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Daily LifeDVD Zones and Languages

By Brad Smith

DVD ZONES: To prevent piracy, the large media corporations got a feature added to the DVD spec that supposedly protects them, but is quite annoying to anyone who moves to another continent (like us). The world was broken into zones and DVDs were encoded to work only in one zone. North America is zone 1, Europe is zone 2, and Asia is zone 3. Here is a decent map. DVD players are similarly encoded to play only one zone's DVDs. If you brought a DVD player with you from America, it's hard-coded to be zone 1. Any DVD player you buy in Europe will probably be zone 2.

Computer DVD players will let you switch zones up to five times, then they lock to the last zone used. For example, let's say you buy a computer in the US and play a zone 1 DVD on it. Then you move to Europe and play a zone 2 DVD on it. The computer will likely tell you it's switching zones (my Mac did, anyway). This was done so you can move your computer to another location, but it won't let you switch back-and-forth at will.

MULTI-ZONE PLAYERS: It is possible to buy a multi-zone DVD player, but I could not find any in the US. Amazon.co.uk sells multi-zone players, but only for delivery within the UK. There are places on the web that sell multi-zone players, but they seemed to be more expensive to begin with, then you have to pay shipping. I thought www.zonefreedvd.com had a decent web site with info as well as sales, but notice that the prices are higher than what you'd find at, say, Best Buy. When I looked, the average price for the 10 specials advertised on their home page was $364.

You can also buy multi-zone players in Geneva (an hour and a half drive from Grenoble) for 300 Swiss Francs (~200 €). We went to a store called Media Markt on the west side of town. (Beware: they do not take anything but Swiss credit cards and cash -- but they do have an ATM in the store.) Or you can buy a multi-zone player at the Virgin Megastore in Lyon (an hour drive from Grenoble) for ~200 €. There are probably other places to get one, but these are the two that we know of.

There is also a trick that you can use to convert some supposedly normal DVD players into an all-zone player. Jump to the nerd section at the end of this page to get details. The quick and easy way to use this trick is to look for a DVD player that says it has NTSC output. Since zone 2 is never NTSC, this suggests the player can be changed to be zone 1 and/or all-zone.

You should be aware that DVDs are still NTSC, PAL, or SECAM, just like the broadcast TV signals in each zone. The multi-zone DVD player I bought in Geneva works fine with my American zone 1 / NTSC discs and with the zone 2 / PAL discs we've bought here. I suspect that any multi-zone player will also handle multiple formats. But then you'll need a TV that can also handle multiple formats as well...

Remember that any zone 2 DVDs you buy while in France will not work on a normal American zone 1 player. You may wish to take your multi-zone DVD player home with you (and don't forget your multi-format TV!). In fact, when you buy them, you might want to look to see if they'll work with America's 110V/60Hz power.

LANGUAGE OPTIONS: Many DVDs have language options, but if you want something in particular, you need to read the box carefully. If all you want is English, it's pretty easy. But in our search for French language with French subtitles to help us learn French, we have discovered two important facts:

  1. The sound and the subtitles are independent. You can easily find a DVD with dubbed French sound, but not French subtitles. You need to read the ad or box to see if the DVD has the language options you want.
  2. DVDs with the same titles have different language options if sold in the US or in Europe. You would think that manufacturers would make them all the same (except for the annoying zone difference), since someone bothered to translate the movie into Swahili or whatever and it all fits onto the disc, but that is not the case. We have found a lot of DVDs sold in American have French sound but not subtitles, whereas most DVDs sold in France have lots of language and subtitle options, including English and French.

You can buy a supposedly normal DVD player that can be changed into all-zone. These used to be labelled "modifiable" in the store, but apparently that's illegal now. The salesperson will not even discuss it unless you can schmooz it out of him/her. We've heard that Philips makes a chipset for DVD players that allow the zone to be changed. Thus, if the player has this chipset (this includes more than just Philips players!), it can be changed to all-zone. Unfortunately, this can be a bit complicated. For many players, you open the DVD tray on the player and enter "0000" (four zeroes) on the remote. After that, the player is all-zone. We've also read about players for which this will work only with a special remote (or a PDA with infrared and special PalmOS software). However it's done, what it means is that you can perform the same trick on player bought in the U.S. to make it read zone 2 discs.

Nerd Section:
Of course, when using a hack to convert a player, you run the risk of (a) messing up the player, (b) it not working at all, or (c) just not being happy with the results (we've heard of some players where the hack has to be done again for EVERY disc). On the other hand, a player costs 150 €, so it's not a big investment. Your choice and your risk.

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