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Windows Vista cripples high-def movies

Researcher criticises Vista's content protection

Windows Vista’s content protection features are preventing customers from playing high-quality video and audio and harming system performance, according to computer researcher Peter Gutmann.

"If there was any threat modelling at all, it was really badly done," Gutmann, from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, said while giving a talk on Vista content protection at the USENIX Security Symposium in Boston last week. "Once the enemy is the user and not the attacker, standard security thinking falls apart."

Vista requires premium content like high-definition movies to be degraded in quality when sent to high-quality outputs, so users are seeing status codes that say "graphics OPM resolution too high". Gutmann calls this "probably the most bizarre status code ever".

While Microsoft's intent is to protect commercial content, home movies are increasingly being shot in high definition, Gutmann said. Many users are finding they can't play any content if it's considered "premium".

"This is not commercial HD content being blocked, this is the users' own content," Gutmann said. "The more premium content you have, the more output is disabled."

Gutmann, who wore a white T-shirt marked with a Windows Vista logo during his presentation, first issued his criticisms several months ago with a paper titled A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection.

Gutmann's paper called Vista's content protection rules "the longest suicide note in history".

Microsoft acknowledged that quality of premium content would be lowered if requested by copyright holders, the BBC reported. Microsoft defended its copyright protections after Gutmann's paper came out, saying they are common features of many playback devices, the BBC article says.

The protections allow copyright holders to prevent video from being played in high definition unless users have equipment that supports the High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) digital rights management system developed by Intel. If PC users have graphics cards with video connections that don't support HDCP, they are out of luck.

High-definition audio is also blocked in many cases, Gutmann said.

"It's taking this open architecture that IBM created 25 years ago and making it closed again," he said.

In a 132-slide PowerPoint presentation, Gutmann outlined numerous features of Vista that he says are frustrating customers and programmers. New functionality related to content protection makes it hard to develop new drivers, he said. When ATI was finally able to ship Vista drivers, they crashed Windows, and Dell and Gateway had to delay Vista upgrades because they couldn't get working drivers, he said.

Gutmann said hardware costs will increase because vendors can't provide Vista-approved security functionality unless Hollywood studios like MGM, 20th Century Fox and Disney grant written approval saying the content security meets their standards.

A Vista function known as 'tilt bits' - like the tilt sensor in pinball machines - requires hardware and software drivers to report every minor glitch, even ones that cause no problems, Gutmann said.

"Every otherwise unnoticeable minor glitch is suddenly surfaced and turned into a showstopper," he said.

Separately, all the extra encryption required to meet Vista's content protection standards means some computer components can never enter power-saving mode, he said. Thus, when you play a movie your CPU keeps running at full steam, he said. The extra power demands make it hard to reduce electricity usage.

"It's a bit of an extreme claim, but you could say Windows Vista causes global warming, because it's burning so much power with all this nonsense," Gutmann said.

The encryption requirements render high-end graphics processing units less effective, he said, because the best of those products emphasise graphics performance over content protection. On Vista, $100-video cards can thus outperform those that cost $1,000.

Gutmann argued that Microsoft placed content protection above all other priorities when building Vista, perhaps to gain favour and money from Hollywood. Microsoft should have instead focused this effort on security features that protect users, Gutmann said, such as encrypted paging to protect user secrets, protected content domains that keep out malware, and anti-debugging techniques to prevent rootkit hooking.

New Zealand's government, which has argued that digital rights management fails to address the rights of people and government, appears to be the only government worldwide to express public concern about Vista's content protection standards, Gutmann said.

See also:

Windows Vista review


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