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DVDs, Region Codes, and Region-Free Players

DVDs remain an important tool in the language teacher toolbox. Authentic materials, created for native speaker audiences of the target language can expose students to a variety of accents they might not otherwise hear from their own teachers, to say nothing of the cultural value of the representations within the film.

Acquiring DVDs from France or Spain, or anywhere in the Spanish-speaking world is incredibly easy. Even Amazon carries any number of foreign films. The one problem a teacher might face, however, is the fact that DVDs are encoded in one of two video formats and in potentially 8 different region codes which makes it nearly impossible to play these foreign DVDs on the average classroom DVD player or computer. In this post, I’ll attempt to summarize the issues we face, and point you to some great solutions.

Video Formats

Back in the video tape era, there were 3 video formats that we had to wrestle with, but at least on DVDs, we’re faced with only two: NTSC and PAL.

NTSC (National Television Standards Committee) is the format used in the United States and Japan (and occasionally in other parts of the world). Sadly, it’s about the worst standard ever created in terms of color control, but there’s a long historical reason behind this. In order to play any video encoded in NTSC, you must have an NTSC capable DVD player and an NTSC capable video monitor. That’s all easy as virtually all the players you’re likely to encounter in the US will be precisely thus.

PAL is the video standard common in most of the rest of the world (fortunately, with the virtual demise of videotape, the third standard, SECAM, of which there were 2 incompatible versions for France and Russia, is essentially dead). PAL has much better color control than NTSC, but that’s another issue altogether. To play a PAL video, you must have a PAL capable DVD player and a PAL capable video monitor.

Now this situation would be a real pain if it weren’t for the fact that DVD player manufacturers really want to maximize their profits and minimize their costs. So, when they design and build DVD players, they build them all the same and only configure them in firmware for the markets in which they’ll be sold. The vast majority of DVD players on the market today can read and play either PAL or NTSC, and can also play discs from any of the 8 regions. They’re just configured, through software, to only play the format for the market where they’re sold. More on this later.

DVD Regions

When DVDs were first created and marketed, the movie studios were worried that they would lose the ability to roll out new films slowly across the global market, thereby maximizing their profits. These studios forced the manufacturers of DVDs and DVD players to create 8 regions and to encode the discs so that a disc designed to be sold in the US wouldn’t play in Mexico, or China, or Australia, etc. Hence the 8 regions:

DVDRegions

Configure your DVD player to play any disc

First, let me be clear, this information is for a stand-alone DVD player that you would connect to a “television”, or video monitor. It is not for playing DVDs on your computer. That is another issue we’ll address later.

Nearly all DVD players can be reconfigured to play discs from any region. Content creators and the movie studios have argued that reconfiguring your player is, or should be, illegal. For the foreign language teacher, wanting to expose kids to content created in the target culture, and who buys their own DVDs (as opposed to pirating them), this is clearly fair use.

The procedure for changing the region of your player is nearly always a similar process. You’ll turn on your player, open the tray, push some buttons on the remote control, and power cycle the player. Here is a link to a site that lists hundreds of models of DVD players that can be reconfigured: http://www.multi-region.net

Find your manufacturer and model, and follow the instructions you find there and you’ll be all set to play DVDs from France, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, etc. Be sure to set your player to Region 0 to allow it to play discs from anywhere.

DVDs and your computer

Unfortunately, playing foreign DVDs on your computer is little trickier. Well, sort of. Actually, you can play any format, and Region DVD on your computer—but you can only switch the format your DVD drive is set to 5 times before it becomes locked down permanently to the last played format. (technically, on a PC with Windows, there are third party software programs which can “flash” your DVD drive back to factory default—but they can also occasionally render it completely non-functional).

If you only need to very rarely play a foreign DVD on your computer, then you easily just switch the region up to the 5 times you’re allowed. However, if you need to play discs from multiple regions on a regular basis, there’s a really simple, and not terribly expensive way to do this: buy an external DVD drive.

External DVD drives can be had for around $40. If you have your internal DVD drive configured for Region 1 (US) NTSC discs, use the external drive for Region 2 (Europe) PAL discs. Then you just have to remember to use the right drive for the disc in question. Easy!

Now I’ve just mentioned Europe and the US, but what about Mexico (Region 4)? Fortunately, I have yet to find a Region 4 disc that is not DUAL-region encoded, 1 & 4. There may be single region 4 discs out there, but I have personally never encountered any. If I ever do, and I really really need to play that disc regularly, I’ll probably just buy a third DVD drive!

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