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DVD: At last, video lives up to its potential
technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
Simple gray rule

DVD: At last, video lives up to its potential

Technofile for Jan. 17, 1999

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers

My wife and I watched our first DVD movie the other night. It was spectacular.

It was a rental movie, wide screen, full of amazing sound effects. I was so engrossed in the technical quality I've forgotten the name. All I remember is that it was a thriller and the good guys won.

Maybe you think I'm kidding. How can somebody with half a brain watch a movie for a couple of hours and not remember what it was called or who was in it?

Not so fast. If you're a Generation X'er or on the young side of the Boomer generation, you don't know what it was like growing up in the early years of commercial television. Guys like me fell asleep night after night dreaming about picture-perfect visions of gorgeous color, movie screens as wide as the sky, wake-me-when-it's-over hi-fi sound, right in our living rooms.

TV was the pits to kids who had tall expectations. When videotape came along, it was just TV on a caffeine jag lousy pictures whenever you wanted them, streaky video and all.

We suffered for years. Nothing really improved between the first few years of color broadcasts in the 1950s and now until DVD. Folks who wanted more -- tech-heads who thought High Definition TV was going to pop out of their screens, maybe might be disappointed in DVD, because it's not HDTV. That's a few years away. But if you ever had dreams like mine when you and TV were both young, you'll surely find DVD the most exciting improvement in video since the discovery of the electron.

If you want an example of what's good in life, DVDs are right up there with baseball and apple pie. Everything is the way it should be -- the picture quality is spectacular, the sound is astounding, the features are incredible. (Want a French or Spanish sound track? Click! A commentary on the current scene? Click! A cool-as-ice still frame? Click!)

Consider the picture. Leave the technical stuff out -- it's boring -- and just consider the overall picture quality. It's four times better than videotape if you just measure resolution (the fine detail in the picture). And it's a zillion times better than videotape or regular television in sharpness.

I'm exaggerating because the real difference in sharpness is much greater than anything you can measure. The pictures on videotape and regular TV usually crawl around the screen a little, in one direction or another. You get used to it and that's that -- until you start watching DVD. Pictures on DVD are steady and super-sharp without the creepy-crawlies. You have to see it to believe it.

DVD disks look just like CDs. But unlike any CD I've ever seen, DVDs are two-sided. (I suppose you might come across a single-sided DVD, but I haven't seen any yet.) This gives DVD producers a chance to put two different versions of a movie on a single DVD a normal shape (so-called 4:3) version on one side and a wide-screen version on the other. The DVD we watched was like that.

But heed this warning: If all you know about wide-screen movies is what you see on the Movie Channel now and then, you're in for a surprise. The "wide" in wide-screen can be v-e-r-y wide, much wider than what is usually shown in so-called letter-boxed versions of movies on TV. Some DVD players try to do you a favor by squeezing the total width back quite a bit to make the movie appear larger on your screen, and that's not a good idea. The movie we watched appeared as a strip across the screen, with a huge area of nothingness above and below it. It was just as the director wanted.

I didn't tell you about our DVD player yet. Actually, we don't have one. We didn't rent one or borrow one, either. We watched our first DVD movie on our new PC. I'll explain how you can do that next week.

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