You should stick to US and Canadian sites with a good track record of shipping goods to the UK. Be aware that if the value of your order exceeds £18 you may be charged import duty (3.8%) and VAT (17.5%) by UK Customs & Excise. Some retailers are helpful in this respect, by not including shipping charges in the overall cost, or offering free carriage, allowing you to buy two discs, without breaching the £18 limit. Don’t be tempted to buy on price, the cheaper sites may ship your order by surface mail or slow (i.e. cheap) courier services which can take several weeks to deliver and by the time it arrives the movie may have been released in the UK. US and Canadian retail sites worth investigating include:

www.amazon.com

www.dv-depot.com

www.dvdboxoffice.com

and there’s a useful list of companies selling R1discs at:

www.pvv.ntnu.no/~sao/DVD/

GETTING STARTED – DIGITAL TV

1. SERVICES

Digital TV is starting to happen, it’s not a passing fad, it’s not going to go away and in less than ten years -- maybe a lot sooner – the current analogue TV channels will be switched off. That doesn’t mean your existing television set will become obsolete. Providing it’s not more than four or five years old and has at least one SCART AV connector socket on the back you can go on using it until it keels over and dies. If you want to go on watching broadcast TV after the analogue TV switch-off you will need to plug a digital set-top decoder into your TV, or buy an integrated digital TV, with a built-in decoder.

 

There are two digital TV (DTV) services operating in the UK: land based or terrestrial broadcasts from ONDigital, which can be picked up through an existing TV aerial, provided you are in a coverage area. The alternative is the digital satellite service from BSKYB, and for that you will need a small dish on the side of your house. The signals are coming from space so coverage is generally very good and they reach parts of Britain – isolated hilly or mountainous areas -- where TV reception has not been possible in the past.

 

Both services offer a very large number of channels, both free to view and subscription, including the main terrestrial channels, but there are a couple of provisos. However you get your TV you still have to pay the standard licence fee, and second, ITV is in a long-running dispute with BSKYB so at the moment the digital satellite free-to-view channel line-up includes BBC1, BBC2, C4 & C5 but not ITV. It’s a crazy situation but the signs are hopeful that it will be resolved soon.

 

2. PRACTICALITIES

Digital set-top boxes are the cheapest and most convenient route into digital television. ONDigital and BSKYB are virtually giving them away in the hope you will sign up for subscription services and stay with them. You don’t have to subscribe if you only want to watch the main broadcast channels, but you may find that you have to pay more for the box and you may end up with higher installation costs and connection charges. The cheapest subscription deals are currently around £10 a month for a basic package of extra channels.

 

Integrated digital TVs (IDTVs) are not especially good value, or the most flexible option, at the moment at least. IDTVs are not being subsidised to anything like the same extent as set-top boxes, and most TV manufacturers have opted to back one service or the other, i.e. the set will only pick up satellite or terrestrial digital channels. In theory all new IDTVs can be fitted with plug-in modules that will allow them to receive the alternate digital channels but be warned that this is still work in progress. Going down the IDTV route may make it difficult or impossible to upgrade your decoder for new services, as and when they become available, and having the decoder inside the TV also makes things like time-shift recording more difficult. The only real advantage is the high level of integration – one remote control works everything  -- and it’s one less box to clutter your living room.

 

If you want to buy a big-screen or widescreen TV go ahead, make the choice on the basis of the features and facilities you want, and the price you are prepared to pay. If you want digital TV, save yourself a few bob and get a subsidised set-top box now, or wait for a year or so for the situation to sort itself out.

 

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Ó R. Maybury 2000, 1912

 

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