Originally created 04/28/97

DVD-ROM the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time player



Computer geeks everywhere should hold onto their propeller-head beanies and try to stay firmly on the ground as a gust of hype tries to sweep them into buying one of the new DVD-ROM drives.

I'm completely convinced DVD-ROM will ultimately make today's CD-ROMs obsolete, but that doesn't mean you should become a human sacrifice on the altar of progress.

Instead, this is a perfect opportunity to stand back and wait six months or so as the PC industry beats its brains out to fix problems in the first generation of DVD-ROM drives, while simultaneously competing with each other to cut prices.

The DVD-ROM era began in early April when Creative Labs Inc. shipped its "PC-DVD" upgrade kit, model MK5000, at $499. Two other companies are promising to ship upgrade kits by the end of May: Diamond Multimedia Corp. with a package at $599 or slightly less, and Hi-Val Inc. with packages at $649 and $849. And new PCs with built-in DVD-ROM drives are due from a number of manufacturers in June or July, and will likely sell for $300 to $500 more than identical systems with CD-ROM drives.

Before I get further into details of what's happening with the roll-out of DVD-ROM, let me tell you why this technology is so important.

DVD-ROM discs are the same size and almost physically identical to both CD-ROMs and audio CDs; indeed, most CD-ROMs and all audio CDs will play in a DVD-ROM drive. But DVD-ROMs pack in far more information, anywhere from seven to 26 times as much digital data as CD-ROMs.

A CD-ROM holds two-thirds of a gigabyte of the ones and zeros that are the language of computers, and can contain data on only one side. A DVD-ROM holds at least 4.7 gigabytes on one side, but can have two layers of data, boosting capacity to 8.5 gigabytes. Putting two layers on each side makes room for a gargantuan 17 gigabytes of data.

Even a single-sided, single-layer DVD can accommodate a two-hour movie, stored in digital form, that can be played back on a television set with pulse-quickening digital audio surround-sound and significantly better image quality than today's standard VHS videotape.

That's why consumer electronics companies such as Panasonic, Sony and Toshiba last month began selling DVD movie players for $500 to $1,000 that hook to TVs.

DVD-ROM drives for PCs are based on the same technical specifications, but can play back any type of data stored on a disc - unlike the more narrow function of movie players.

No one who's familiar with computers needs to be convinced why the ability to store more information is crucial. We've all learned that data, like work, expands to fill the space allotted to it.

DVD-ROM offers all kinds of obvious benefits. CD-ROM phone directories that now fill five discs can be pressed on a single platter; adventure games will present video sequences that fill the screen with fluid motion instead of appearing in a tiny, jerky window; and you can collect a library of movies that will play on your PC as well as your TV.

So why wait to enter the wonderful new world of DVD-ROM? Four good reasons:

- First, prices will drop quickly. The extra cost of getting a new PC with a DVD-ROM drive will likely be $200 or $300 by the year-end holiday shopping season; upgrade kits are also likely to be cheaper.

- Second, more DVD-ROM software will be available. The first round of DVD-ROM titles are mostly recycled games such as "The Daedalus Encounter," "Spycraft" and "Wing Commander IV" that take advantage of the new format to improve the presentation of video clips. I don't expect any exciting, breakthrough DVD-ROM software until autumn at the earliest.

- Third, most of the kinks will be worked out. It's not easy to write the software "drivers," which help a computer understand and operate the hardware, as well as programs that decode compressed video; companies will need at least a few months to stamp out bugs.

- Fourth, you can avoid a specific compatibility problem with CD-Recordable, or CD-R, discs. The first generation DVD-ROM drives going into upgrade kits and PCs won't read CD-Rs, also known as "one-offs" or "gold discs," on which you can download data one time only - unlike floppy disks or magnetic tape, which can be reused almost indefinitely.

Most home PC users will never see a CD-R disc, because the technology is mostly used by businesses for in-house projects such as sales catalogs and training manuals. But there are a few exceptions: For example, a small number of people with home CD-R drives may use them to create personal music CDs, and some photography enthusiasts may get their snapshots digitized on a type of CD-R known as "Photo CD."

The CD-R issue isn't necessarily a problem for people installing an upgrade kit, because they would presumably keep their PC's original CD-ROM drive and could use it for reading CD-Rs. But it's definitely something to keep in mind if you buy a new PC this summer with a DVD-ROM drive only.

Meanwhile, a second generation of DVD-ROM drives, due this summer and fall, promises to include some models capable of reading CD-Rs.

There's another compatibility concern on the horizon, but it's so far away I wouldn't worry. On April 14, a coalition of DVD-ROM manufacturers set a new standard for rewritable discs, known as DVD-RAM, that won't arrive on the market until 1998 and probably won't be affordable until a year or two after that.

Today's DVD-ROM drives won't read the future DVD-RAM discs, and that's not likely to change until early next year. By the time DVD-RAM becomes important, however, any PC purchased in 1997 or 1998 will be ready for replacement.

Creative Labs' MK5000 DVD-ROM kit is a perfect example of what I'm talking about when it comes to avoiding first-generation blunders, even though the company deserves some credit for getting a kit in stores ahead of its competitors and for setting a price that is $100 to $200 below what many had expected. For more information on the product, call Creative at (800) 998-5227 or visit them on the Web.

The kit consists of a DVD-ROM drive that fits into a standard half-height drive bay and a circuit board that goes into an empty PCI slot. You'll need a Pentium-equipped PC running at 133 megahertz or higher, 16 megabytes of random-access memory, the Windows 95 operating system and a graphics card with at least two megabytes of video RAM.

Creative, Diamond and Hi-Val are delivering upgrade kits only for Windows, by the way. Macintosh owners will have to wait a little longer for upgrade kits; Apple Computer promises to start shipping Macs with built-in DVD-ROM drives sometime in late 1997 or early 1998.

Installing the Creative Labs kit is no more difficult than putting in any other kind of drive and board - but that's kind of an understatement, because cracking open your PC is something the vast majority of home PC owners should avoid.

What's more, Creative did a poor job putting together the kit's 48-page instruction manual. Few users, I believe, will be able to complete the job without at least one phone call to the company's technical-support department. Sophisticated PC hobbyists who are intimately familiar with installing new hardware would almost be better off throwing away the manual and doing the job on instinct, sparing themselves from the booklet's many misleading instructions.

I installed the upgrade kit in about 90 minutes, but finished the job only because I had a Creative Labs technical expert at my side to answer questions that would otherwise have required numerous phone calls.

Once I got the job done, I was able to watch DVD movies on the PC. But here again Creative missed the mark, providing an on-screen control panel that is nonintuitive and full of unexplained technical jargon.

At one point, for example, I was presented with a check-box that asked me to select whether or not I wanted something called "Field Rate Capture." The manual merely offers this terse definition: "Display the video with either even or odd lines." Several Creative Labs employees had to admit they had no idea what this meant, or whether this was a feature I should enable.

A final note: Putting movies on a PC is one of those ideas that sounds better in theory than in practice. For starters, most PCs are set up so that you have to sit at a desk looking at a monitor - usually not a comfortable position, and far less user-friendly than the living room sofa.

PC monitors are also designed to favor sharper resolution at the expense of rich colors. Movies and other forms of video programming look slightly washed out on a PC, as if a thin gray film has been stuck on the screen.