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Compact Disc

Super CD's, LD's!

DVD replacing audio, video, computer discs all at once!

by Jim Bray

The compact disc, barely into its second decade of existence, could be on the road to extinction if the DVD lives up to its potential.

DVD s are already putting the final nails into the coffin of the venerable laser video disc and are starting to threaten the CD-ROM as well, so the audio CD may not be far behind.

Why? Supreme quality and extreme data storage.

Imagine watching "Amadeus" on your TV, with far better picture and sound than you ve ever gotten from your home theatre equipment before, then listening to the soundtrack album afterward  without changing either the player you re using or the disc you re playing. Imagine watching the latest adventures of the space family Robinson, then capping a leisurely surf of "Lost in Space" trivia with an interactive game accessed via your remote control.

You can do both  today. And you ll be able to do more tomorrow. Imagine buying your favourite recording artist s entire library on a single DVD disc!

Dynamite Value Disc?

DVD s are merely the next generation of CD s, using new technology to push CD storage into the stratosphere. For example, an audio CD holds about 74 minutes of digital sound, but a DVD (which is the same size as a CD) can allow something like 480 minutes. And while laserdiscs hold up to 60 minutes per side, you can stuff "Gone with the Wind" onto a single 5.25 inch DVD disc.

Whew!

The technology came from a couple of sources, including the ever-fertile corporate minds of Sony and Philips  the people who developed today's CD. Naturally, there was a different, competing version as well, from a consortium that included Toshiba and Time Warner  and for a while it looked as if the poor consumer would be stuck with yet another VHS/Beta (or PC/Mac) war.

Fortunately, the makers saw the light and a single system was introduced  though a competing technology called DIVX has recently reared its ugly head and could throw a monkeywrench into DVD s growth. More about that later &.

DVD has crammed into it just about any home theatre toy you could want, including Dolby Digital and/or DTS surround sound audio (six separate audio tracks: front left and right, centre, rear left and right, and subwoofer)  and there's so much room on a disc you can have movie soundtracks (and subtitles) in several different languages, with space to spare for commentaries, still pictures, "trailers", deleted scenes, etc.

The picture quality is the finest one can imagine this side of HDTV and audio quality is equally superb, whether you re watching movies or playing computer games. DVD players also make audio CD s sound simply magical, as if playing the old style discs doesn t even cause them to work up a sweat.

The Magic Behind the Medium &

DVD works similarly to CD s, in that a laser beam is reflected off a series of pits etched into the surface of a reflective disc, but DVD ups the ante considerably.

New generations of lasers use narrower wavelengths (less than a hundredth the width of a human hair, according to one source), so they can focus more precisely. This allows for smaller "pits" that can be spaced more closely together, all of which makes for vastly increased data storage capacity.

Not only that, but they can now take the CD's single layer of pits and put a second layer underneath it  and data can be crammed onto both sides of the DVD as well, making the format s storage potential positively skyrocket.

As if that weren t enough, the wizards behind this magic can also squeeze more video information into fewer pits, thanks to the same digital compression technology that's found in those little 24" satellite dish systems. Put extremely simply, this "MPEG 2" digital compression eliminates redundant information between movie/video "frames", saving space. So if a scene plays out in front of a relatively static background, for instance a hotel room, the fixed information (the room) is only stored once, while parts that change (characters  faces, positions, flying bullets, zooming spaceships), are stored as needed.

The Player s the Thing &

DVD players include all the features we ve come to know and love on CD and laserdisc players, including freeze frame, slo-mo, random access to tracks etc. Only Pioneer Electronics offers a DVD/laserdisc/CD combination player that plays all discs except CD-ROM s, but even the garden variety DVD player is perfectly happy with DVD movies and audio CD s, though as yet none of them play DVD or CD-ROM discs (the former of which are in extremely short supply anyway).

You ll soon be able to record your own DVD s, too. Recordable DVD's (DVD-RAM) are either available or coming soon from most major computer equipment manufacturers. Supposedly recordable up to 100,000 times, the discs aren t compatible with today s video DVD players, but with any luck this will change over the next few years.

Meanwhile, it s easy to imagine a day in the not-too-distant future, when DVD recorders (with built-in TV tuners and timers) have replaced your VCR  because once you ve seen the digital disc in action you ll never want to go back to the muddy, "dropout-laden" picture and "half-earsed" sound of videocassettes.

Rushing out in a buying frenzy &

But for now, DVD means movies, with some games and computer titles. Does this mean your CD player, CD-ROM drive, and laserdisc player are all obsolete?

Well, yes, but don't fret - as long as they keep working and you enjoy your current library they're never really outmoded. Besides, since DVD players are already following the trail blazed by their CD ancestors, units are getting better and cheaper all the time, so it won t hurt to wait a while (though there s no reason NOT to take the plunge right now, either!).

Early CD players really had only one advantage over today's: they were better built. Today's entry level players, plastic as they are, give terrific sound and more features than you're likely to use, and things should happen the same way with DVD s  though it s hard to imagine what other features the engineers can dream up for DVD players that will top what s already available!

Remember, too, that while movie titles are being released fast and furiously, it ll take years for there to be as much DVD software available as there is VHS or even laserdisc. After all, audio CD's are only now catching up with the libraries of the vinyl LP s (remember them?) they re replacing, and they ve been around for fifteen years.

Should you go ahead and buy that CD player you're been eyeing, knowing that there s a DVD player with your name on it just around the corner?

Well &

Low end CD players are still cheaper than low end DVD players, so if you re looking for an inexpensive audio-only solution, a CD player is still a good investment - for now.

DVD movie prices are generally a little higher than "priced to sell" videocassettes, though substantially lower than laserdiscs sold in Canada. Prices range from about $22 to $40 for top movie titles, though there s been a disturbing trend toward higher prices lately. Considering the quality you get, however, and the extra features crammed onto most movie discs, the software isn t really overpriced  yet.

But DVD is terrific. It deserves to be the next technological wave, and you really should get ready to ride it.

And check out TechnoFILE's DVD reviews or surf by our DVD Player Buyers' Guide.

 

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Updated May 13, 2006