Learn how to support DVD drives

As more companies turn to DVD technology for their training courses, more IT pros are challenged with supporting it. Steve Pittsley is here to help with a how-to on installation of a DVD drive and tips on troubleshooting hardware issues.

Playing DVD movies for training purposes is a common occurrence among many companies today. The typical setup uses a computer as the DVD player, which offers greater flexibility and usually is cheaper than buying a standalone DVD player. However, DVD drives often present a new challenge to IT support pros. As a guide to help you support DVD technology in your organization, I have compiled an explanation of the technology used with this media, along with some tips on how to install a DVD drive in a computer. I also explain some troubleshooting steps you can take to resolve hardware issues that might crop up.

Talking the talk
Digital video disc, or DVD, is a method of optical storage that brings home entertainment, computers, and business information together in a single format. Eventually, the industry hopes DVD will be used for movies, music, software, video games, and other types of entertainment and business media.

The most popular use for DVD today is DVD-Video, which is the format used to store digital movies. DVD-Video offers such features as support for wide-screen movies, multiple camera angles that allow you to select different viewpoints during playback, and up to eight tracks of digital audio, each with up to eight channels for things such as multiple languages.

DVD movies are stored in MPEG-2 compression format. MPEG is an acronym for the Moving Picture Experts Group, which oversees the MPEG-2 standard, as well as other industry formats such as MPEG-1, MPEG-4, and MPEG-7. MPEG-2 is the industry standard video compression technique that also allows for special features such as easy navigation, parental controls, and various camera angles.

To play an MPEG-2 movie, it must be uncompressed, or decoded. Decoding requires a very fast processor and a video adapter with MPEG decoding capability. If your computer doesn’t have such a video card, you can either upgrade the video card or purchase a dedicated MPEG decoder card. If your computer has a fast processor—anything over 400 MHz should do—you should be able to simply upgrade the video adapter. If you have an older computer with a processor slower than 450 MHz, you will probably need the dedicated MPEG decoder card to relieve some of the strain on the CPU. To use such a card, simply plug it in to one of your computer's PCI slots.

Installing your DVD drive
Installing the hardware for your DVD drive is no different than installing an IDE/ATAPI CD-ROM drive and video card. First, remove the computer’s case. Then, determine where the AGP slot is located and carefully remove the old video card. Next, install the new video adapter in the AGP slot and secure it to the case with the mounting screw.

Then, you must determine where you will mount the DVD drive in the computer case. When you have selected a location, remove any spacers or faceplates, slide the drive into the drive bay, and secure it with at least four screws. Once the drive is in place, attach the audio cable, ribbon cable, and power supply connector to the drive and to the motherboard.

You should then check the computer system to ensure that the hardware has been installed correctly and that you didn't accidentally knock something else loose. When you've determined that the computer and the DVD drive work, you can put the case back together and connect the computer system again.

The final step is the software installation. Because there are so many different video adapters and software packages on the market, I will not cover this topic in-depth. For the purpose of this article, I used a Matrox Millennium G400 video adapter and WinDVD 3.0 as the DVD player software. These are common products, and since most follow the same general setup guidelines, you should have no problem following my examples.

Basic troubleshooting steps
When troubleshooting a failed DVD drive, first shut down the computer and power-cycle it. As simple as this may seem, this can help you determine if the problem is recurring or intermittent. When you power the computer back on, open and close the DVD drive to verify that it has power. If your drive doesn't have a tray, insert a CD and eject it to verify power.

Next, open the computer’s case and make sure the cables are connected correctly. You may even want to reseat the DVD-related cables. Pay special attention to the ribbon cable and verify that pin one is connected to pin one on both the motherboard and DVD drive.

If you think the problem is software related—you experience fuzzy video, screen lockups, etc.—update your virus scan files and run a full scan on your system. This is another very basic step, but doing so will eliminate any doubt about viruses. You might even find a virus that could cause trouble elsewhere on your system.

After updating the virus scan files, you should remove the DVD player software and reinstall it. When you do, close all other applications and disable any other software that's running, such as the virus scan package. Occasionally, other software running on the system will cause the new software not to install.

