The next-generation movie format wars have begun and although we're far away from crowning a winner, both formats do share one thing in common: codecs. Both Blu-ray and HD-DVD support video content encoded in high-bitrate MPEG-2, H.264 or Microsoft's VC1 format, and decoding any of those formats can be extremely taxing on even the fastest modern day CPUs. GPU makers have been hard at work on offloading as much off the decoding pipeline as possible, and although we're still a couple generations away from full GPU offloaded H.264 decoding there is progress being made today.

Performance however is not the only vector we must concern ourselves when looking at what modern day GPUs will do for playback of next-generation high definition content. Content protection and Digital Rights Management (DRM) have been hot button issues of the format wars that are simply not going away and thus proper HDCP support from your OS, graphics card and display is necessary. We know OS support is coming with Windows Vista, display support is here in limited models from various manufacturers, but what about graphics cards?

To find out we've put together a roundup of graphics cards that are all fully HDCP compatible; that is to say, they include an HDCP key ROM for full HDCP support. HDCP is an acronym that is becoming more important for those interested in home entertainment. HDCP stands for High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection and is currently used to protect audio and video content that is being sent over DVI or HDMI cables to a display device from a graphics card or set top player. In order to have a HDCP compliant system, both the transmitting and receiving devices must support HDCP and the interconnect between the two must be HDCP protected. This means that in a home theater PC system, both the graphics card and the display device need to be HDCP compliant in order to run HDCP protected content. For Blu-Ray and HD-DVD content, AACS (Advanced Access Content System) is used to protect the copyrighted material from the disc all the way to the screen, and HDCP is the last hardware stage of this protection. In order to test HDCP compliance in this roundup we'll be using Pioneer's Blu-ray drive and one of the first 50GB Blu-ray movies: Click.

For this review, we want to accomplish a number of goals. Firstly, we want to find out what options you have for buying a high performance graphics card for gaming with HDCP support. We all know what GPUs are available, but how many of them can be found with full HDCP support and how do they perform in games? After all, sacrificing gaming performance for HDCP support isn't a trade off you should have to make if you don't want to. Since these video cards are all HDCP compatible, we also want to test how they handle video playback. CPU utilization while playing content from Blu-Ray discs (BD) is something we will be looking at in this review, and we'll be looking at the type of power consumption we see with these cards during BD playback as well.

We will also be looking at power consumption with 3D acceleration, as well as the standard heat and noise testing. Noise levels will be especially important for this review, as these HDCP cards all have the potential to be used in home theater PCs. Thus quiet operation is an attractive quality for this type of card. Aside from these things, we'll firstly give a run-down of each of the cards we have and their respective clock speeds. With a total of 20 cards we hope this review will help shed some light on what kind of HDCP cards are out there, along with how well they perform both in games and watching movies.

Testing HDCP Compliance
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  • rnemeth - Friday, December 01, 2006 - link


    I personally think this article was extremely on point with the direction of media components in general. I think there will be many people out there, like me, who are planning on the convergence of the Media Center PC & Gaming PC. Vista (Ultimate) will bring Media Center to the masses and why shouldn't you be able to play your favorite DX10 "Game for Windows" on your big HDTV as well?

    This article is ahead of its time. HDPC/DRM/HDMI/DVI/BR/HD-DVD/HDTV is all in the early stages. In the future, you will be able to buy or rent your high-def movie by downloading it to your PC with DRM finally figured out. This review shows us that it is not all there yet, but gives us an idea who is doing what, and what we need to look for.

    You mentioned in the beginning of the article that you were looking for feedback to see how interested your audience is on this subject... count me as 1.
    Reply
  • thejez - Sunday, November 26, 2006 - link

    HDCP is a joke... look at how hard it is to understand and get this stuff running... not to mention you have upgrade all your hardware?? lol and who watches movies on their PC anyway?? do you people really sit huddled over your keyboard watching movies?? Why not invest in some better equipment for the family room and watch movies they way they were intended....

    but the difficulty in setting all this up makes it even more important that hdcp has already been cracked... i wouldnt let the movie industry tell you your hardware isnt good enough to buy their content... just buy what you want and "work" around the issue later... the cracks are only getting better.... we'll see HD-DVD Shrink soon enough...
    Reply
  • KalTorak - Monday, November 20, 2006 - link

    Careful - it's not safe to assume that higher bitrate content is more computationally difficult to decode than lower bitrate content. [In fact, I suspect they're weakly correlated the other way - lower bitrate is harder.] Reply
  • DerekWilson - Monday, November 20, 2006 - link

    ahh ... very interesting ...

    it would make sense to me to say that both are true.

    In the case where low bitrate means more aggressive high quality encoding, i absolutely see your point. But low bitrate can also mean lower quality (less information) at the same level of encoding -- in these cases lower bitrate will be easier to decode.

    Thanks for pointing this out.
    Reply
  • Badkarma - Monday, November 20, 2006 - link

    Hi Derek,

    Can you comment on HD audio formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD for the HTPC? I know Bluray has yet to use these formats but how about HD-DVD on the HTPC. From what I understand, you could get these formats outputted via analog output on your soundcard, but I'm interested in HDMI. I know some of the HDMI video cards you reviewed have SPDIF passthrough via HDMI, however SPDIF cannot carry Dolby Digital +, TrueHD, or DTS-HD, it will only output DTS or DD. I'm holding back on a HDCP video card because HD audio is an important part of HD movies.

    Thanks.
    Reply
  • Ajax9000 - Sunday, November 19, 2006 - link

    p.13 "Both the 8800 GTX and GTS are fully HDCP compatible, and HDCP is enabled through both DVI ports" p.22 "Some of the cards, like the HDMI Gigabyte 7600 GS and ASUS EN7600 GT, were only able to play our Blu-ray movies over HDMI and not through the DVI port. Conversely, we found that with our MSI NX7600 GT Diamond Plus, the Blu-ray content wouldn't play through the HDMI connection but it would through the DVI port."

    OK, so which cards (other than the 8800s) could do HDCP over both ports?

    ----

    p.19 "The end result is that an NVIDIA card with more pipelines that is better at 3D performance will not necessarily be better at video decoding."

    In other words overclocking (say) a 7600 is likely to give as good or better HD video results than using (say) a 7950GX2?

    ----

    p.20 "In the future, we could see power consumption go down with acceleration enabled. As graphics hardware is better suited to processing video than a CPU, efficiency should go up when using hardware acceleration."

    The results for the 9750GTs already seem to show this 147W average non-accelerated >> 142 for EVGA & PNY (although Gigabyte > 148W).

    Adrian
    Reply
  • chucky2 - Friday, November 17, 2006 - link

    ...can we get it added to these results just for comparison?

    Also, you don't happen to know when that'd be, would you? :)

    Chuck
    Reply
  • BigLan - Friday, November 17, 2006 - link

    I noticed that in the cpu utilisation tests you said it was around 51% for no acceleration - was this because the player software is single threaded and so only used one core?

    Also, is click encoded in h264, or mpeg2 like the initial bluray discs?
    Reply
  • DigitalFreak - Friday, November 17, 2006 - link

    Now that the Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive is available and is proven to work with a PC, any chance on doing another round-up "real soon now" using HD-DVD? I'd really love to see the numbers for VC1 and H.264 decoding.

    Still amazed that the lowly X1600 card spanked all Nvidia cards but the G80 boards in CPU utilization.

    Good job guys.
    Reply
  • DigitalFreak - Friday, November 17, 2006 - link

    BTW, the new releases from Fox on Blu-Ray use the H.264 codec. Behind Enemy Lines, Fantastic 4, etc. I think Behind... is already out. Reply

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