How to Make Your Mac Region Free for DVD Viewing

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There is one laptop upgrade that gives no performance benefit, but it adds a long-desired feature of frequent travelers, which is a swap of the built-in Combo or SuperDrive for a different model, because Apple’s PowerBooks and MacBooks use Matsushita (Panasonic) optical drives, and it’s, impossible to flash firmware on these drives.

If these drives did everything they are advertised to do, this wouldn’t be an issue, but the fact is that most Matsushita SuperDrives, though rated at 8x, only burn at 2x unless you have either Apple’s DVD-R media or get very, very lucky on third party media.

The drive in the 12″ ‘Books also lacks the ability to burn dual-layer disks.

Finally, while this is possibly illegal and definitely voided my warranty, I wanted a drive that I could remove the RPC-2 firmware and replace with RPC-1 firmware, meaning a region-free drive.

Region Codes

DVD movies are region coded, so a movie purchased in the United States (Region 1) won’t work on a drive set up for South Korea (Region 3).

This is a non-issue for most people, and it was designed so that video pirates couldn’t buy a DVD released early or with different version in one market and sell illegal copies in another market where the movie was not approved or was released later or in a different version.

DVD regions

I think this is baloney, and as someone who travels frequently between the United States and South Korea, I have a mixed DVD collection that is roughly 70% Region 1 and 30% Region 3. I’m not sure where, but somewhere along the way I picked up a Region 2 (UK) copy of Sean of the Dead as well.

With a laptop drive, the manufacturer generally allows the region to be changed four times after it’s initially set, at which time it locks forever. The manufacturer can unlock a locked drive but will charge for the privilege, as this is not a warranty repair (nothing is broken).

Some manufacturers simply won’t do it at all, while others will do it once or twice before closing the door on you.

Going Region Free

On a Windows PC, going region free is much easier than on a Mac. There are software programs that intercept the DVD before the operating system even sees the region code and tricks it into thinking that it’s Region 1 regardless of what it really is. I used one such application on my ThinkPads for years and never had to worry about flashing firmware on drives or resetting region counters on the operating system.

Mac users don’t have it so good. While there is a website devoted to region free computing (www.rpc1.org), the Mac section is much smaller than the PC section. Worse yet, the brilliant programmer who figured out Macintosh ports of PC drive flashing utilities, a guy who used the handle XVI, has retired, and thus no new flashers have been forthcoming.

All hope is not lost, as there are utilities out there for older drives and for Windows. With access to a PC, a drive can be flashed and then moved to your Mac.

Other obstacles to getting a region free drive in your Mac is the Mac OS itself. Some drives are not supported for burning under Apple’s iApps, though Toast will usually burn anything, and a utility called PatchBurn can restore burn functionality in Apple’s apps with certain drives. The folks on the rpc1.org Mac-specific forum are very helpful, and there are many archived posts about which drives work and which don’t.

I spent a lot of time on that forum, and after much research I decided on the Pioneer DVR-K05 slot loading SuperDrive for my pair of PowerBooks. If you own a tray-loading iBook, you can get the DVR-K15, which is the exact same drive except for the tray mechanism.

Software Alternatives

Either way, you want a utility called DVRFlash, an updated firmware, and enough time to read the forums and all of the instructions. This is a fairly complicated procedure that requires you to go into the Terminal. While some members of RPC1.org will point you in the right direction to find instructions, most will just rudely diss you for asking the same questions that everyone else has asked and already had answered.

I followed the directions in the readme, it worked, and that was it for me. Like the guys on the forum, I don’t have the patience (and, unlike them, I also lack the knowledge) to talk someone else through mucking with the terminal. The instructions provided with the files are simple enough, though, so if you print the directions and take your time, you should do okay.

All right, so you’ve spent your time and money, and now you have a region free drive in your PowerBook. What next? You aren’t ready to watch multiple DVD regions yet; you still need to deal with the region change counter in OS X. Fortunately, rpc1.org has links in their forum to a program called Region X, which is also now available as a universal binary. What Region X does is allows you to reset OS X’s region change counter, so after you’ve switched back and forth between Regions 1 and 3 four times and your Mac tells you that no further chances are permitted, you can go into Region X and just reset the counter back to 4. It’s that easy.

Of course, there is a much easier and cheaper way to watch multiple regions on your ‘Book, although it doesn’t work with every drive and on occasion has made unwanted region changes to non-region-free (RPC2) drives according to posters on rpc1.org. The solution is use VLC (Video LAN Client) instead of Apple’s DVD Player.

To make this work you must go into System Preferences for DVD Movie and either set VLC as the default application or set it to ignore. This will cause OS X to think of the non-Region 1 DVD as a data disk and mount it in the Finder. VLC doesn’t query region code and will just play the movie, though the interface is nowhere near as nice as Apple’s, and there are some stability issues.

Region Free Drives the Best Choice

Finally, you should consider the risk if it does change your region and the fact that it might just not work on your particular computer and drive (it’s been known to happen). I tried VLC on my PowerBooks, and it worked great, but I found the interface annoying and the quality a bit jittery compared to Apple’s DVD Player, which is why I went to the trouble and expense of getting region free drives.

In the end, if you travel and have movies from more than one region, it’s worthwhile to pursue a region free movie solution. For infrequent multi-region users, I’d recommend giving VLC a try first, but for hard core region switchers, a region free drive is the way to go.

My thanks to everyone at rpc1.org and to the great work of XVI, Las Vegas, and The Dangerous Brothers for making the utilities and firmware available.

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