Although quite a few DVD software packages for Windows exist, only three of the packages are commonly found as commercial software: CyberLink PowerDVD 3.0, InterVideo WinDVD 3.0, and Ravisent Technologies CineMaster DVD. Most software DVD players that come with high-end video cards or with DVD drives are OEM versions of these three players.

So why would you care about standalone DVD players? After all, the software comes free with video cards and DVD drives, and inexpensive plug-ins for Windows Media Player (WMP) 8 are available for Windows XP users. Well, I received an OEM version of Cyberlink's PowerDVD software when I bought a new video card. I got the video card about 4 months after I added a DVD drive to my desktop system and purchased a copy of PowerDVD to go with the drive. The video-card version of the software was an earlier release of the product that I already had, even though I had purchased the software 4 months earlier, and an even more recent version of the software was available for me to upgrade to.

CyberLink PowerDVD 3.0

This $49.50 DVD player software provides all the features you need to turn your computer into a DVD player. The software supports all Windows versions from Windows XP to Windows 9x and works well, without hardware acceleration, on older Pentium II machines that I tested the software on (the slowest system was a PII-450 with 128MB of RAM).

The software has a lot of the whiz-bang features that you'd expect from digital-media tools. The skinable interface lets you pick a fancy skin for the player, or you can create your own and enter it in the PowerDVD Skinz contest. The company ships five skins with the product, and an online library with 68 different skins is available.

The software offers multiple ways to navigate through your DVDs and a right-clickable context menu you can open from the movie window. Quite a few features in the product are worth investigating, and CyberLink offers a 30-day free trial download on its Web site. The free trial version only plays 30 minutes of video, but it does provide support for all the audio output options. The DVD player software also links to the CyberLink home-entertainment-focused Web portal.

InterVideo WinDVD 3.0

WinDVD is the only one of the big three DVD software players that supports DTS-encoded DVD audio, albeit at a $20 premium over the product's usual $49.95 price. This feature is handy if you collect DTS DVD-audio discs, although you need a good playback hardware system attached to your PC to take full advantage of the feature. (I've found the Yamaha RP-U200 is a decent audio playback system. Go here for a review of the product.)

The WinDVD interface is straightforward and the movie playback quality was very acceptable, although performance was significantly better on 550MHz and faster systems. On 700MHz and faster systems, none of the DVD software packages I've looked at had performance problems. I did have a compatibility problem with an older (1997) Toshiba SCSI DVD-ROM drive that, although not listed on the WinDVD hardware compatibility list, has worked fine with the other software DVD players I've tested, but for the most part, my experience with WinDVD has been successful.

Ravisent Technologies CineMaster DVD

Ravisent's $49.95 CineMaster product did everything that I asked. CineMaster is the workhorse of the DVD player world, and although it's not flashy and lacks some of the bells and whistles that its competitors have, it gets the job done nonetheless. Although CineMaster will be available for XP when the OS launches, CineMaster doesn't have the flash and sizzle of its competitors, which is unfortunate because the product worked very well everywhere I tried it.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that the Ravisent Web site doesn't offer a demo download. CineMaster was prevalent in the early days of DVD-movie playback on computers, but the company hasn't made much effort to stay ahead of the pack. If you're an existing CineMaster user, and you're happy with the software, you can upgrade to the most recent version from the Ravisent Web site. But if you're a new user in the market for a new or different software DVD player, I can't suggest that you spend $50 on the chance that you'll like CineMaster the best.

I've used all three of these major DVD software packages for extended time periods, and although I've found minor technical differences among the three packages and a slightly different set of usability features, personal preference is the most compelling reason to use any one of them. If you're looking for the package that suits you best, take advantage of the demo downloads from Cyberlink and InterVideo. If you have friends with software DVD players, get their feedback about the products they've been using. And, if you're an XP user, you'll soon be able to get all these products' core technologies for less than the price of an individual copy of any of the products.