Set to dive into DVD? The picture sharpens

A technology matures; more consumers see prices they like

This is the year of the DVD player. Americans are snapping them up faster than any electronics product in history. February sales, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, were 40 percent higher than last year.

Why the frenzy?

Despite a decade of accelerated spending, most consumers have waited for the technology to mature and for prices to drop before making a purchase. Now, with some quality players priced below $200, many are opting to buy.

DVD is an acronym for Digital Video Disc. The machines - a box about the size of a VCR - are able to play movies with a higher quality of video and sound because of their digital technology, which packs in much more information than, say, a regular VHS tape. Top manufacturers include Pioneer, RCA, and Sony.

Upgrading from a VCR to a DVD player is a lot like switching from an audio-cassette player to a compact-disc machine to listen to music. In fact, to the naked eye, DVDs look just like CDs. DVD machines now play audio CDs as an added perk.

The benefits of a DVD are clear. But with more than 30 models on the market, many with different functions that may not be compatible with the rest of your entertainment center, finding the right one requires a little research.

Don't plan on recording

Before buying any DVD player, it's helpful to remember two facts. First, except for a few very expensive models - including a $4,000 Panasonic - DVDs can't record programs off the TV. Consumers who record a lot of programs and don't want another clunky box under their TV might choose to wait for the recorders to become more affordable.

Second, as with VCRs, you can listen to a DVD through your television's speakers. But to experience the enhanced audio, plan on hooking it up to a separate box with volume control. Many people connect players to receivers that then send the signal through a set of speakers.

Consumers who watch a lot of movies, but aren't too concerned about milking absolute crystal clarity out of the technology might consider buying basic models that now run about $200.

These machines offer the same essential functions as the pricier models, including showing movies from multiple angles, and playing them in different languages.

Simple DVD players can be packaged with a VCR and TV in the same unit.

Even some video-game consoles, like Sony's PlayStation 2, are DVD ready.

But if you plan to keep your TV, it's important to check any prospective DVD players for compatibility. Most DVDs, for example, come with something called a Composite Video output. It's a plug in the back of the box for connecting a cord to the TV.

Other players also offer what are called S-Video and Component Video outputs. They essentially break the picture into different transmissions, which helps preserve the picture quality while it travels to the TV.

Check your TV for compatibility

Component Video is only available in the latest mid- and high-end televisions. It's a step up from S-Video and has very high picture resolution and less color bleeding.

Be sure you don't overspend for Component Video if your TV can't handle it to begin with.

A feature called progressive scan, offered on only a few DVD models, yields the best picture quality. It is much more expensive, however, and only works on digital televisions.

Because only a few networks send their signal digitally, high-definition television (HDTV) hasn't really caught on yet. If you plan on upgrading to HDTV in a few years, however, a DVD player with progressive scan might be a good buy.

Pay attention to audio

Audio quality should also be considered when buying a DVD. Those who want a home-theater experience should look for the following designation: Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (which is far more widespread) or Digital Theater Sound (DTS).

Both offer surround sound by breaking up the movie's audio into six separate signals that can be heard through as many as six speakers. There's a catch, though. In order to filter each audio stream to the correct speaker, you need something called a six-channel decoder.

Many receiver boxes already incorporate the decoder. If it's not already in your receiver, however, you need to buy a DVD player that has the filter inside.

Buyers just looking for a step up from average DVD sound should consider asking for a feature called Virtual Surround Sound, which is a beefed-up version of the standard two-channel audio.

Real audiofiles are buzzing about DVD audio - a step above the compact disc. It's a disc that looks exactly like a standard CD, but with even better sound quality. Some new DVD machines, priced between $600 and $700, will play DVD audio discs.

The price, however, will probably drop considerably in a year. And there isn't much music available on DVD audio to make an immediate upgrade worthwhile for the average buyer.

Music buffs interested in listening to CDs they burned on their computer - including those 50 million people who downloaded MP3 files from Napster - should know that very few DVD machines will play their personally recorded CDs - so-called CD-Rs.

Philips and Pioneer are the exceptions. More manufacturers may well roll out the service in the coming year or so. In any case, be sure to ask your salesperson whether the machine you're considering can play them.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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