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Rock music to classic art: Multimedia is here to stay


My 13-year-old walked triumphantly into the office the other day.

"Guess what, Dad? I got Sting playing on the computer!"

That's the bad news about multimedia. Drop a grand or two on equipment, and your kid figures out how to blast a rock song at you every time you start up your word processor.

Luckily, he isn't into Guns N' Roses.

But multimedia is here, and most of the news is good. Software titles that combine text, graphics, sound and even video are multiplying at an incredible rate. They range from interactive detective games to full-blown encyclopedias.

Suddenly, electronic libraries, ranging from huge census data bases to national phone books to the digitized paintings of the great masters, are available to individuals and small businesses that never could have afforded them before.

With a multimedia PC, you can record and play back sound from virtually any source, and new software can attach voice messages to your written documents. Or, you can forget about that stuff and pop an audio CD in the drive and have your computer play it while you work.

The best news is that the hardware to make this magic work is now affordable, and the industry seems to have coalesced around enough equipment and software standards to make the investment worthwhile.

Multimedia PCs such as Compaq's new ProLinea CDS -- complete with all the equipment you'll need -- are available for well under $2,000, and many include a bundle of multimedia software titles.

If you have a standard IBM-compatible PC or Apple Macintosh, you can add multimedia capabilities for as little as $500. Even the least expensive kits can produce results that are astounding.

What makes a multimedia PC? It's hard to define exactly, but for starters, it's a computer equipped with a CD-ROM drive and hardware that can reproduce voice, sound effects and music.

CD-ROM is an acronym for Compact Disk Read Only Memory. Basically, it's a computer disk drive that uses the same kind of compact disks that your audio system uses. An audio CD stores music digitally, as series of binary ones and zeros. A CD-ROM disk uses the same technology to store any kind of data -- including text, graphics and video clips, as well as sound.

The advantage of a CD-ROM is its capacity -- 500 to 600 megabytes of data. That's enough for an hour or so of Guns N' Roses or an entire encyclopedia, complete with photos, sound and video clips, and maybe even a dictionary and atlas thrown in.

CD-ROMS are faster than floppy disks but much slower than hard disks. They range in price from $300 to $1,000. More money buys you a faster CD-ROM, an advantage in processing audio and video files, or searching large data bases. And features such as an audio outport will allow you to listen directly to audio CDs.

Any drive that meets the Multimedia Personal Computer (MPC) standard can handle casual applications. If you're into digital photography, you may want to look for a drive that can also play Kodak's new highly promoted photo CDs, which use a slightly different format to store their data.

Hooking a CD-ROM to a Macintosh is relatively painless: Just connect the drive to the Mac's Small Computer Systems Interface (SCSI) port. Most Macintosh CD-ROM's are external units that sit next to the computer.

As usual, it's harder to add a CD-ROM to IBM-compatible PCs, which require that you install an SCSI controller board. These are notoriously fussy. However, you will generally have a choice of installing a CD-ROM drive in a standard disk drive bay, which saves desk space, or buying an external unit.

Sound is the other multimedia component. Once again, Macs have an advantage here, because all Macs were built with sound playback capabilities, and newer models have built-in recording capability.

To add sound to an IBM-compatible, you'll have to install a sound board and buy an inexpensive set of speakers or hook the board to your stereo system. Sound boards range in price from $100 to $700.

More money buys you better fidelity and advanced electronics to control keyboards and other electronic instruments that use the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI).

There are dozens of sound boards on the market, and not all of them are compatible. To make sure a sound board will work with your software, buy one that's compatible with AdLib or Sound Blaster equipment.

Microsoft Corp. has also introduced a line of sound boards designed strictly for business, but they're not much fun.

Getting your sound board and CD-ROM to work together can be a hassle. Unless your idea of a good time is setting jumper switches and tweaking software initialization files, I'd recommend buying a kit that includes a sound board and CD-ROM drive designed to work with each other.

Complete multimedia kits are available from Media Vision and Creative Labs, which make the two most popular lines of sound boards, at street prices as low as $450. We've been fooling with Media Vision's low-end Fusion CD system; we've had a wonderful time with it.

Because CD-ROMS can store so much data so cheaply, and because multimedia hardware and software can deal with it in so many different forms all at once, entirely new categories of software are emerging for home and business use.

You pop a disk in your CD-ROM drive and find the national Yellow Pages, listen to Beethoven's Ninth while you follow the score on screen and read the great composer's biography, or help your kids learn to read with an interactive, animated book that speaks in three languages.

Multimedia is affordable and exciting. Try it, and you'll never think of your PC the same way again.

(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

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