Wrestling with DVD region coding

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Reader Yati K. faces a disc-based conundrum in the near future. Said Yati writes:

I’m about to move to South Africa, and I have a small-yet-precious DVD collection that I’d like to take with me. Since I purchased them for use in the U.S., they’re in the NTSC format, and not the PAL format that TVs/VCRs/DVD players use in other countries, like South Africa. I’m on the verge of purchasing a MacBook Pro, and I know that I’ll be able to play the NTSC- DVDs I already own on my Mac, but I was wondering if you had any idea if the DVD Player application (or, more importantly, SuperDrives themselves) support PAL-formatted DVDs, as I may want to purchase some once I am there.

Your MacBook Pro will be able to play both PAL and NTSC discs, so on that front, you’re set. Where you’re going to run into trouble is with region coding. It’s like this:

Thanks to pressures from the motion picture industry, commercial DVDs are flagged with their region of origin. The majority of DVD players are likewise region protected. For example, DVDs sold in the U.S. are Region 1 flagged. When first inserting one of these discs into your future MacBook Pro, you’ll be told that you need to set the drive’s region coding to the same code as the disc. Do that and the region code is set to Region 1. You’re allowed to change the drive’s region five times—you do so simply by putting a disc with a different code into the drive and playing it. After that, the drive is locked to the last-used region.

The discs you purchase in South Africa will be Region 2 discs. When you try to play one, you’ll be prompted to change regions and you’ll lose one of your five opportunities to switch regions. Play a Region 1 disc and you have to switch regions yet again and lose another switch.

In the old days this wasn’t a terrible problem as there were a couple of easy workarounds. One was to use VLC (VideoLAN), a media player that, unlike Apple’s DVD Player application, cares not a whit for regions. The difficulty is that the region-free stuff in VLC doesn’t work with the Matsushita drives found in most of today’s Macs. Region coding information is locked in firmware and these drives refuse to discuss region coding with VLC.

And, unlike with some earlier SuperDrives, it’s no easy matter to strip region coding from these Matsushita drives. (And, just as with any drives packaged with the Mac, stripping region coding mucks with the drive’s firmware, thus possibly threatening the integrity of the drive and assuredly voiding its warranty).

That leaves you with two less-than-optimal solutions. The first is that you can try ripping your discs with Handbrake or Mac The Ripper. This turns the movies on your DVDs into standard movie files untainted by any kind of region information. What makes this a less-than-optimal solution is that the copy protection on some discs makes them impossible to rip. Also, ripped movies can take up a lot of storage space that you might wish to devote to more important files.

The other solution is to purchase an external Firewire or USB DVD drive and play Region 1 discs in one drive and Region 2 in the other. This suggestion earns weak praise because it will cost you something and it’s inconvenient to lug around another piece of gear.

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