When Microsoft revealed that it would remove DVD movie playback functionality from Windows 8, enthusiasts howled in protest.  Truth be told, DVD playback is a legacy feature in an age of pervasive connectivity and new Windows device types like Ultrabooks, tablets, and hybrid PCs that lack optical drives in the first place. But it’s easy to add DVD playback to Windows 8 if you really need it. In fact, it can be free.

While there are multiple approaches to getting DVD playback in Windows 8, I’ll just focus on two of the better solutions. You can use the Microsoft approach, which involves installing the optional Windows Media Center software, currently available for free in the Release Preview. Or you can install one of several third party applications that provide DVD playback for free. I’ll discuss the one I use and recommend.

Method 1: Windows Media Center

When Microsoft carved up its Windows 8 Product line into separate Core and Pro product editions, it also broke out some functionality into a separate add-on pack that users will be able to purchase for a nominal fee once Windows 8 is released to the public. For now, during the Release Preview timeframe, you can experience that add-on pack for free by using a new Windows 8 utility, Add Features to Windows 8, in tandem with a product key that Microsoft provides in a hard-to-find Windows 8 Release Preview FAQ.

Since I already wrote about this process in Windows 8 Release Preview: Install Windows Media Center, the steps described below are taken from that article.

Note that you must first close any apps and open windows you’re using. This process will reboot your computer and it will do so without warning or a chance to stop it.

When you’re ready, launch Add Features to Windows 8 (easiest way: Start Search). Then, choose “I already have a product key” from the opening screen. In the Enter Your Product Key view, enter the following product key:

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The wizard will validate the key and then note that the key works. Click Next to Continue. In the next view, Ready to Add New Features, accept the license terms. Then, click Add features to continue. The wizard will display a progress bar and note that it is adding the feature. Then, Windows will disappear and you’ll see the full-screen install experience that occurs when you install updates during a reboot. Your PC will reboot.

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When it does, and you’ve signed in, you can return to the desktop, where you’ll see that the Add Features to Windows 8 control panel has completed. Now, you can simply run Media Center and use this application to play DVD movies.

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Media Center as a DVD player

Method 2: VLC Player

Using Media Center for DVD playback isn’t a horrible approach, but it’s only free for now and isn’t really an optimal solution. So even if you plan to use Media Center for some other reason—perhaps for its digital video recording (DVR) features—you should consider keeping another DVD playback solution on hand. The one I use and recommend is VLC Player. It’s free, which is great, but it’s also a terrific digital video player, one that supports both hard and soft captioning in H.264 video files. It’s one of the most useful digital media applications out there.

The official source for downloading VLC Player is videolan.org.

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VLC Player: Free DVD movie playback, and a ton of other useful video player features

Whichever method you use, you’ll probably want to make sure that the appropriate app is set up as the default for DVD playback and, perhaps, other file associations. I’ll be discussing that process in a future tip.