Friday, May 2, 2008

Region-Free DVD-drives, All you need to know

Region-free DVD-Drives can be confusing without full information about them. Already the upload of a simple utility for them has generated some doubts and questions. I have then tried to cover the subject in a simple but all-covering text (at least I hope I achieved both).

This comes from my personal experience and what I read from many sources on the Web. Some subjects I didn't study in depth, so it might be incomplete or slightly imprecise here and there. Still, for its introduction and explanation purposes, I believe it will make no difference.


The holders of the rights for the Movie DVD format (an organization named DVD Forum) impose everyone to implement Region Control. That's in the contract you have to sign with them in order to acquire the information on DVD structure necessary to build a drive or write a player than can play Movie DVDs.
Region control means that the drive and player will work together asking for a region choice and storing it inside the drive itself. They will then refuse to play any DVD from a region different from the one you chose. And that they will allow you to change that choice, but for only a limited number of times. They will keep count the changes you made and store it again inside the drive's flash-memory.

You will be able to change the region 5 times only (including the initial choice) then the drive will lock. You will have to send it to the factory where, for a fee, they will reset the region counter and give it back. This is called "Factory Reset", it does cost and it too has a counter. It can be done 5 times, then the drive will lock forever. In the end you will be able to change the region of a drive for 25 times, but once every 5 it will require sending it to the factory and will cost money. (it would look like the changes should be 30, but I believe I remember they are only 25. Probably the initial 5-choices-group is already considered like a Factory Reset and its counter starts at 1. This would mean you could actually send it in only 4 times, rather than 5.)

The DVD-drives have some software inside and and also tables of all the writable DVDs and CDs. They hold the proper parameters to burn each kind, together with the maximum speeds that can be reliably used.
This data is written in Flash-RAM. These are memories that can be re-written, but they retain their content even when they are disconnected from a power supply. That's different from standard RAM that forgets everything if power is interrupted.
Once in a while, the factories send out upgrades that rewrite what's stored inside the flash-RAM. This happens to correct bugs, or to implement a more reliable or faster burning strategy, or to add the parameters for a new CD/DVD kind that was just released.

Studying these upgrades (and the firmware inside the drives) some people have been able to find out how the drive software works and ways to deactivate the region block. Usually these "region free" patches are inserted inside one of the original upgrades from the factory.
Some drives have been "cracked" quickly, other ones have resisted for longer times (like the Mat****a mentioned in the RegionX upload description).
A place to look for a patch for your drive might be and in particular The Dangerous Brothers' pages
These patches generally run on PCs. In the past there has been a guy nicknamed xvi who worked on producing Mac versions of the patches. A couple of years ago he decided to quit, and since then patches have once again been available for PCs only.
Unfortunately these cannot be run in emulators like VirtualPC, GuestPC or similar. Emulators have only a limited access to DVD-drives (they cannot play movies, for example) that is not enough to support patching.
But those patches can be applied to DVD-drives connected externally to a PC and also an Intel-Mac running Windows via a USB-IDE adapter. (I'm sure this works for Pioneer drives, I've done it personally several times. I believe it should work with any other, but have never tried it).

Is patching a drive dangerous? Yes: it will void the warranty and also, if it doesn't work or if it is interrupted midway (a blackout for example) it will leave you with a dead drive that can not be patched again. If you do things with care it is not likely it will happen, yet it could. Current prices have dropped so low that it is no longer a heavy risk, in my humble opinion.
Just for an example, through the years I have successfully patched one Pioneer DVR-105, one DVR-107, one DVR-109, one DVR-110D, one DVR-111D and two DVR-112D. I never had any dead one. Also: for the last three kinds I applied patches that "took the D away", in other words I turned them into the version that can also write DVD-RAM. The difference is only in the firmware (and in the price), not in the hardware.

There is an utility by the famous xvi that can test your drive(s) and report which is region locked (RPC-2) and which is Region Free (RPC-1). It is called DVD Info X, and I'm uploading it at the same time as this text.

BUT... patching the drive is not enough. If you then try playing some other region DVD you will still be stopped by the same alert and still be asked to change region (if you still have region changes left).
Once again it's the player (DVD-player) that is stopping you, but this time it can no longer use the region stored inside the drive (the drive is region-free now). Rather it is using data (region and counter) stored inside itself.
And this is a much much easier problem to solve, because this data is stored on the Mac Hard Disk: a lot easier to reach and modify. There is a program called RegionX, once again by xvi, that deals with it. It has been uploaded here this past day. It does not apply a patch DVD Player, but simply changes its chosen region and at the same time resets its counters. This means that you will have to run it every time you want to change region, but you can do it as often and as many times you need. Also, this kind of approach has high chances of being still working when a new version of DVD Player is released (it already happened more than once). A patch instead would probably have to be revised and re-released every time.

important note: This RegionX program does NOT patch the drive, it will NOT make it region-free. Rather, if your drive is still region locked it will not work on the DVD-player counter but on the one inside the drive!!! This means you will be eating one of the 5 changes available. To make sure you're not doing that, better double-check that your drive IS region-free by using DVD Info X.


To be able to play every region DVDs on your Mac you need to do two things:
1. Only once: patch your drive to RPC-1. This needs to be done on a PC or Intel-Mac running Win and using a software specific for your drive.
2. Each time you need, change the region inside DVD-Player using RegionX.


Addendum: How comes VLC can play any region even on region-locked drives without ever asking for a choice?

The VLC project was started by a group of students in a Paris university-like school. VLC was and still is freeware. Those students couldn't afford buying the (quite expensive) papers detailing the internal structure of DVDs and/or purchasing a licence. When purchasing that documentation people also have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, so it cannot be redistributed. But others were already experimenting and discovering how a DVD is structured and were publishing that info on the web. Rather the VLC group did it on their own without any DVD-Forum support by using this "other-sources" info. Not having signed any contract with the DVD-Forum they are not bound to implementing any region lock, and so they didn't: they simply totally ignore whatever region choice is stored inside the drive.

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