If you are having problems playing a DVD, playing another DVD that you know has recently worked will help you to determine whether the problem is related to the DVD or the DVD drive or computer. If a different DVD plays, try cleaning the nonworking DVD with a lint-free cloth or using an audio-CD-cleaning kit that can be found at most music stores.

If you tried the above steps and it still won't play, launch Windows Explorer and try to view the files on the disk. If you can view the files, you can be relatively certain the hardware is working correctly, and you should turn your attention to the software configuration.

Electronic devices are dust magnets. Components such as DVD players are very sensitive and won’t work reliably when dirty. If you are experiencing read and seek errors, you might be seeing the effects of a dirty read head. The best bet for cleaning the read head is to check the drive’s manual or manufacturer’s Web site for instructions. While some manufacturers recommend using a drive-cleaning kit, others don't recommend using them and instead tell you to have the drive professionally serviced.

Read and seek errors can also point to bad read head alignment. If you still experience these errors after cleaning the drive, you may want to have the DVD drive professionally serviced. However, with the cost of DVD drives dropping rapidly, replacing the drive may be a cheaper option.

Intermittent problems, such as when the DVD drive plays one DVD but not another, are sometimes the most difficult issues to troubleshoot. Make note of what precipitated the issue and then see if you can make the problem pop up on a regular basis. This will help you narrow down where the problem originates and ultimately how to fix it.

Updating the driver
If your issue is software related, ensure you're using the correct driver and that it is the current version. In Windows 2000, you can view the current driver and perform an update using the Device Manager. To access this feature, click on the System icon in Control Panel. The System Properties dialog box will appear, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A
Click on the Hardware Tab after the System Properties box appears.

From the Hardware tab, access the Device Manager by clicking on the Device Manager button. You will then see the Device Manager dialog box, shown in Figure B.

Figure B

To view driver information about a particular device—in this case, the DVD drive—you should expand the device category and then double-click on the device. This will take you to the device's properties dialog box, shown in Figure C.

Figure C

If you click on the Driver tab, shown in Figure D, you're provided with basic information about the device driver. The Uninstall button can be used to uninstall the driver, and the Update Driver button launches the Update Driver Wizard.

Figure D
You can also click on the Driver Details button to view information about the specific files that have been loaded for the driver.

Resolving common audio and video issues
Many DVD-related video issues are similar to video problems that plague most high-end video users, such as gamers. As I recommended, you should turn to the owner manuals for the DVD drive decoder board. Verify that the computer system meets all of the hardware requirements for each component and that all of the components are compatible with each other.

Even if the system meets the minimum requirements, it may not be up to the task of playing DVD movies, especially if you are using other applications at the same time; this can overburden the system. If there are no other applications running and the system still experiences video hiccups or frequent pauses during video playback, the computer needs additional memory or a more powerful processor.

Also, CPUs without an L1 or L2 cache won’t be able to process the data fast enough to provide good quality DVD playback. If your system suffers from this problem, you will probably need to either upgrade the motherboard and processor or add an MPEG decoder board. I recommend upgrading the entire system because doing so will provide you with more overall flexibility and functionality.

If you decide to use an MPEG decoder card in the system and you don’t see a picture or the video appears fuzzy, the decoder card may be conflicting with another card. To determine the culprit, remove each non-DVD card one by one to see if the problem is resolved. If you are unable to resolve the problem, try seating the MPEG decoder board in the last PCI slot to ensure it's the first card to be allocated system resources.

DVD audio-related problems are usually easy to resolve. First, make sure that the volume on the speakers is turned up and verify that the system volume is not muted. Next, check the sound card’s mixer to verify that the CD-ROM sound is not muted and that the volume is also turned up. Finally, check the DVD player’s volume controls to ensure that they are correctly set.

On the hardware side of things, you should verify that the speakers are turned on and plugged in correctly. If you’ve just installed the speakers, make sure they are plugged in to the correct adapter on the sound card. As a last resort, open the computer's case and make sure the sound cable from the DVD drive to the sound card is connected correctly.

With the cost of DVD drives for your computer becoming much cheaper, many companies are finding a use for DVD drives, which means more IT pros will need to be able to install and troubleshoot them. Installation is fairly straightforward, and most problems aren't too difficult to correct when you know what to look for.

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