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HDCP-Compliant Video Cards Elude the Market

by February 23, 2006

Published specifications of HDCP compliance in many popular video cards aren't exactly what they appear. Since 2003, about the time HDCP picked up steam in the consumer electronics market, popular PC video card manufacturers have been touting the following.

The spec was being found on some of their cards that feature DVI outputs... for example:



ATI x1000 series chipsets...


The images above were borrowed from an excellent article over at Behardware.com that delves into the technical reasons the claim is innacurate. This has caused a stir lately and it's particularly bad news for anyone hoping to build a future proof HTPC (Home Theater PC).

HDCP (High Definition Content Protection) was designed to protect the property of the movie studios who believe piracy is hurting their business. For consumer electronics enthusiasts this is nothing new. Almost all TVs and DVD players today includes HDCP compatibility. The CE market has been quick to adopt HDCP - not so for PC hardware. This is evidenced by the lack of HDCP compliant LCD monitors available. HDCP simply hasn't been a priority for the PC.

Blu-Ray and HD-DVD are designed to playback video at that golden chalice of resolutions: 1080p and the AACS (Advanced Access Content System) is tasked with protecting that content. AACS aims to provide complete end-to-end content protection for high definition movies. If you want to watch 1920x1080p video discs you'll need hardware that subscribes to AACS and works with HDCP.

Video cards that have been publishing "HD Ready" have been charged lately with stretching the truth. The boards have only been developed so a Silicon Image or Texas Instruments chip can be added to make them fully HDCP ready. ATI confirmed to Ken Fisher from Astechnica.com that...

"it will not be possible to pathc or otherwise update cards without keys through software. Thus, any card already in the marketplace will never support HDCP, no matter what it says on the box."

ATI's PR manager, John Swinmimer went on to say that the retail cards will eventually be available once the technolgical specifications (ie. AACS) are finalized. This should be good news for the future of the HTPC DIYers. There have been rumors that AACS will only license some name brand HTPCs, but this remains to be seen.

When Blu-Ray and HD DVD finally arrives, Microsoft hopes Windows Vista will be an HDCP-compliant platform for HTPC. But for AACS approval your monitor and video card will need to be HDCP compliant also. When video (from BD/HD DVD discs) is viewed through a pathway where any link in the chain is non-HDCP compliant, it will be downrezzed. Only 480p or 540p content will be displayed, reducing the 1080p resolution by at least half. This means you'll need the playback software, video card, and monitor to ALL be HDCP compliant to get the full benefit of the new high resolution optical formats. But if you're trying to future proof your investment today, the path to HTPC/HDCP compliance is still unclear.

Since ATI has been caught lacking HDCP compliance they've pulled the "HD-Ready" boast from published specs. ATI's X1000 chipset that previously touted HDCP compliance has been modified. ATI used to say "HDCP Ready" but now a visit to the graphics card manufacturer's website reveals an asterisk behind the claim.

ATI now says:

*This feature is supported by the asic and can be specified by PC manufacturers for its add-in-boards. This feature is not typically enabled on stand alone cards.

The bottom line is that when HD DVD and Blu-Ray discs finally hit the market, be prepared to perform some upgrades. HTPCs (Home Theater PCs) are at risk of being stung by the AACS's vision of end-to-end content protection. To the studios producing the high definition discs, a computer as a playback device is a bit like a coyote guarding the hen house.

Editorializing: Most anyone who thinks about it typically feels that any DRM is a conflict to our cutlurally engrained ideas about the free flow of information. But despite it all, what the AACS has pulled off is really quite an accomplishment. Perhaps it's true, as Ken says in his article on ArsTechnica (linked above), that the end-to-end lockdown will result in some long term detrimental ramifications in the consumer market. History suggests the industry will adapt to consumer demands, even if too slowly. But it's still too early to tell what the long term of this end-to-end lockdown will be.

But, I have to hand it to all parties involved in AACS - including the studios, the body governing the AACS, and most of the hardware compliance, ATI and Nvidia notwithstanding. The industry's determination for HD content protection could have been a real disaster. But so far, knock on wood, it appears they've accomplished their goals.

The release of a few early next generation optical playback devices is almost upon us. We're seeing the rollout of a universal system of content protection winding down almost completely free of the drawbacks that often hurt the deployment of a new technology. The industry has avoided court battles, competing standards, splinter groups forming their own DRMs, and divided hardware manufacturers and studios into separate camps. We've seen it all before, conflicting interests expressed through DRM incompatibility between FairPlay, PlaysForSure and even the scam that was Sony's RootKit.

In comparison to the quagmire of the format war between HD DVD and BD, I find it hard to gripe about AACS. As I read countless forums and blog posts I sometimes feel I'm the only one that is relieved when I see how efficiently AACS and HDCP has been implemented. Maybe I'm just a prisoner thankful the handcuffs aren't too tight. But I can't help but admire how silently and well executed HDCP has been for the CE world at large. /end Editorialization

Special Thanks to www.hometheaterfocus.com

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About the author:

Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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