Playing back Blu-ray or HD DVD requires a lot of computing power. Blu-ray discs (BDs) that uses MPEG-2 (most of the earlier BD releases) will require less CPU cycles, while the BDs/HD DVDs that uses VC-1 or H.264 will stress even the latest CPUs (especially H.264). Then you have your graphics card, which can provide accelerated decoding. And of course, you'll need a Blu-ray or HD DVD drive to be able to read the movie in the first place.
Before we go into detail about what's required, there is actually a tool you can download and run which will test your current system for Blu-ray and HD DVD compatibility. Download and install the CyberLink BD / HD Advisor. Run it and you will be presented with two options - one to test Blu-ray compatibility and another to test HD DVD compatibility. Run the test and you should get the results fairly quickly.
If all of the tests show a "green" light, then you have a very good chance of playing back a Blu-ray or HD DVD movie on your system. The only thing that is slightly misleading might be the CPU test, because it will often return a "yellow light" (needs upgrade) even though the CPU should be fast enough.
The new version of WinDVD, WinDVD 9, also now adds Blu-ray and HD DVD playback. And it also comes with a similar tool called the WinDVD High-Definition Advisor Tool. It is a very similar tool to the CyberLink BD / HD Advisor, except it will test for WinDVD compatibility rather than PowerDVD Ultra compatibility.
We will now go through the individual computer component requirements one by one:
Generally speaking, any dual-core or better part will be good enough. This means Pentium D or Athlon 64 X2 as minimum requirements for acceptable performance. The full list of CPUs that are recommended for PowerDVD Ultra can be found here. A similar list of system requirements for WinDVD 9 Plus Blu-ray can be found here. It is worth noting that with video acceleration (see below), the CPU requirements drop dramatically.
1GB or better is what you need - you might get by on 512MB in Windows XP, but it is not recommended. 2GB or more on Vista is recommended.
This is where things get a bit tricky. There are actually 2 different set of requirements for graphics cards. The first is the most important: HDCP output compatibility. HDCP is a copy protection system designed to protect the digital pathway between your graphics card and your monitor. Both your graphics card and your monitor must support HDCP if you are using a DVI or HDMI connection, in order for a full resolution picture to show up (generally, a HDMI connection includes HDCP support). Otherwise, you have to use a VGA connection path (eg. using a DVI to VGA connector) and have the playback resolution reduced. Notebooks with internal paths are exempt from HDCP. The CyberLink/WinDVD advisor tools should tell you whether you are connected using a HDCP compatible pathway ("Video Connection Type").
PowerDVD Ultra requires fairly new GPUs to be present before it would even run, regardless of HDCP support, VGA output or otherwise. WinDVD is a bit more forgiving, and older cards will run as long as it has full HDCP support through DVI output or if you connect using a VGA cable.
The second requirement is technically optional, but you may find that playback will suffer quite a bit if you don't have it. Decoding acceleration will take some of the load off your CPU and shift it onto your GPU - the CPU usage can decrease from a constant 100% to a more manageable 10 to 30%. ATI cards that have AVIVO HD (ATI Radeon HD 2x00 range) and NVIDIA cards with PureVideo HD will benefit most from the acceleration. Below is a list of cards that is recommended (according to Cyberlink), but we've highlighted our recommended ones (the ones in bold are likely to have HDCP, the ones in underlined come in both HDCP and non-HDCP flavours so you need to check with the manufacturer, and the rest are unlikely to have HDCP except for a few specific models):
Radeon X1600 series
Radeon X1800 series
Radeon X1900 series
Radeon X1950 series
Radeon HD 2000 series
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GeForce 7600 GT
GeForce 7800 GTX 512
GeForce 7900 GS
GeForce 7900 GX2
GeForce 7900 GT
GeForce 7900 GTX
GeForce 7950 GX2
GeForce 7950 GT
GeForce 8500 GT
GeForce 8600 GT
Geforce 8600 GTS
Geforce 8800 GTS
Geforce 8800 GTX
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Intel GMA 3000 Series
Please note that you will still have to satisfy the HDCP requirements even if your card is one of the cards listed above - it is up to the card's manufacturer (not the GPU chipset manufacturer) to put in HDCP hardware, so check your video card's manufacturer's website for more information. Also note that PowerDVD Ultra does not like any ATI cards that are not listed above, even if they offer no difference in playback performance to the minimum listed card - so for those with ATI X800, for example, you will most likely get an error about incompatible graphic drivers in the Cyberlink BD / HD Advisor (and a similar message when you try playback in PowerDVD Ultra).
If your monitor is connected digitally (DVI or HDMI), then you will need to ensure your monitor is HDCP compliant as well. Generally, if you monitor has HDMI inputs, it should support HDCP because HDCP is mandatory for HDMI.
The second requirement for your monitor is the supported resolution. To get the best out of high definition DVD, you need a display that is capable of at least 1920 x 1080 resolution, as this is the native resolution of high definition films. The picture will still look good on monitors that have lower resolutions, but you won't be seeing the full resolution.
The CyberLink BD / HD Advisor does not test your sound device. While you will be able to listen to high definition movies using only a set of stereo speakers or a headphone, to get the best out of it, you need to invest in a 7.1 audio system. A modern HD onboard audio will work fine with 7.1 output, an 7.1 audio card is even better as DSP can be done on the card, as opposed to your CPU.
And of course, you will need to be able to read the Blu-ray and HD DVD discs, and this requires a drive that is capable of at least reading Blu-ray or HD DVD discs. Your DVD-ROM drive will simply not work. One of the cheaper alternatives to buying a dedicated HD DVD drive is to buy the Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on drive. This drive enables HD DVD playback for your Xbox 360, but not only that, it doubles as an external HD DVD/DVD reader drive for your computer (compatible with Windows XP/Vista, and Mac OS if you can find a HD DVD player software for it). You can read our guide on Setting up the Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on drive under Windows XP.