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How to enjoy media in any region

Video tips for travellers and expats

By Thomas C Greene, 28 Apr 2007

Cheap airfares and the so-called "global economy" have got us all travelling internationally like never before, both for business and pleasure.

And whatever the purpose of one's trip, two great joys for the traveller are eating and shopping in foreign places. Most of us eagerly bring home merchandise not available locally. As for me, I often bring back inexpensive items like books and music CDs, both of which travel well. So it's a real pity that DVDs and video cassettes have remained so stubbornly provincial - so much the products of place that they are useless in other regions.

If you travel frequently and shop often for media, you will soon end up with a mixed collection: that is, DVDs involving various video formats and regions, and VHS cassettes in various video formats, all differentiated according to place.

For example, perhaps you travel often to France and want to buy DVDs and cassettes there because you like to watch French movies without subtitles. Or perhaps you travel often to Japan, knowing that much Japanese entertainment is hard to locate at home, and are tempted to buy media during your trip. Depending on where you live, you might have two different obstacles to viewing the movies or TV shows on your television back at home: varying video formats, and DVD region encoding.

First, let's consider the obstacle of video formats: there are three, called PAL, NTSC, and SECAM. These are three different schemes for generating and interpreting the video signals that your TV receives, and they are used variously in different parts of the world. It wasn't a problem in the days when virtually all TV content was broadcast; there was no reason why a television in Mexico should be compatible with a signal broadcast in Switzerland. Nowadays, of course, with so much content available on portable media, format incompatibility is a major irritant.

Unfortunately, there is no standard video format for media, as there really ought to be. Media and equipment both remain unnecessarily xenophobic - a real vestige of the past. If your British television is designed to receive one type of signal (PAL), it will not display French video that was formatted in another (SECAM).

So unless your VCR or DVD player is designed to accept and deliver both types of signal - the type that the media is coded in, and the type that your TV expects to receive - the output will not display correctly. Here is a handy table of video formats by country.

Either you must stick with media, media players, and TVs that are all designed for the same video format and region (and forget about buying media that is not formatted appropriately), or you must obtain multi-format equipment. But how expensive is that going to be, you ask?

Well, it depends. The cheapest solution is to buy a multi-format DVD player, VCR, or combo unit. The multi-format player can read media in one format, and deliver it in the format your TV requires. The good news is that most European DVD players and VHS boxes of recent manufacture can handle at least NTSC and PAL. Typically, SECAM is not a popular option outside France and former French colonies, so if you're buying media in France for viewing elsewhere, you might have to search more diligently for a suitable player, and you will probably pay more for it. But remember, buying even a high-end player is still a lot cheaper than replacing your television.

That's how I approached the problem, anyway. I used to live in the USA, and I've got an assortment of Region 1 DVDs and VHS tapes that I recorded off air. They are all formatted via NTSC, which is standard throughout much of the Americas. Here in Ireland, televisions expect to receive a PAL-formatted signal, which is standard throughout much of Europe. So I needed a device to accept the NTSC signal and provide PAL output.

The solution for me was to spend a little extra on a DVD/VCR combo box that can read NTSC and PAL signals, and deliver the one that I choose. It's an exceptionally compact unit that also can run on any electrical current from 110 to 220 volts, so I can conveniently pack it along with, say, 10 of my favourite DVDs when I travel (business travellers will appreciate the savings in hotel porn that this represents, and the ease of concealing one's indulgences from those who examine their expense forms).

Have TV, will travel

Of course, this does not address the quite different problem of relocating from one video-format region to another and having a TV that's incompatible with the new broadcast and cable signal. This was not an issue for me personally, because I had an older CRT television that wasn't worth the cost of shipping (I moved overseas, not simply from, say, Germany to France, so the shipping cost would have been very high). But that's not going to be the case for everyone. So, can you solve the problem of keeping your old TV and using the broadcast or cable signal in a new region?

