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Each new version of Windows has dropped some features and added new ones. New Windows 8 features include its touch-centric interface, the Modern UI, and everything associated with it. It's obvious when new things come in, but not as obvious when things go missing, such as a Windows 8 media player.
One of Microsoft's major omissions in the operating system has been the Media Center app -- and along with it, the coder/decoders (codecs) that allow for DVD playback in Media Player and in "vanilla" Windows 8 generally.
First, let's look at some background. DVD playback on Windows requires a codec, software that provides the system with a way to decode the encrypted audio and video. The codec also performs navigation across the disc.
Windows XP didn't include such things by default, but there were many third-party applications, such as CyberLink PowerDVD. The Windows Media Center app was also developed in part as a way to add DVD playback to Windows desktops.
With Windows 7, the DVD codecs were included as a standard part of the OS, along with Windows Media Center. However, the codecs have been omitted for Windows 8 DVD playback, and the Windows Media Center app is no longer provided by default, either.
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Why do this? There are several reasons, the first of which is cost. When Microsoft included the codecs for DVD playback in Windows, it had to pay a licensing fee -- not a huge one, but it was one of the many small things that could drive up the price of a copy of Windows. Eliminating the codecs for a Windows 8 DVD player kept costs down and made for more parity across the different OS versions.
Another reason for the omission of a Windows 8 media player was lack of use, according to Microsoft. "Our telemetry data and user research show us that the vast majority of video consumption on the PC and other mobile devices is coming from online sources such as YouTube, Hulu, Netflix or any of the other myriad of online and downloadable video services available," said a Building Windows 8 blog post. "Globally, DVD sales have declined significantly year over year, and Blu-ray on PCs is losing momentum as well."
Longtime students of Microsoft's decision-making process will recognize the same reasoning as for the company's removal of the Start button: Microsoft's telemetry said it simply wasn't being used.
This won't reassure users (myself included) who still watch DVDs, and now Blu-ray discs as well, on their PCs. Fortunately, there are a few possible solutions to this Windows 8 problem:
1. Buy Media Center for Windows 8 as a separate add-on.
Media Center wasn't completely discontinued as a product. Rather, it was simply removed from Windows as a bundled item. A user can always add Media Center back into Windows 8 by way of the "Add features to Windows 8" Control Panel option, albeit at a cost. For a limited time (before Jan. 31, 2013), the Media Center add-on was offered as a freebie, but now it's available for $9.99. Media Center is also available as part of the Windows 8 Pro Pack, which costs $99.99.
Note that Media Center only allows Windows 8 DVD playback through Media Center, so this might not be the best option for many users.
2. Buy a third-party DVD playback application.
Many third-party commercial applications exist for DVD playback on desktops and laptops. Chief among them are CyberLink PowerDVD and Corel WinDVD, whose codecs can also be used by Windows Media Player to play back DVDs in that application as well.
The disadvantage with these applications is that they're fairly costly -- far more so than Media Center's $10 list price.
3. Use a noncommercial program that provides DVD playback.
Some free and open source applications, such as the VLC media player, can perform DVD playback. However, they have their own pitfalls. In VLC's case, they don't make their codecs available to the rest of the system.
Also, the legality of the program may be questionable in some areas, since VLC is developed in France, and laws about intellectual property vary between jurisdictions.
Another possible reason for why Microsoft has been scaling back and repackaging multimedia support in Windows is because it's positioning the Xbox 360 and Xbox One as its main media device in the home, especially for disc-based media.
PCs are taking a backseat, and many notebooks and even desktop systems now ship without an optical drive. Whatever the reason, it helps to know that you have options for restoring Windows 8 DVD playback if you need that capability.