I just got a new DVD player. It’s a Sampo DVE620, and it’s rather notorious because it has features that DVD players aren’t supposed to have. Namely, it’ll play any DVD from anywhere in the world, period.

This isn’t the way DVDs are supposed to work. Part of the deal that manufacturers made with Hollywood was that their consumer DVD players would only play DVDs that were sold in the same country or region. Hollywood divided the world into about seven different zones: North America, South America, Europe/Japan, Africa, and so forth. They sell the rights to produce DVDs of a given movie to companies in each region, so they get more money and exert more control over where and how their movies are sold.

This system means that DVDs from, say, England or Japan won’t work in American DVD players and vice versa.

It’s not the same issue as NTSC/PAL, which are the two main formats for video in the world. (PAL is used by Europe, and NTSC by the U.S.) That’s a basic divergent-technology problem. The region encoding is a commercial practice that doesn’t particularly benefit anyone except the studios.

The Sampo DVE620 is a low-end DVD player, retailing for about $160 in the U.S. The same player is sold under other brand names in several countries.

Even without the bonus features, it’s a pretty amazing unit. It plays DVDs, audio CDs, VCDs (a cheapo movie format popular in Asia), and if you’ve made CD-Rs with MP3 music files on them, it’ll play them too. It supports Dolby DTS digital audio, and while it has regular stereo audio/video outputs, it also has S-Video, Component Video, and Digital Audio outputs. And it works on both PAL and NTSC television sets, playing both PAL and NTSC DVDs as needed on either standard. Whether or not these features mean anything to you, they’re a little unusual on a consumer player at the low end of the spectrum.

But it has more. The Sampo engineers enabled cheat codes, just like in many computer and video games. Type in one number and a secret menu pops up that lets you turn off the region blocking. Once that’s set, you can play movies from anywhere in the world. Type in a different code and you can disable Macrovision–that’s the standard copy-protection format used in both VHS videos and DVDs. When Macrovision is working, it detects if you’re running the signal into, say, a VCR and cycles the brightness up and down so that the movie doesn’t look good. This is to prevent you from recording DVDs onto videotape, but it also prohibits you from passing your DVD signal through your VCR–useful if you use your VCR for TV tuning and output to your stereo system, for instance. Even if you aren’t copying the movie, it still looks bad while you watch it. Thanks to Sampo, I can now run my DVD player through my VCR, which eliminates a couple cumbersome steps in watching movies at home.

And finally, the Sampo DVD player is hackable. You can upgrade the software it uses by downloading a newer version off the internet, burning a CD-R with the file on it, and sticking it in the player. After a few seconds, it flashes the new software into its motherboard. (The most recent software version disables the secret features, but you can flash an older version on there and restore them. Intermediate versions improve picture quality in various ways.) Plus, unlike the rest of the DVD players on the market, the Sampo uses a standard PC DVD drive. If you have a DVD drive in your computer, you can take it out and plop it into the Sampo’s case, with the Sampo’s features intact. This is pretty sweet, since DVD drives are getting better as time goes on.

In short, the Sampo DVE620 is one of the few pieces of consumer electronics that you can upgrade the way you would a computer.

Why should you care? There’s a wealth of movies and television series out there that you just can’t get in the U.S. The region-coding practice works against you, because if there isn’t enough market for a U.S. company to release a given title then you can’t watch it. But with a Sampo DVE620 you can.

My Sampo arrived today. I typed in the cheat codes and it worked fine. Using a Japanese DVD that previously didn’t work on my old DVD player, I verified that it plays just fine on the Sampo.

Browsing Amazon.co.uk, I found a lot of things I’d love to see. Want the second season of THE SOPRANOS? It’s available right now, along with several seasons of BUFFY, FARSCAPE, and other shows. Today I ordered a complete box set of THE PRISONER for about $75; in the U.S., you can only buy the first four DVDs (out of five) for a total of about $100. Even with shipping, the complete U.K. set is much cheaper than the U.S. one–and it’s all available now.

I also ordered THE RING, an amazing Japanese horror film. In the U.K., you can buy a DVD with English subtitles. But in the U.S., the Hollywood studio Dreamworks bought the U.S. rights and buried them, because they’re trying to do a remake. It’s entirely possible that we may never see THE RING released in the U.S. thanks to Dreamworks, but thanks to this Sampo player, I’ll be watching it next week.

My local specialty video store, Scarecrow, carries a great selection of international DVDs. They rent the Sampo players there, and also sell them (for $280, unfortunately). I can rent or buy movies from all over the world, obscure stuff that can get a release in its home country but will never be brought to the U.S.

Sampo got in trouble with the Motion Picture Association of America over this player, and as a result the newest shipping version of the Sampo isn’t nearly as cool. It doesn’t offer the secret features, and it drops the PC-standard DVD drive in favor of a more typical component unit that you can’t do much with. But you can still flash one of the older software versions into the unit and restore the global play.

This unit is a great opportunity, and it’s not going to be around much longer. Sampo is replacing it entirely later this year. If this is something you think you want, you should act fast. There are other options out there, but the Sampo is fast, cheap, and out of control.

Where can you buy one? They pop up on eBay and elsewhere for $250-$300. But at present, you can call and order one for about $160 from some video store in Kansas:


Cameras, Camcorders & Computers

635 S. Kansas Avenue

Topeka, KS 66603

Orders: (800) 359-6533

Inquiries: (785) 235-1386

Fax: (785) 235-2810

I’m not sure that they even know what they have, so asking them if it’s one of the “good” units is probably fruitless. But they had them last week, and I’d suggest you order right away if you want to pursue this.

There is a slight risk involved. The worst case scenario is that you’ll get one with the new firmware, in which case you’ll have to burn a CD-R to upgrade (downgrade, actually) your player.

You can check out the player’s specs at one of many fan web pages (for lack of a better term):


For introductory info, cheat codes, and downloads of all the various versions of the firmware code:

(UK) http://www.area450.co.uk/

(US) http://www.geocities.com/reversengineer_2000/sampo/

These sites are also amusing examples of hardcore wireheads:

> There is some rivetting information about how Darrell yanked out his DVD drive

> and stuck another one in, and also how he created a back-up EEPROM in the

> event that one of his firmware flashes eventually completely trashed his 660 !