Yes, but it's not always going to be easy or cheap. The limitation of relying on a media player for multi-format compatibility is this: unless the player can also be used as a multi-format tuner, your TV might not accept broadcast and cable signals after you move. And it also might not be able to run on the local electrical current when you ship it across a national frontier.

Fortunately, it's possible to get multi-format, multi-voltage televisions, and this is well worth investigating if you plan to buy an expensive TV soon, but might also move internationally in the near future. If you're going to shell out $2,000 to $4,000 on a high-end widescreen unit that might last five years or more, it's a pity to sell it for pennies on the dollar a year later. In that case, you should look for a multi-format TV that can deal with the broadcast and cable signals in your current, and future, locations.

The multi-voltage option is also well worth considering. Because a TV draws a lot of power when it's switched on, you can't use an el-cheapo $25 plug-in voltage converter. You would need a heavy duty one, possibly costing in the neighbourhood of $200 or more. However, if you buy a multi-voltage TV, all you will ever need is a $2 plug adapter. Here is a handy table of voltage standards by country.

As so often happens these days, there's good news for Europeans here, and bad news for Americans. Multi-format, multi-voltage media players and televisions are widely available throughout Europe, if you know enough to look for them. But in the USA, such units are exotic, and unfortunately priced accordingly. It's virtually impossible to buy a multi-format, multi-voltage media player or television in the USA from any mainstream retailer. So this means going to specialty electronics shops where prices are typically exorbitant.

There are several online retailers that you can check out, such as DVDoverseas, 220 Electronics, World Import, Alldual, and Region Free DVD (I haven't shopped at any of them, so this is by no means an endorsement).

Fortunately, in Europe, choosing the right kit is simply a matter of checking the specs sheet and ensuring the equipment's video format and voltage capabilities suit your present and likely future needs. Not surprisingly, the more adaptable equipment tends to be more expensive, but it is available through pretty much any retail outlet, whether online or in your neighbourhood.

Still, you will have to stick with high-end gear if you're looking for a multi-voltage TV capable of handling all (NTSC, PAL, and SECAM) formats. And a multi-voltage combo player capable of serving as a tuner for all three formats is definitely going to cost you, relatively speaking (although this option is still a money-saver if you don't want to spend lavishly on a television).

We control your television set

Now we come to another major irritant, DVD region encoding, or, more precisely, DVD region lockout. The movie industry, in its infinite greed and insatiable lust for control, has decided that it simply must regulate your access to media that you have legally purchased. No, I don't mean they are preventing you from copying their priceless treasures; I mean they will not even let you view them unless you buy the media in your own geographical region. Your DVD player is programmed to reject "foreign" disks. Here is a handy table of DVD regions.

The chief purpose of this abuse is to coordinate the theatrical releases and DVD releases of movies in a way that prevents DVDs from appearing in shops until after the theatrical showing is finished. For example, if a movie's US theatre-run is over and DVDs are available there, but in the UK the movie either hasn't opened or is still in theatres, region lockout discourages UK punters from buying DVDs from, say, Amazon.com. The American disk won't play in the UK machine (well supposedly, about which more below). Brits are thus encouraged to wait patiently until Hollywood decides to release the movie overseas, let it run in theatres, and finally release a DVD compatible with the local equipment.

Another reason, of course, is the American habit of subsidising their failing economy by overcharging foreigners. If an American DVD won't play in a French, German, or British box, you can see the potential here for media price-gouging in "Old Europe".

Indeed, the priceless Hollywood treasure Dreamgirls (Two-Disc "Showstopper Edition") DVD retails for $22.74 at Amazon.com. This same Showstopper sells for £14.98, or $30 at Amazon.co.uk, and may now be pre-ordered pending the movie's failure in UK theatres. Allowing 17.5 per cent VAT, we find that the Showstopper, or the tiny blob of molten plastic worth far less than a penny and formed into a disk worth about 15 cents, runs about $2 more in the UK.

