unless you got an oem LE version chucked in with some hardware you purchased, powerdvd aint free
People sometimes dont realise that if you using xp or previous - that apart from a dvd drive itself, you also need a software decoder(mpeg2) to be able to play DVDs.
Interestingly, in some countries it is actually illegal to use mpeg2 decoders if they are for the purpose of playing ripped DVDs ! ridiculous !!
In the home theater pc crowd, most people use either the powerdvd or nvidia purevideo decoders as they were certified for compatibility with windows media center edition. However, since vista - this has been irrelevant, as MS finally got off their ass and made their own inbuilt mpeg2 decoder which is in Vista Home Premium and upwards.
there are a set of open source mpeg2 decoders out there - you can get them 'inbuilt' with programs like VLC - I personally prefer to have more control over what filters Im installing - especially in my htpc - so dont worry about this - but its a decent free solution for most.
Still, for those that have VistaHP and above - I dont see the big deal with using WMP11 or even the media center interface - which allows snazzy cover artwork and metadata - if you like arranging your collection thus.
Since quality compression filters like H264 and Mastroka, I think DVD/Mpeg2 is a glorius waste of space. Ripped onto a drive >> Up to 7GB for one file(w menus etc of course) whereas you can achieve just as impressive quality with h264/mkv at 700MB !
It all depends on how you intend to watch them. If its just windowed on your deskie then you might as well use VLC or WMP. Some proggies like windvd etc have excellent features that allow you to make gifs and caps from a movie.
If it purely for watching DVD on a TV/monitor - then your best off going for the media center interface - if you have vista HP or above - the resize options are great. If you have plain xp - you can install the open source media center clone , mediaportal
which allows all the cover art thingy etc as well.
With a compatible remote, you can use your pc as a media storage device... I have over 4TBs of storage now on my htpc network(2 full time htpcs), though not any DVDs at the moment. I know people who have their entire DVD collection ripped onto HDD for use in mediacenter/mediaportal.
btw - the free mpeg2 codecs can be downloaded on their own in the ffdshow package. If your into comprehensive codec packages, the best on is xp is CCCP. But only really install this if you know what your after
VLC of course has all that built into it.
In Vista, installing something like the vista codec pack, and creating associations with WMP, will allow you to open every single filetype in WMP or vista media center - including youtube etc .flvs, quicktime and realmedia stuff. In vista of course, you also have the great snip tool, which allows you to make a screencap of anything on your screen - tis great