Digital video bliss


Over the past month or so, you've probably noticed people tripping over each other to sell you technology that's either DVD-equipped or DVD-enabled. It's the TLA (three letter acronym) of the month, and maybe the most compelling of the technologies that are going to change things over the coming year.

Standing for either Digital Video Disc or Digital Versatile Disc depending on whom you listen to, DVD is the next generation of optical disc storage technology. The discs look exactly like normal audio CDs, but hold four times as much data and can play superb quality video too. The aim is for DVD to become the standard medium for home entertainment, computers, and business information, all with a single digital format.

A consortium of big hitters, including the likes of JVC, Mitsubishi, Philips, Sony, and Toshiba, got together to develop a standard DVD specification in 1995, in the hope that a repeat of the confusing and costly VHS versus Betamax scrap could be avoided. All the major computer and electronics companies are behind DVD, which is both an unprecedented level of support and a pretty good guarantee of the format's success.

The DVD-ROM format has big potential, but the most immediately attractive application is the arrival of movies on DVD video, which, combined with the right computer monitor, are quite unlike anything you've ever seen. TVs in Europe show an image 768 pixels wide and 576 high. Your computer screen is likely to have a resolution considerably higher than that, so when you watch a DVD on a decent computer screen, the picture is simply stunning. The image is immeasurably sharper, the colours more vibrant: with previously unnoticed details and subtleties in scenes. This is important for two reasons. There has never been a truly compelling way to watch movies outside of the cinema. DVD brings you the full motion picture "experience" and, depending on the disc, will offer bonus features, such as additional scenes and information on cast and crew.

Secondly, in the interest of fairness, we hooked up a DVD player to a widescreen TV, and although definitely an improvement over standard VHS, it just didn't compare with the image on the computer screen. The only way to do DVD justice is HDTV (high-definition TV) which is still some time away. Scary as it sounds, it's a great excuse for the computer to take over from the rapidly-becoming-obsolete television, and move into a central point in people's living rooms - a point not lost on those awfully nice people at Sony, whose much anticipated PlayStation 2 has DVD built in.

One of the great joys of DVD is that it best suits exactly the sort of films the critics tell you that you shouldn't enjoy: in other words, daft popcorn movies. The intricate metaphysical layers of Renoir's La Grande Illusion aren't particularly enhanced by the format, whereas some wonderful no-brainer such as Armageddon, The Abyss or Blade is just the thing.

A couple of words of warning. Interactivity is rudimentary to say the least: navigation screens seem designed to be viewed on TV, which makes them look flat and dull on the computer screen. Occasionally, the picture and the sound lose sync, so that the movie appears to be badly dubbed. All you have to do in this case is pause the movie momentarily, and let it catch up. From time to time, if there's a lot of fast-moving action on the screen, the MPEG encoding can't keep up and the picture flutters briefly. Most importantly, don't even think about watching anything using the built-in computer speakers for sound. Hook the sound output from your computer to your sound system, and you're in business.

After an extended and highly scientific testing period involving the deeply cool Macintosh G4, a 21-inch monitor and a couch, I'm hooked. Be warned that although there's a considerable library of DVDs out there, it's not exhaustive, and fans of deliberately obscure and arty movies will be waiting. HMV in Dublin has a pretty good selection, but a basic web search will lead you to any number of websites which sell discs online.

DVDs are coded by region, as the film studios want to control the home release of movies in different countries, so a disc bought from the US may not work over here. This is because film releases aren't simultaneous: a movie can come out on video in the US just as it arrives at the cinema here. Vitally, it also gives you an excuse to actually enjoy using a computer, and buy that fab monitor you've only dreamed about. It's worth it - if you love movies, you'll love DVD.