When you install Windows 8 on your system, you gain access to a number of new features. Some are clear upgrades over previous versions of Windows — the new system-wide search, for instance — while others are more controversial "side-grades," rather than clear improvements. There's one thing that's a clear-cut downgrade, though: DVD playback.
While earlier versions of Windows included a free, built-in DVD player, Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 have no such functionality. It can still read data DVDs, but if you want to play that copy of Rocky IV you got for $2 on clearance at Target, you're out of luck.
Fortunately, you've got plenty of options for restoring DVD-playback functionality to Windows 8, for free. Here's what we recommend:
Option 1: Just try it!
Before you do anything else, check to make sure that you actually can't play a DVD in your computer. If you bought a boxed Windows 8 laptop or desktop computer with a DVD drive, the manufacturer will almost certainly have pre-loaded it with DVD playback software. Pop a DVD in and see if it plays!
Option 2: Download VLC
If you're upgrading to Windows 8 or built your own PC from scratch, you'll actually have to download software to watch DVDs. Fortunately, there's a free, fast way to get DVD playback in VLC, a powerful media player from VideoLAN.
When you want to watch a DVD, open VLC and — with the DVD in your drive — click Menu, then Open Disc.
VLC's a handy program to have on any new system, anyway, as it's capable of opening virtually any audio or visual file format, including quite a few that Windows Media Player can't handle. If you want to play Blu-ray discs, there's a codec pack of questionable legality (and hit-and-miss functionality) available. Alternatively, you could download a premium program such as CyberLink's $55 PowerDVD 12, which plays both DVDs and Blu-ray discs without a hitch.
Option 3: Install the Windows Media Center Pack
Microsoft didn't do away with DVD playback in Windows entirely — they just moved it to the for-pay Windows Media Center pack, which costs $10.
If you have the basic version of Windows 8, you can't download Windows Media Center without also paying $100 to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro. If you're just looking for DVD playback and could care less about Windows 8 Pro's other special offerings, we'd recommend just going with the VLC option above.
Be warned: While Windows Media Center handles DVDs like a pro, it can't play Blu-ray discs whatsoever.
Actually downloading the Windows Media Center Pack is a somewhat convoluted process involving the Search charm, obscure settings options, and paying for product keys. Microsoft's Add features to Windows 8.1 page can walk you through the entire process of buying both the Windows 8 Pro and Windows Media Center Pack upgrades. When you're done, your computer will restart and install Windows Media Center, including DVD playback.
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