Improved software and drivers, and a new generation of high-definition-assisting graphics cards, allow nearly any PC to play HD movies. ATI and nVidia have added VC1/AVC/h.264 decoding and other HD-assisting features to their latest graphics products.
ATI's Radeon HD 2600 and nVidia's GeForce 8400GS, which cost a mere $90 each on the street, do a fine job of offloading high-def chores. For better gaming performance and additional video-processing features, spend a few dollars more for ATI's Radeon HD 2900 (about $300 online) or nVidia's GeForce 8500GT ($100 or so online) or 8600GT (about $120 online). Many graphics cards that tout their support for HD don't completely offload the decoding chores. At this writing, only the cards mentioned above fully offload video processing--using ATI's Universal Video Decoder and nVidia's VP2, respectively. ATI's entry-level Radeon HD 2400 is a special case: Though it offloads HD processing, in my tests it rendered movies at only 720 lines of vertical resolution. Since 1080 lines are high-definition movies' raison d'etre, I can't recommend this card for HD movie playback.
The Software Side
Software to play HD DVD and Blu-ray movies on your computer costs more than some HD-assisting graphic cards. Cyberlink's $99 PowerDVD is the most versatile and reliable program I've found. Intervideo's WinDVD 8 Platinum HD BD, which supports only nVidia-based cards, is available at the online store of new owner Corel for $70. The company says that support for the ATI cards is in the works.
For owners of Nero 8 Ultra Edition, there's a $30 HD DVD/Blu-ray plug-in for the suite's ShowTime player, but this app supports only commercial HD DVDs--it plays back only non-HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) consumer BD-AV discs, which lack advanced menus and other interactive features. ShowTime will play back commercial Blu-ray titles via a free upgrade scheduled for release early this year. Unfortunately, ShowTime supports HDCP over an HDMI connection only, which is adequate for TV output but not for PC use, since most people use DVI to attach their displays.
The Drive You Need
Cheaper Blu-ray drives are expected very soon, but for now your lowest-cost option for Blu-ray is Pioneer's BDC-2202, a $300 internal DVD burner that reads Blue-ray discs. Microsoft's $179 Xbox USB external HD DVD drive can play HD DVDs on a PC, though the company doesn't publicize or support this capability. Still, the product is plug-and-play on both XP and Vista, and it's often on sale. HP's similar HD100 costs about $200.
To burn Blu-ray discs, you need to pony up $600 for an external drive, such as the second-generation Sony BDW-200S or Philips's SPD7000, or spend $500 for the Lite-On LH-2B1S. Unfortunately, you can't upgrade your current PC or laptop with internal read/write or read-only HD DVD drives, which thus far are available in this country only in new systems.