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Going Blu-Ray, The Inexpensive Way
Now that Blu-Ray has won the war, prices on players have begun to drop dramatically as companies begin full-fledged attempts to establish themselves as the best in building Blu-Ray players. Blu-Ray players can be had for around $200 for a base model, which looks good compared to a year ago. Still, when compared to dime-a-dozen DVD players, the price of Blu-Ray is still expensive.
But there is an unexpected hero willing to fight for your pocketbook - your PC. Blu-Ray players for HTPCs have been around for some time, and their prices have dropped along with the prices for stand-alone units. Currently, it is possible to purchase a Blu-Ray player for your HTPC at a price of around $99 dollars, half that of basic stand-alone units. Thanks to this bargain pricing, turning your PC into a Blu-Ray player is an attractive solution, although there are some requirements you'll need to ensure your HTPC meets before you upgrade to a Blu-Ray player.
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Preparing Your PC
The first roadblock you will need to clear on your path to cheap Blu-Ray enjoyment is the performance of your HTPC. Blu-Ray is not a format which will handle your PC with kid's gloves. Displaying large, high-detail images on a screen many times per second takes a significant amount of muscle, as does plowing through the encoding used to protect the disc from pirates and condense the video and audio into a more palatable size.
There are several areas of performance which you'll need to pay attention to. The first is your processor. A decent dual-core like an Athlon 64 or a Core 2 is recommended. Single-core processors and modern budget dual-cores like Intel's Celeron series may not be up to the challenge. Theoretically, the GPU - which I'll cover next - should be able to take most of the load off the processor. But theory does not always become practice. It is not unusual to see a moderately powerful Core 2 processor working heavily when displaying 1080p Blu-Ray content.
Secondly you'll want to check on your GPU. Having a GPU which is capable of taking on the task of displaying high-def video should take the burden off your processor, creating less strain on the system as a whole. In addition, a good GPU can offer HDMI-out abilities which allow you to run video and audio directly from your PC to your HDTV using a single cable. This makes hooking an HTPC up to your home theater system much easier. For Blu-Ray content, you'll probably want something from the Radeon 3000 series or newer, or an Nvidia card from the 9000 series or newer.
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You'll also want to take a general inventory, including your Hard Drive and RAM. You will want at least two gigabytes of RAM in order to make sure there is no chance of the program displaying your Blu-Ray movie getting bogged down by background tasks, and you'll also want to double-check that your Hard Drive is not so full that you would not be able to install the software that comes with the Blu-Ray drive. Lastly, you'll want to make sure you have physical room for the Blu-Ray Drive. Blu-Ray drives are 5.25 inch external drives like any other DVD or CD media reader.
You will need a free 5.25 inch external slot in your HTPC to fit the Blu-Ray drive. Note that virtually all Blu-Ray drives that are on the mark also act as DVD and CD readers, so you can get rid of your previous DVD drive if you feel that it makes your HTPC too crowded or you only have one 5.25 inch external slot available.
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Buying And Installing The Blu-Ray Drive
Once you've determined your HTPC is packing suitable horsepower for displaying HD content, you'll need to pick up a Blu-Ray drive. Although you might be tempted to simply buy Sony's own model, LG and Lite-On provide better solutions at similar prices. Some of these drives, such as the LG 6X High-Def player, are clearly superior to Sony's drive. This LG player costs slightly more than Sony's model, but it also plays HD-DVDs, giving you versatility. HD-DVDs aren't being made anymore, but those HD-DVDs still available are dirt cheap. You can buy HD-DVD content for lower prices than standard DVD content, which means that you can save a lot of money by having a combo HD-DVD/Blu-Ray drive.
Having purchased the Blu-Ray drive, installation is simple. The drive installs just like any other external 5.25 inch drive, and is almost certain to use an SATA connection to your HTPC's motherboard. Besides installing a video card, this is one of the easiest installations you can do, as you simply need to pop out the plastic covering an empty 5.25 inch bay, insert the new Blu-Ray drive, use screws to secure it, and run an SATA drive between the motherboard and the Blu-Ray drive. Obviously, there will be nuances for each individual case and motherboard - consult the manuals of those products before doing the installation to make sure you don't miss anything.
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The drive itself should be detected immediately by Windows once you boot your PC back up. However, you'll need to install the associated drivers and software to make sure everything functions correctly. Nearly all Blu-Ray drives come with a program meant to be used for viewing your Blu-Ray disks, and you'll need to make sure you install it before you watch any movies. Otherwise, another installed media program will likely be used by Windows to try and play the disk, and it is unlikely that the program will succeed due to the encoding on Blu-Ray disks.
Once you've installed the software, you're good to go. Playing Blu-Ray movies should function just the same as playing DVD movies. If you've paired your HTPC with a wireless mouse or a HTPC remote, then your experience using Blu-Ray through your HTPC will be no different than using a Blu-Ray player. You've just made yourself ready for Blu-Ray content for half the price of an entry level Blu-Ray player, and you've also prevented the need to have another piece of electronics cluttering up your home theater. So sit back, grab some popcorn, and reward yourself by watching your favorite movie in Blu-Ray glory.
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Instructables - How to install a Blu-Ray Drive
Images are from Sony press materials