Here Come Movies On Disk

They're evolving, but DVDs will eventually please both film buffs and computer users

Manufacturers can't agree on a recording format. They can't even agree on what to call it. But despite the squabbling, the digital videodisk, or digital versatile disk, or just plain DVD, is on its way to becoming the next important medium for both computer data and home entertainment, especially movies.

DVD players come in two forms: stand-alone units, starting at about $500, that plug into your television set, and units that replace the CD-ROM drive in a personal computer. These will be standard in some high-end PCs this fall, and in others options will be offered at $300 to $500. Upgrade kits from companies such as Diamond Multimedia Systems Inc. and Creative Labs Inc. can add DVD to older PCs for about the same price.

A DVD looks almost identical to a CD, but thanks to new laser technology, the first-generation disks can hold 4.7 gigabytes of information, more than seven times as much as a CD. (Future versions will hold up to 17 gigabytes.)

The most important initial use for DVDs is for movies. A first-generation disk will hold 133 minutes of video, enough for most feature films plus a wealth of enhancements. Hundreds of movies are being converted to the format. The disks generally retail for about $25.

Even in their still-evolving state, DVD players offer enough advantages over videotape that they're well worth a try, especially for film buffs. The digital format offers much better video quality. Audio comes in both standard stereo or, if you have the right equipment, a five-channel surround-sound format called AC-3.

In many cases, you can view the movie in either the "pan-and-scan" version that fills your TV screen or in "letterbox" format, which preserves the proportions of the theater version--leaving black stripes above and below the picture. You can choose subtitles in several languages, and some disks even offer a choice of soundtracks dubbed into different languages.

MEDIUM OF CHOICE. DVD seems destined to replace tape for prerecorded videos. It might be a while, though, because a group of companies, led by Matsushita, Circuit City Stores, and Walt Disney, in an effort to make disks harder to copy, have devised a format called Divx that challenges the industry standard (BW--Sept. 29). Ultimately, DVD will also become the home-recording medium of choice, but another dispute over formats is holding up development of machines that can both play and record. One bit of comfort for consumers: While today's players may not handle new formats, the disks you invest in now will work in future players.

You can also use a computer's DVD drive to view movies, though I'm not sure why you'd want to. I tried movies in the DVD drive of a Toshiba Infinia 7231, and while it offered all the nifty features of stand-alone models, the display is a big problem. Computer monitors are too small, and movies tend to appear dim and murky. Some computers can send DVD output to a television set, but because signals can be sent only for limited distances through cables, the devices must be in close proximity.

Games have also been advanced as a great DVD application, but here, too, the outlook is as murky as a movie on a computer monitor. True, DVD makes it possible to create video-rich games using live action, but such games are almost as expensive to produce as movies. And in a market segment where profits have been elusive, developers aren't rushing to make huge investments in these new products.

More likely candidates for early DVD use are, not surprisingly, applications that use huge amounts of information. For example, Broderbund Software Inc. is developing a DVD version of its Family Tree Maker program that includes gigabytes of genealogical data on a single disk.

TRAINING VIDEOS. Encyclopedias, other reference works, and mapping programs mostly run to two or more CD-ROMs and are ideal candidates for the new format. And once recordable drives become available, corporations are likely to use DVD for such purposes as distributing training videos or large databases.

Since the DVD drives can read CD-ROMs and audio CDs, and because the price differential between CD-ROM and DVD drives is already narrowing, DVD units should become standard on most desktop PCs over the next year. That will be especially true of machines using the Pentium II processor, which has enough horsepower to decompress MPEG-2 video without help from an add-in card. DVDs will also start appearing in place of CD-ROM drives on high-end laptops this autumn.

I wouldn't rush to upgrade my computer with a DVD drive until there's more content available. At present, there's not much more on offer than reference works. But if you like movies, especially if you're discerning enough to realize that VHS tape doesn't begin to do justice to film, you'll probably get a lot of pleasure out of an investment in a stand-alone player, even if new formats make it obsolete.