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How to enjoy media in any region

Video tips for travellers and expats

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Cheap airfares and the so-called "global economy" have got us all travelling internationally like never before, both for business and pleasure.

And whatever the purpose of one's trip, two great joys for the traveller are eating and shopping in foreign places. Most of us eagerly bring home merchandise not available locally. As for me, I often bring back inexpensive items like books and music CDs, both of which travel well. So it's a real pity that DVDs and video cassettes have remained so stubbornly provincial - so much the products of place that they are useless in other regions.

If you travel frequently and shop often for media, you will soon end up with a mixed collection: that is, DVDs involving various video formats and regions, and VHS cassettes in various video formats, all differentiated according to place.

For example, perhaps you travel often to France and want to buy DVDs and cassettes there because you like to watch French movies without subtitles. Or perhaps you travel often to Japan, knowing that much Japanese entertainment is hard to locate at home, and are tempted to buy media during your trip. Depending on where you live, you might have two different obstacles to viewing the movies or TV shows on your television back at home: varying video formats, and DVD region encoding.

First, let's consider the obstacle of video formats: there are three, called PAL, NTSC, and SECAM. These are three different schemes for generating and interpreting the video signals that your TV receives, and they are used variously in different parts of the world. It wasn't a problem in the days when virtually all TV content was broadcast; there was no reason why a television in Mexico should be compatible with a signal broadcast in Switzerland. Nowadays, of course, with so much content available on portable media, format incompatibility is a major irritant.

Unfortunately, there is no standard video format for media, as there really ought to be. Media and equipment both remain unnecessarily xenophobic - a real vestige of the past. If your British television is designed to receive one type of signal (PAL), it will not display French video that was formatted in another (SECAM).

So unless your VCR or DVD player is designed to accept and deliver both types of signal - the type that the media is coded in, and the type that your TV expects to receive - the output will not display correctly. Here is a handy table of video formats by country.

Either you must stick with media, media players, and TVs that are all designed for the same video format and region (and forget about buying media that is not formatted appropriately), or you must obtain multi-format equipment. But how expensive is that going to be, you ask?

Well, it depends. The cheapest solution is to buy a multi-format DVD player, VCR, or combo unit. The multi-format player can read media in one format, and deliver it in the format your TV requires. The good news is that most European DVD players and VHS boxes of recent manufacture can handle at least NTSC and PAL. Typically, SECAM is not a popular option outside France and former French colonies, so if you're buying media in France for viewing elsewhere, you might have to search more diligently for a suitable player, and you will probably pay more for it. But remember, buying even a high-end player is still a lot cheaper than replacing your television.

That's how I approached the problem, anyway. I used to live in the USA, and I've got an assortment of Region 1 DVDs and VHS tapes that I recorded off air. They are all formatted via NTSC, which is standard throughout much of the Americas. Here in Ireland, televisions expect to receive a PAL-formatted signal, which is standard throughout much of Europe. So I needed a device to accept the NTSC signal and provide PAL output.

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