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DVD is coming! Here's what to expect
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule


DVD is coming! Here's what to expect 


Technofile special

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

Find some room alongside your VCR. Get a few mothballs for your old laser video player. DVD is here and it's hot.

What's DVD? Call it the digital video disk. Or call it the "digital versatile disk," the newest name for DVD. Just don't call it late for dinner. It's here at last and ready to join the home-entertainment feast.

DVD is a whole new way of bringing video into your home. It's also just as new and just as exciting in the computer field. If you leave out the technobabble, you can say that DVD is like a CD with video. A DVD beats the CD in another way, too: It can hold a lot more sound and video—and computer stuff, too—than a CD can. One DVD can store at least five times as much as one CD. That's pretty impressive, since DVDs are the same size as CDs.

And any DVD player you buy—from about $400 on up to $1,000 or so, with prices coming down month by month—can play CDs, too. (CD players can't figure out how to deal with DVDs, though, so don't try playing one on your old CD player.)

But let's get something right out in the open first, because DVDs have a weak spot. You need to know about it.

DVDs don't record. Yet.

They will some day. But right now, you can't go out on a Saturday afternoon and buy a high-tech disk recorder that will replace your VCR. Recordable DVDs could be in stores early next year if the companies that make DVDs get their acts together, but my guess is that you'll have to wait longer than that.

So, for now, DVDs are more like CD players than VCRs. All you can do is play disks. You can't make your own. That keeps the DVD from taking the top spot in home electronics, because just about everyone who can afford a TV also wants a VCR to record and play back shows. When DVDs can record like VCRs, the experts say the VCR will fade into the background just like LP records did when CDs came out.

DVD players use lasers, the same way CD players do. The disks have grooves below the surface that are pockmarked with tiny bumps. On a blank area of the disk, the laser beam strikes the smooth bottom of the groove and bounces back. In areas that contain bumps, the laser beam bounces helter-skelter and never gets a chance to reflect back where it came from.

The player uses this simple technique to change the patterns of bumps into sound and pictures. No bumps for a long time might mean silence or a blank screen, for example. Fifteen bumps in a row might mean something else. (Technically, there are all kinds of bump patterns. I'll be merciful and leave that part of the explanation out.)

Using lasers and plastic disks instead of video tapes gives a big advantage to DVDs. Like CDs, digital video disks can't wear out. They can't jam, either, and they are easy to keep clean (you just wipe them off with a dry cloth).

But the bigger-than-big advantage of DVD players over VCRs is what I call instant access. You've probably used VCRs long enough to know the Dreadful Crawl Syndrome: You're looking for something you recorded last month, and you shuttle the tape this way and that way looking for it. After 15 minutes of searching, you've either found what you're looking for or you've just plain given up.

No need for all that trouble with a DVD. Like CDs, DVDs can locate anything in an instant. A disk index shown on the player and on the TV screen lets you press a button and go right to the spot you want to see. DVD players also fix another problem of VCRs: Although many VCRs let you freeze a frame, they'll let go of the still picture after a few minutes to keep from damaging the tape. There's no such problem with a DVD, which will show perfect stills for as long as you want.

There's more. Because DVDs can hold a lot of sound and pictures, companies that make them can put more than one version of the same movie on the disk. Not all disks have this feature, of course, but don't be surprised if you buy a movie on DVD and discover you have a choice of the "R" rated version for the adults in the family and the "PG" version for the kids. (And many players will let you lock out versions you don't want the kids to see after school while you're still at the office.)

Movies on DVD can also have more than one sound track. You'd be able to switch from the English sound track to Spanish one, for example. Some producers are talking about making a special sound track that has commentary on the movie, too.

What about audio quality? DVDs have the same kind of stereo sound you're already used to on CDs, with an added benefit of surround sound in nearly all the top-budget movies. You can pipe the sound through your present stereo system or you can put your credit card to work with a new surround-sound system. Either way, you'll get great audio.

Fans of computer games will love DVDs, too. That's because many games these days come on more than one CD-ROM (a CD that works with computers). The games are too big to fit in a single CD-ROM.

Games like that will fit easily on a single DVD. Game players will need a DVD "drive" in their computer. It's the same size as a CD-ROM drive and can play both DVDs and CDs. They sell for three or four times the price of CD-ROM drives.

For a demonstration of DVD, visit any of the big department or discount stores that sell TVs. Look for a display that uses a DVD player with one of the new wide-screen TVs to show off DVD at its best.

Then count your pennies. Getting a jump on the future isn't cheap, but the thrills are as exciting as you'll find in any area of home entertainment.


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