Picking the Region Lock: How to Play Foreign DVDs and Blu-Rays Cheaply and Easily

If you’re a collector of physical media like me, you realize how difficult it may be to see the movies you want to see in the way you want to see them.

Allow me to paint for those uninitiated among my readers an all-too familiar scenario:

Ken Russell’s The Devils is commercially available in America and in the UK. The film, which is fantastic and acclaimed, is available in America in a truncated, censored form. The UK version of the film, however, is more complete, featuring additional uncensored and extended scenes not available in any US release. Now, which version would you rather see? The extended edition, of course–the most “pure” form of the film. But you live in America. So what do you do? Well, you could import the film from the UK and watch that. Oh, but wait, you can’t watch it, because your DVD or blu-ray player is region locked and will only allow you to view DVDs released in North America.

This is, as one might imagine, a huge pain in the ass. The reasons for the existence of region locks are many: Piracy prevention, license and copyright defense, and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, the effect of these locks is that the consumer–who is free to purchase movies wherever or whenever they are produced, regardless of domestic or international copyright differences–is prevented from being able to easily enjoy the product they’ve purchased.

DVD Region Map, courtesy of Ursinus College.
DVD Region Map, courtesy of Ursinus College.

So, what is a person to do? Well, there are region free DVD and blu-ray players available online. These machines have been modified to remove the region locks, but some work better than others and many are quite expensive (the better region free players will run at $150.00 or more on average). On top of that, some will try to sell you 4K region free blu-ray players–but 4K discs are already region free, so you’re really just paying more for something that isn’t necessary. Navigating this landscape can be a royal pain. There has to be a better way, right?

Well, as it turns out, there might be. But it will require a laptop you either no longer use, or you don’t intend to use as a physical media machine for anything domestically released.

About two years ago, I discovered that I can play non-US DVDs and blu-rays on my laptop.  Apparently, you can switch regions up to five times before your laptop becomes locked on the last region to which you switched.

Example: We start with a default laptop coded for playing US Canadian DVDs (region 1).  Now, let’s say we watch DVDs from the following regions in this order:

  1. UK (region 2)
  2. Japan (region 3)
  3. US
  4. UK
  5. Japan

After the viewing numbered as “5”, the laptop would be region-locked to region 3 and would only then recognize Southeast Asian DVDs as viewable (so no more US or UK DVDs on that machine). Why and how is this possible?

Laptops are built by a given company in one place and are meant to be sold all over the world. While the software on the laptop is often factory-set to the language and code of a given region, this software treats these languages and codes as options only–because though you may be buying the laptop in, say, Germany, you might actually live in South Korea. And the primary function of a laptop isn’t to play physical media anyway (like a DVD or blu-ray player does), and so laptop companies are largely unconcerned with these things.

Blu-Ray Region Map, courtesy of Ursinus College.
Blu-Ray Region Map, courtesy of Ursinus College.

Even though this doesn’t turn the laptop into a region free machine, this is great news for movie and physical media enthusiasts for two reasons.

First, most film enthusiasts are predominantly interested in a particular region or type of film anyway. For me, as a lover silent film–specifically, German silent film–this has allowed me to order items from the UK-based “Masters of Cinema”, which is like Kino-Lorber on steroids (since Kino’s earliest silent movie releases usually come with sweet fuck-all in terms of special features and booklets) and like Criterion Collection on Red Bull (since Criterion’s versions of some of these releases come with only one commentary track instead of two).

Second, not everyone has the extra money to spend on a region free DVD/blu-ray player, and sometimes people don’t even have the money to spend on the physical media they want. As a lover of money myself (and, thus, of saving money), I’ve discovered that most UK DVDs which interest me are cheaper than their American counterparts.  For instance, did you know that classic series Doctor Who DVDs go for $30 to $40 here in the US?  If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you did know that–and all too well, I’d wager.  And out-of-print classic Doctor Who DVDs go for much more, often racking-up anywhere from $60 to upwards of $500 on eBay, depending upon the DVD in question.  Not so in the UK.  Their classic Doctor Who DVD releases (which are identical to their US counterparts in terms of presentation and special features, mind you) rarely go out-of-print, and can often be purchased for anywhere from $10 to $20 US.

Taking that example further: Let’s say I have seven out-of-print US Doctor Who DVDs that each go for $70 on eBay.  Let’s say I sell them at the going rate, which is indeed $70 each.  I could theoretically buy the UK versions of all seven of these same DVDs (which are, again, no different than their US counterparts save for the regional coding of the DVD itself) for the amount at which I sold one of them here in the US, leaving me with a net gain of $420 when all is said and done.

Conclusion: If you have a shitty old laptop to spare, or if you don’t care about locking your own laptop to some region other than where you live currently, give this method a try. It’ll save you some money, and help you stick it to the man.

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