How to enjoy media in any region

Video tips for travellers and expats

Fortunately, in Europe, choosing the right kit is simply a matter of checking the specs sheet and ensuring the equipment's video format and voltage capabilities suit your present and likely future needs. Not surprisingly, the more adaptable equipment tends to be more expensive, but it is available through pretty much any retail outlet, whether online or in your neighbourhood.

Still, you will have to stick with high-end gear if you're looking for a multi-voltage TV capable of handling all (NTSC, PAL, and SECAM) formats. And a multi-voltage combo player capable of serving as a tuner for all three formats is definitely going to cost you, relatively speaking (although this option is still a money-saver if you don't want to spend lavishly on a television).

We control your television set

Now we come to another major irritant, DVD region encoding, or, more precisely, DVD region lockout. The movie industry, in its infinite greed and insatiable lust for control, has decided that it simply must regulate your access to media that you have legally purchased. No, I don't mean they are preventing you from copying their priceless treasures; I mean they will not even let you view them unless you buy the media in your own geographical region. Your DVD player is programmed to reject "foreign" disks. Here is a handy table of DVD regions.

The chief purpose of this abuse is to coordinate the theatrical releases and DVD releases of movies in a way that prevents DVDs from appearing in shops until after the theatrical showing is finished. For example, if a movie's US theatre-run is over and DVDs are available there, but in the UK the movie either hasn't opened or is still in theatres, region lockout discourages UK punters from buying DVDs from, say, Amazon.com. The American disk won't play in the UK machine (well supposedly, about which more below). Brits are thus encouraged to wait patiently until Hollywood decides to release the movie overseas, let it run in theatres, and finally release a DVD compatible with the local equipment.

Another reason, of course, is the American habit of subsidising their failing economy by overcharging foreigners. If an American DVD won't play in a French, German, or British box, you can see the potential here for media price-gouging in "Old Europe".

Indeed, the priceless Hollywood treasure Dreamgirls (Two-Disc "Showstopper Edition") DVD retails for $22.74 at Amazon.com. This same Showstopper sells for £14.98, or $30 at Amazon.co.uk, and may now be pre-ordered pending the movie's failure in UK theatres. Allowing 17.5 per cent VAT, we find that the Showstopper, or the tiny blob of molten plastic worth far less than a penny and formed into a disk worth about 15 cents, runs about $2 more in the UK.

Obviously, a budget-conscious European won't order from Amazon.com, as the shipping would more than consume the savings; but if one is travelling to the USA, scooping up heaps of DVDs, unpacking them, and pretending that they are one's long-owned property on return, can be a real money saver. Especially if one's US destination is within the vast flyover region, where sales taxes are low if they exist at all. But will your cheap American DVDs work for you at home? Well, if you've solved the video format problems outlined previously, all that's left to worry about is DVD region lockout.

Stickin' it to the man

Now, here is some good news, for a change. Region lockout is often painfully easy to defeat. Think about it: these gizmos are manufactured by the tens of millions in gargantuan plants, and then shipped on to different regions. The regional spread of orders to be filled will necessarily fluctuate week by week. So it has got to be easy for the maker to set each device's region after manufacture. And if it's easy for them, it's easy for us. We just have to know how to do it.


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