February 15, 2021 | In the showdown between software
and hardware DVD decoding, software has taken a commanding lead,
despite its flaws, according to DVD experts. Early on, there
were a number of integration issues with hardware players, notes
Blaine Graboyes, founder and creative director of Zuma Digital.
For example, the Toshiba Tecra-a first-generation DVD laptop
that used software decoding-flashed a bright magenta before
playing, due to an initialization issue with Direct Show, he
says. "Processor speed seemed to be the key," he says. "I think
Intel pushed software hard so they could sell more and faster
processors to OEMs and then consumers." Quality issues still
exist, even at the high end of software decoding, generally
jumping and stuttering at random moments, he says, adding, "It
would take some wicked advanced testing to figure out if the
issue was software, hardware, encoding, authoring, disc issues,
Zuma uses software decoding on all demo and sales systems
(powerDVD on Dell Inspirons, HP OmniBooks, and Compaq Presarios).
"We rarely get anything other than jaws dropping at the quality,"
Graboyes notes. "Once in a while some picky guy will say, 'hey
it stutters,' or whatever, but generally people are so impressed
with PC DVD quality, they do not even notice or care about the
Zuma sells a software product called ActiveDVD that includes
DVD in PowerPoint. Zuma recommends the use of PowerDVD, a 650MHz+
machine, with 128MB RAM, 8MB VRAM, and a 4X or higher DVD drive.
Although software decoding will work at 400mHz, Graboyes says,
he considers 650mHz a more realistic baseline for quality playback.
Graboyes recommends Dell systems, because they seem to be rugged,
and the company has good support. "One of the big issues we
find is software support on OEMs' Web sites," he says. "If you
cannot tweak the latest and greatest drivers, then software
playback will suffer greatly."
The benefits of hardware versus software decoding solutions
depend on the target audience and application, according to
Michael Ory, director of digital services at Crush Digital Video.
He considers the ability to output the signal to an NTSC monitor
to be one of the major benefits of hardware decoding. "Hardware
decoding is also non-CPU-dependent, which means it can work
on lower-end computers and/or when you have a CPU intensive
application which is running along with your DVD decoder," Ory
says. "Software decoders require the majority of the CPU load
in order to display smoothly."
He points to compatibility with DirectX drivers as the biggest
plus with software decoders. "This gives you the most flexibility
and power to embed DVD video into other applications such as
HTML browsers, PowerPoint, Director, or custom software," Ory
says. In his experience, Pentium II, 500mHz is the minimum speed
required for software decoding to work correctly. Chris Armbrust
of Marin Digital says computer requirements depend on your needs.
"If you really want to use your computer when watching a DVD,
get a hardware decoder," he says. "Otherwise, the software decoder
on the Pentium II/III 300+mHz machines is very workable."
The other factor that goes into whether a software decoder
will work is the bit rate of the encode. "We have created DVD
titles that worked with 250mhz Pentium IIs," Armbrust says.
"We had to encode at 3mbps, but it looked good and played back
just fine." With Windows, system operation is sluggish but still
works when a DVD is going, Armbrust says; and with Mac OS, you
usually only have one thing going at a time anyway. His company
mainly works with clients whose projects are running from DVD-R,
and he recommends at least a 300+mHz Pentium II under Windows
98, NT, or Win2k. He says Mac OS 9+ with DVD Player 2.1 seems
to work fine as long as it's a G3 with a minimum speed of 300mHz.
According to Armbrust, DVD-ROM drives are improving but too
many still have problems with DVD-R (particularly the 4.7GB
version). "As far as specific hardware, I actually tell people
to try to get a Sony or a Pioneer drive," he adds. "Pioneer
DVD-ROM drives work with DVD-R and they are widely OEM'd. Others
may work, but I know that these two will not cause problems."
From a system integrator's perspective, software decoding
is preferable, because it's less expensive and offers greater
flexibility, says Mike Evangelist, Apple's senior DVD product
line manager. "Everybody always wanted to use software, but
it wasn't practical" with slower processors, he says. "Now,
DVD decoding in Apple computers is primarily software-based,
but hardware is used to speed the display of video, Evangelist
explains. "When cost is no object, and people don't have to
worry about taking up slots, then in some sense hardware is
better," he says.
Since software decoding relies on the main CPU, playback can
be affected if another program is running, but users aren't
usually doing anything else when watching DVDs, Evangelist says.
The authoring professionals agree that the rise of software
decoding is a big positive for the desktop DVD market. "Software
decoders are easier to write customized software for, so the
quality of software which is DVD-enabled should grow rapidly,"
Ory predicts. "Of course, the negative aspect is that people
who have older, slower machines and try to watch DVD may be
turned off by the poor playback quality. However, any machine
sold today easily has enough horsepower to display DVD flawlessly
with software decoding."