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Technology Untangled: Make sure Windows 8.1 computer can play DVD movies

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technology-bourImagine this scenario: You are presenting a big case in court using your new computer with Windows 8.1. The PowerPoint presentation for your opening argument is smooth and persuasive. Soon it is time for the video deposition of your star witness, a prominent surgeon with a compelling expert opinion. You pop the DVD into your new computer and get ready to press play ... and nothing happens. Odd. In every laptop you have ever owned that included a DVD drive, the autoplay function has launched the DVD player software, typically Windows Media Player. No problem. You can open Windows Media Player manually and navigate to the appropriate drive letter. Still the DVD presentation will not launch. You right click on the DVD drive and try every option you can think of, but no luck. Slight panic. As a few beads of sweat appear on your brow, you ask, “Can we have a recess, your honor?”

So what went wrong? A bad disc? No. The surprising fact is that Microsoft does NOT include DVD player software as a standard feature of Windows 8.1! Today’s article serves as both a caution and as an explanation about this DVD player issue. We will also provide several solutions – one of them free – to correct this situation.

One point of clarification: Computers with DVD drives will in fact play all DVD data discs, as well as many computer-specific video formats such as MPEG-1, .WMV and .MP4. The issue of this article is strictly about the problem of playing DVD movies, such as those rented from Redbox, or for deposition DVDs formatted for standard home DVD players.

This issue recently came to light when a court reporter I work with asked me to provide her a copy of the DVD from a video deposition so she could finish work on the companion transcript. She could not get the disc to play, and neither could I. I went through all the troubleshooting steps I could think of, to no avail. Finally, some Internet research revealed the problem.

Windows no longer includes DVD player functionality because, according to the wizards at Microsoft, few people use the DVD player feature of computers anymore. Streaming-video applications like Netflix and YouTube have supplanted the use of DVDs.

Technology changes quickly. It does not seem like that long ago when you would choose to upgrade to a DVD drive in a laptop instead of just a CD drive because it provided the added utility of playback of DVD movies. Now we are told no one needs that. Tell that to the attorney in my opening scenario.

The more likely reason is a simple one: cost. There is a royalty fee required to include the video decoding software required to play DVD movies. That MPEG-2 decoder costs $2 per computer. If Windows chose to include the decoder in the base version of Windows 8.1, it would have to pay that royalty for every computer, whether the computer included DVD drive hardware or not! Many of the new minimalist computers do not include a DVD drive, so Microsoft eliminated the decoder across the board. Apparently, those savings add up when you are selling tens of millions of Windows PCs.

The Microsoft solution? If you do in fact need to play DVD movies, you can download (and pay for) the feature ... for a mere $99. You can add Windows Media Center by navigating to the Control Panel, and clicking on “Add Features to Windows 8.1.” This Media Center feature does not, however, integrate DVD playback back into Windows Media Player. It provides a separate, stand-alone player utility.

So with that being the case, why not look at other less expensive add-ons? There are other compatible third-party software options available. Two of the best are Cyber Link PowerDVD and RealPlayer Plus. They are each $49. You can Google these names to find the download sites. I also checked on off-the-shelf computers at the local office store and found that some of them now in fact come pre-loaded with PowerDVD. Others, such as my Acer, include their own brand of DVD player software. Alternatively, for the $99 Microsoft wants, a better solution and a better value might be to buy an external USB DVD drive that also includes DVD player software. But be cautious and shop carefully. The first drive I investigated from Memorex did come with DVD player software, but it was only compatible with Windows 7 and below.

I finally discovered one free DVD player called VLC media player. You can download it from www.videolan.org. This may be a case of “you get what you pay for,” but so far, my testing finds it is functional.

The main point is to verify that your new Windows 8.1 computer does in fact include some sort of DVD movie player software before you stroll into court or before you take the computer off on summer vacation with the kids.•

__________

Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.

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