Demystifying the DVD

WHEN IT first appeared, the Compact Disk or CD was a revolution in storage -- up to 700 megabytes of data or 74 minutes of video on a rugged aluminium platter that was virtually indestructible and a far cry from fragile floppy disks. But a decade later, the CD is being slowly superseded by the DVD (variously expanded as Digital Versatile Disk or Digital Video Disk) - which looks and works exactly like the CD but packs a lot more punch by way of storage capacity. It does this by etching the disk with a finer laser and stacking two or more recording surfaces on the same platter, one above the other.

As a result, the commonest DVDs offer a storage capacity of 4.7 Giga bytes - that's approximately six times the storage capacity for data. When you use DVDs to record movies, the gains are not quite so dramatic: depending on the make and technology DVDs can record between 2 to 4 hours or video.

Not surprisingly the biggest fillip to DVDs has come from the cinema business: an average 2- 3 hour film takes anything from two to four CDs to record, whereas you can see the entire movie without a break on a single DVD. The increased capacity also allows makers to add a lot of extra goodies: multiple language soundtracks, trailers and interviews with the stars or director.

In the wider world, sale of DVDs and DVD-based movies has already outstripped those of CDs. In India it has not yet happened - but that is because DVDs cost more: a blank CD is almost as cheap as a floppy disk - Rs 15 - 30 a piece depending on where and how many you buy. But a blank DVD costs almost ten times as much.

But those who are buying new PCs or those who want to trade in their old VHS-tape-based VCRs would be wise to give the CD a miss and go in for a DVD system.

Why? Because, albeit at a small initial additional cost, you can have your cake and eat it too. DVD players will also play CDs - but not vice versa.

Samsung has recently launched a Combo drive for the PC - it can play CDs, record or "burn" CDs - and play DVDs too. This costs around Rs 6,000. In a couple of months the company also plans to launch a DVD writer - one where you can create your own DVDs but this may set you back 12K Rs 12,000 or so.

However it is as well to understand some of the facts of life of this still emerging technology before plunging in - many film fans who bring back DVD movies from their foreign trips find that they don't play on the DVD drives of their PCs. This is because one has to install a software called a decoder for the DVD drive. The default decoder that comes with "free" players like Windows Media Player may not match the one required for the DVD.

Depending on where you bought the DVD - in US, Europe, or Asia-Pacific, it will be marked Region 1, 2 or 3. Each observes a different format.

Such are the silly tricks dreamed up by the industry to carve out their own little territories, and the customer be damned.

You can always install the correct decoder by downloading it from the Net, but why should you be put to this hassle?

Be warned that blank DVDs today are made to different standards. There is the DVD-R (Pronounced DVD dash-R) used for recording once and the DVD-RW, which you can record and rewrite any number of times.

There is another type called DVD+R and DVD+RW (called DVD "plus"). Popular brands like Verbatim make both types. Till recently, the "dash' DVDs and the "plus" DVDs were almost equal in the market - but in recent months, the consortium of manufacturers adopting the "plus" standard has swelled to over 60 - and this looks like being the type that will survive the shakeout.

When buying DVDs, it is good to double check if the type can be played and recorded on your system.

Most Indian vendors are blissfully ignorant of these variants. So, do not expect any help from them. But you have to live with these irritants: DVDs are here to stay - and one might as well begin early.



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