Picture Brightens as Digital Disks Challenge VCR

It's hard to keep a good digital technology down. But unwittingly, the consumer-electronics industry and Hollywood are doing just that. That's unfortunate, because their missteps are slowing the adoption of a great new technology called DVD.

Movies recorded in the new DVD (digital versatile disk) format are clearer, brighter, better-sounding, and less bulky than anything you pop into a videocassette recorder. Although it's probably too early to buy a DVD player just yet (too many questions swirl around future standards), keep your eye on this technology. Eventually, DVD will make today's VCR obsolete in the same way compact-disc players replaced turntables in the music industry.

The same disk will also one day replace that music CD and the computer's CD-ROM. But its first big step is video.

For the first time, a single optical disk can hold an entire movie and then some. For example, the new DVD release of Alfred Hitchcock's black-and-white classic "Strangers on a Train" contains the American version of the movie on one side and the British version on the other. The movie can be watched in English or dubbed in French. There are subtitles for other languages as well.

And, just as important, you can view program notes, short profiles of the cast and director, and skip immediately to any scene in the movie. After viewing three movies on RCA's DVD player (an RC5200P), I was sold on the technology.

For example, a VCR displays less than 400 lines of resolution; the DVD player shows 500-plus, which makes for clearer and brighter images. The system also incorporates the latest surround sound, which allows for some very realistic effects on home-theater systems. Even on a simple TV set, the sound was clearer and more realistic than anything played on a VCR.

For all their advantages, DVD players aren't selling quite as well as expected. Since the players were first introduced on a limited basis in March, the industry has sold about 195,000 players nationwide, according to the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association, based in Arlington, Va. That's well ahead of the launch of compact-disc players but not as rapid as the initial sales of the small-dish satellite-TV systems.

In fact, the figures are slightly behind the association's own internal forecasts. Jonathan Thompson, a vice president of the association, says Hollywood studios were slow to put out movies in DVD format, which discouraged consumers. Now that most of them are on board, the association expects sales of players to reach 400,000 this year and 1 million next year.

But if you have a VCR, don't replace it yet. The industry is split over which format to use in next-generation DVD, which would allow viewers to record TV programs, not just watch pre-recorded fare. If the industry decides to battle it out in the marketplace, you don't want to buy the wrong standard.

The future was further clouded when a small company announced last month a standard for a disposable DVD disk called Divx. The idea would be a boon for the rental-movie business. When you rent the movie, you would get a disk that could be played for 48 hours after it's first played. Afterward, the disk becomes unreadable unless the consumer paid an additional rental fee or bought it outright.

Some studios and manufacturers are backing the technology, which should appear next year. Unfortunately, current DVD players won't be able to read the new format. One of these days, you will watch movies at home on this small, versatile disk. But how long that takes is really up to the industry to sort out its differences.

* Send comments to lbelsie@ix.netcom. com or visit my "In Cyberspace" forum at www.csmonitor.com

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