The evils of physical media region codes and how to work around them

TLDR: if you're in Australia just get a Laser BD3000 and use the remote codes to switch blu-ray regions

It's a strongly held belief of mine that if you're at all a fan of film or television and are interested in stuff that's at all outside the mainstream, then having some sort of multi-region disc playback capability is definitely something you'll want. Living in Australia, I find myself definitely wanting to get like all the great retro anime stuff Discotek puts out, and like the Criterion releases of movies and such. I feel it's a bit of a harder sell for Americans, but with stuff like Arrow's excellent UK releases of films (some of which get US versions but by no means all) and being able to work around the way Aniplex ties up home video rights for US anime releases, I'd say there's definitely interesting stuff.

So, let's say you've decided that you really want to get that US blu-ray release of the original Japanese version of the 1980s Wizard of Oz anime. But now the problem arises of how to play it once it's made its way across the Pacific Ocean and dropped on your doorstep by your friendly Australia Post parcel contractor. If you've just gone and bought the standard large electronics brand whizbang 4k bluray player from your local JB Hi-Fi, odds are all you'll get from putting that disc in is a "This disc only plays on Region A players" message, which won't do at all.

Essentially you've got a couple of options. Probably the easiest in my opinion (at least in Australia) is that there's this local company named Laser who among other things sells reasonably priced disc players under their own brand name, and they're pretty much all region-free for DVDs and region-switchable for blurays. They do various DVD-only and portable type models, but essentially what you want is the Laser BD3000, which is pretty easily found at such places at your local Big W for about $100 or thereabouts (mine came from eBay as Laser were selling off refurbished models at a discount). Now, it's worth noting that this is a pretty budget-y blu-ray player, so it doesn't do any of the fancy app stuff and it won't play 4k discs. It's also worth noting that the default settings out of the box maybe aren't the best, so you'll want to manually go in and enable proper 24p output and all that, since I think by default it tries to convert everything to 50hz, eww. But once you've got it properly set up it looks decent enough. Probably the biggest issue with it is that the remote is pretty lousy - which is a problem, since switching Blu-Ray regions requires punching in a magic code on the options screen to get to a service menu. But, it's workable. I'd say this is a pretty good option as something like a secondary player, like if you've got a nice whizbang 4K player (since 4K discs don't have region codes to worry about) but you need something extra to play your imported blus.

Another option is to get one of the regular name-brand blu-ray players that's been modded to be region-switchable. This has the advantage of being able to get a 4K compatible player as well, so if you're going 4K you don't need a separate player. I guess the reason I've always felt a bit dubious about this is partly that there's a fairly noticeable premium charged on the price for the mods, but also the businesses who do the modded versions always seem kinda sketchy to me, like they've got super bare bones websites and not much technical details about what they're actually doing to the players. And with these higher end players tending to have apps and such that require firmware updates, I'm always a bit unsure about how the firmware updates and the mods might interact. But that being said, this is probably the easiest option if you're not in Australia and can't just pop down to Big W and buy the Laser player.

Then there's the option of using a PC. If you buy a Blu-Ray drive for your PC, it'll probably come with a bundled copy of PowerDVD or something, but that's going to be of limited use because of the aforementioned region code issues, and also because it's just a pretty rubbish piece of software. To be honest, PCs are not great disc players, but they're great for ripping discs so you've just got a file on the drive that you can play wherever. There's this piece of software called MakeMKV that I'd recommend for this, which essentially decrypts the copy-protected blu-ray or DVD files and converts them into a MKV file, which has the advantage of not needing to be re-encoded or anything (of course if you need it re-encoded, it's then pretty easy to just run the resulting MKV through Handbrake or something). Now, if you just download MakeMKV you may notice that it's set up as trialware so that you're paying however much money after 30 days or whatever, but you may have noticed that the website says it's free while in beta. And for some reason it's basically just been in beta forever, but the trick is you need to poke around in the forums to find the beta code that'll let you use it for free.

So like MakeMKV will have you sorted for ripping most any disc you throw at it, but let's say you want to play a disc directly. VLC will have you sorted for DVDs, it handles them fine out of the box without worrying about region code, but blu-rays are a different story. VLC can play them (although to set the region code you have to poke around in the options) but by default it can't decrypt them. You can get an extra DLL you chuck in the VLC folder that'll let it do this, but it then has the downside of needing keys supplied that'll let it decode the encryption. Or, there's the easier option - which is again MakeMKV. If you pop into the preferences there's a tab labelled "Integration", and essentially what this does is lets you install it as a plugin for VLC in order to use MakeMKV's decryption magic to decrypt the disc for VLC to play back. Now, even then, VLC's blu-ray playback is a bit janky at times - I have yet to get Java-based menus working properly for example. But it is An Option. But to be honest I'd say for playback you're better with a hardware player.

Now here's the Rant Time. Essentially, all this faffing about with region codes and DRM-breaking is because the people who designed the Blu-Ray and DVD formats went out of their way to add features to make the formats less useful, because capitalism or some shit. And yes, it is absolutely bullshit that the blu-ray format is region locked and that many of the companies that own the rights to films insist on releases being locked to certain regions. And it's extremely bullshit that as a result, Americans just get more films to choose from when they're shopping for movies. And none of it is necessary - if you're buying an independent film online there's a good chance you can just buy it on Vimeo and download a regular MP4 file and just watch the film wherever. And oddly enough you don't see the makers of these films going "oh no there's not a whole bunch of locks and copy protection, what do we do whaaa". To put it simply, the big media companies are just awful people.

There is of course a final option in terms of getting access to a film or something that's not easily available in your region, and that's to sail the seven seas and just pirate it. Which, I mean, if they're not selling it into your region and thus necessitating you to jump through honestly ridiculous hoops to get it working, then they're clearly not interested in your money, so fuck them. Like, personally, I can jump through these hoops for physical media, but in terms of stuff that's not available physically and only on a region-locked digital service where I can't get it locally (or stuff that's not available at all, even), I may have obtained copies through other means. And like, if they're not going to sell me a copy then they're basically saying "sorry your money is not good enough for us we only want American money" so fuck them. I guess I draw the line at I'm used to working around the regional restrictions for physical media, but if it's a digital situation where there's already the issues of the impermanence of digital services and such, having to work around region locks on top of that is simply too much bullshit.

Anyway in conclusion do what you want, but you'll probably enjoy if you can import cool stuff!