Obviously, a budget-conscious European won't order from Amazon.com, as the shipping would more than consume the savings; but if one is travelling to the USA, scooping up heaps of DVDs, unpacking them, and pretending that they are one's long-owned property on return, can be a real money saver. Especially if one's US destination is within the vast flyover region, where sales taxes are low if they exist at all. But will your cheap American DVDs work for you at home? Well, if you've solved the video format problems outlined previously, all that's left to worry about is DVD region lockout.

Stickin' it to the man

Now, here is some good news, for a change. Region lockout is often painfully easy to defeat. Think about it: these gizmos are manufactured by the tens of millions in gargantuan plants, and then shipped on to different regions. The regional spread of orders to be filled will necessarily fluctuate week by week. So it has got to be easy for the maker to set each device's region after manufacture. And if it's easy for them, it's easy for us. We just have to know how to do it.

You can easily select the region for your DVD player, and thus play DVDs from any other location. You can also switch back to your default region whenever you please. The manufacturers don't advertise the methods for changing regions on a player, but insiders leak the information, and patient empiricists discover it. And a lot of it is available on the web.

You can search for region hacks at free sites such as VideoHelp.com, DVD Reviewer, DVDActive.com, and AskMerlin.org, and also at part-free, part-pay sites such as DVD Exploder.

The old trick of choosing Region 0, or any region, no longer works now that Region Coding Enhancement (RCE) has been introduced. With recent DVDs and players it's necessary for you to choose the correct region for each disk in order to play it. But the hacks are often relatively easy, and this should figure into your shopping strategy. Research the players that interest you first, and be sure to discover whether a hack is already known, and whether it is easy or cumbersome to implement.

Here in Dublin, hacking your DVD player is a courtesy that any retailer will extend with good cheer. It's all in the open; there's no shame of guilt associated with it. Even in the most mainstream department stores and equipment outlet shops, one of the first things a salesperson will do is check to see if a hack exists for a player you might wish to buy. And they will gladly print the instructions for you.

In less enlightened parts of the world, this might be looked at as somewhat seedy, and it might therefore be necessary to go to a seedy shop in a seedy neighbourhood and speak in low tones. Or, just find the hacks online for the players that you are most interested in buying before you go shopping.

Of course, the MPAA hates all this, and probably regards it as something approaching piracy. But piracy is a crime, as it should be. This is not piracy; it's not even close to piracy; it is nothing more than you exercising control over equipment that you own and modifying it to suit your needs. You are doing nothing worse than annoying the media giants. They don't like it, all right. And so what?

Contrary to MPAA propaganda, changing the region on your player is in no way unethical. It might possibly be illegal in some jurisdictions (e.g., the DMCA is so vaguely worded that region hacking might be a violation), but any law that forbids you to tinker with your own property for legal purposes, such as watching a DVD that you bought on equipment that you own, is ridiculous and needs to be flouted flagrantly.

Such laws are a product of political corruption, of legislators in the pockets of entertainment giants, passing regulations written by media corporation lobbyists in order to curry favour with their deep-pocketed Masters. No such law is to be taken seriously, unless there are criminal aspects, or public safety or public interest concerns (such as there are with emissions controls on automobiles, which, for very good reasons, may not be fiddled with). But here, the interests are 100 per cent private and intolerably selfish, so don't feel the merest twinge of guilt in sticking it to the man. He's always eager to reciprocate, after all.

So, just to recap: While a frequent flier obviously needs to know a lot to make a wise media or equipment purchase, we've just sketched out the most important issues a shopper should educate himself about and investigate before buying. It is complicated, but just remember that video formats and DVD regions are two separate problems requiring separate solutions.

Remember also that the video-format problem has two elements, media on the one hand, for which the right player is needed, and cable and broadcast on the other, for which the right tuner is needed. A media player might or might not be able to serve as a multi-format tuner, so be sure to sort out your needs before buying a new player or a new television. ®

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