How to play HD video on a netbook

18 Feb 2010

Netbooks aren't famed for their high-definition video playing prowess, but if you've got about $10 and a few minutes going spare, there is a way to enjoy high-definition trailers and videos on your Atom-powered portable.

You'll need two things: a copy of Media Player Classic Home Cinema, and CoreCodec's CoreAVC codec which you can purchase for the princely sum of $9.95.

Actually, we lied, you'll need three things. You'll also need some HD videos encoded in AVC or h.264 formats too. We downloaded the free animation, Big Buck Bunny, for our testing. We downloaded the 1080P h.264 version - be warned though, it's a hefty 692MB download, so you may want to go and have a cup of tea or five if your internet connection is on the slow side. Alternatively, any high-definition h.264 movie trailer lurking on the internet will do just fine.

Windows 7 might already have h.264 support built in as standard, but try playing back HD content in Media Player and it's unwatchably jerky. If you're on Windows XP you can try watching HD videos with Media Player Classic's built-in h.264 codec, but it too struggles to keep the video playing back smoothly; the sound drifting out of sync with the on-screen action as the Atom processor struggles to keep up.

Bringing HD home

It doesn't matter whether your netbook is running Windows XP Home or Windows 7, but first you'll need to install CoreAVC. You can untick Haali's Media Splitter during the install process, just the codec itself will do just fine.

Once CoreAVC is installed, go to the CoreCodec directory that's appeared in your Start menu and select the Configure CoreAVC entry. Set Deblocking to Skip always, Deinterlacing to None and click OK.

The next step is to run Media Player Classic Home Cinema. Select Options from the View dropdown menu and click the External Filters tab. Click the Add Filter... button at the top right of the window and double-click CoreAVC Video Decoder from the list. Make sure the Prefer option is ticked.

Now select Output in the Options menu and make sure that the DirectShow Video is set to EVR. Click OK, and close Media Player Classic to make sure the settings are applied.

Open up the 1080P version of Big Buck Bunny now and, surprise surprise, you'll find it's watchable all the way through. There is the odd stutter here and there, and a little visual tearing where the Atom processor can't quite keep the framerate perfectly smooth, but, crucially, the audio soundtrack doesn't lose sync anymore. A netbook playing HD video? Well, we never thought we'd see the day.

Admittedly, though, even CoreAVC can't turn a netbook into an HD devouring media beast. Several of our higher bitrate 1080P videos proved too much for the Atom processor, and more demanding scenes in 720P videos also suffered from a hint of stutter here and there. And, of course, CoreAVC can't do anything about online HD content from Youtube and iPlayer. But all in all, we're pretty impressed. HD or no HD, we know which we'd prefer!

And if you're concerned what HD playback is going to do your netbook's battery life, you might just be pleasantly surprised. We took one of the latest Pine Trail netbooks lying around the PC Pro office and with screen brightness set to maximum and 802.11n enabled, found that 90 minutes of looping a 720P trailer only sapped about 25% of our battery. Turn off wireless and drop the brightness a little and you'd probably be able to get through 3 or 4 movies before running out of juice: perfect for those boring, long-haul flights.

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