The perils of importing media

One of the things about being a bit of a geek from an early age is that you’re exposed to the notion that other countries have things that are cooler than you can get at home.  When I was a teenager, I used to hunt down British editions of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of books in used bookstores, I bought Japanese versions of Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo games, and of course I imported the very occasional laserdisc.

As long as I stuck to Japan and other NTSC countries, I was pretty comfortable importing media.  The video game console manufacturers paid a sort of lip service to the idea that they didn’t want you playing games from other regions, but it was never difficult to circumvent; you could always get an adapter or fit a mod chip or some such.  Of late, of course, I’ve taken to simply buying consoles from other regions, which neatly sidesteps the whole issue.

Europe, however, has always presented a bit of a problem, mostly because of PAL.

The first time I imported anything in PAL, it was because the powers-that-be had decided to delay broadcast of the last four episodes of season 2 of Babylon 5 for several months in the US, while airing them on schedule in the UK.  I managed to find a chap on the net who wouldn’t mind taping them for me in exchange for a favor on my side and wound up with a tape that I couldn’t play but that represented me raising a middle finger to regional broadcast decisions.

Another friend tracked down a VCR that could play PAL tapes on an NTSC TV and we had a bit of a viewing night.

The quality was, simply put, dreadful.  The technology to do on-the-fly conversions simply wasn’t quite there.  Nonetheless, it was watchable.

Technology has advanced somewhat since the mid 1990s.  Region locking is more omnipresent than ever, but technology for freeing your media from region locks has kept up.

Even more promisingly, the PS3 was released completely region-free and blu-rays are frequently (but not always) likewise released without the studios bothering to region code them.

Most importantly, the advent of high-def resolutions has freed us from worrying about PAL or NTSC or what have you.

Or so I thought.

When we were in Britain, we bought a batch of media, knowing full well that it would come with some hitches when we got home.  For the most part, these hitches turned out not to be.  The DVDs, well, they play just fine; we have a DVD player that was made region-free with a simple remote control code and our TV is smart enough to understand an incoming PAL signal and display it.

Likewise, the PS3 games I brought back – “Siren: Blood Curse” and “Arcana Heart 3” work without issue.

It’s this one Top Gear blu ray I brought back that gave me fits.

I was worried about region coding.  I needn’t have been, it went right into the PS3 and spun up, played the studio logo, and then nothing.  A simple black screen taunting me.

It turns out that, yes, 720P and 1080P and such are universal; they cross borders. 1080i at 50Hz, however, that is a different story and that happens to be how this disc was encoded.

I had never had occasion to rip a blu ray before, so I needed to get my toolbox up to date.  Fortunately I ran across a lifehacker article  that recommended a product called HD Decrypter, and it turned out to do just what it said on the tin.  30 minutes to rip, three hours to encode, and I was once again sneering at the thought that I could be thwarted by mere national boundaries.

It strikes me that a good 99% of the world probably goes through their day without worrying about stuff like this.

Some days, I kind of envy them.  🙂


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