Long-awaited DVD is here, but don't rush to buy


FORGET the false starts, the overly optimistic promises and the wrangling among the movie, consumer electronics and computer industries. The long-awaited DVD has finally arrived, at least in some major cities, where a marketing push has begun.

Physically dead ringers for music CDs, a DVD -- digital versatile disk -- can store far more information and play it back faster. Disks now on the market typically cost about $20 and include an entire feature film, often with audio tracks in three languages, several sets of subtitles and menus that let you skip to your favorite scenes. Some disks are double-sided, with the wide-screen version of a film on one side, a TV-tailored format on the other.

DVD players that connect to television sets cost $500 and up and can play music CDs (and in some cases Video CDs) as well. The picture quality is likely to be the best you have ever seen on your television, beating videocassettes by a country mile. Many disks include surround sound, which requires separate equipment to decode it; still, even stereo sounds excellent. Dozens of titles are already available.

However, DVD is not without its drawbacks. The systems are for playback only; recording capabilities are a long way off. Signals that have been applied to many disks to prevent copying them onto videocassettes can create annoying jitters or variations in light intensity in some scenes on some players and television sets, particularly older models. That needlessly comprises a format meant to deliver high video quality.

The music CD is an international format that lets you play any disk on any player anywhere in the word. Not DVD. Taking a leaf from the book of an earlier conqueror, the DVD consortium has divided the world into six parts, so a Region 4 disk (Mexico and points south) will not play in a Region 1 player (United States and Canada). Moreover, some major studios, including Disney, Fox and Paramount, remain on the sidelines, with no DVD titles yet released and no publicly announced plans for any.

The recent hoopla over high-definition television points to another problem the industry prefers to play down: The current incarnation of DVD, good as it is, cannot deliver HDTV-quality images. Although these disks and players will not become obsolete, they are likely to be supplanted within the next few years by what we might call HDVD, with higher quality still.

The computer industry is not sitting by idly. Just as the CD music disk spawned CD-ROM, the DVD has an offspring called DVD-ROM. DVD-ROM players are beginning to trickle into the market, and the first is the PC-DVD Model MK-5000 from Creative Labs Inc. Priced at about $500, the kit can be installed in a Windows 95 machine with a Pentium 133 processor and two megabytes of video memory, an open and accessible 5 1/4 -inch drive bay and a free PCI slot that can accommodate a full-length card. It can be installed, that is, if you know your way around the innards of your computer and avoid misleading directions in the manual.

Once you get everything squared away inside your machine, you connect cables from your video and sound cards to the newly installed decoder card, install the software drivers and spend time tweaking the video, again with little help from the documentation. One problem goes completely unmentioned: The refresh rate used to drive the monitor can have a significant effect on the quality of DVD playback.

If all goes well, you will have a drive that typically sits directly beneath your CD-ROM drive and can play virtually every CD format from audio to DVD-ROM and video. But like most of the first wave of DVD-ROM players, this one cannot handle CD-R and other so-called "multisession" disks like Photo CD's and may possibly damage them.

The next generation of drives should solve this problem, but if you buy an early model, keep such disks out of your DVD-ROM drive and play them on your standard CD-ROM drive instead. It remains unclear whether early-model DVD-ROM drives will play rewriteable dvd disks when they eventually arrive.

On a new Pentium 200 MMX machine, the Creative Labs unit's DVD performance was lackluster at best. Movies that looked fine on a TV set looked even sharper on a computer monitor but revealed "artifacts" of the decompression process. Motion that should have been smooth often looked blocky, edges of moving objects frequently broke up into obvious lines, and cuts between scenes sometimes produced a slatted effect.

Such unpleasant effects are magnified by the greater sharpness of a monitor and the close distance from which you watch it. But several technical issues clearly remain unresolved, and merely adjusting the picture to fill the screen makes it look even worse. The drivers and other software are confusingly technical and have the look of being rushed to market; the on-screen controller, for example, will not let you play a disk in reverse.

DVD-ROM kits with different hardware and software will soon arrive with possible improvements. Computers with built-in players may better integrate the crucial interactions between decoder and video circuitry. But since there are few original DVD-ROM titles designed for computers (as opposed to DVD movies), this is one technology whose adoption can easily be deferred.

DVD-ROM drives should replace CD-ROM units over the next few years, but for now, they are partly dressed up with few places to go. "The No. 1 reason for having this in the beginning," said Steve Mosher, Creative's director of new technology, "is to be the first and to brag."

Pub Date: 4/14/97

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