Business-like, isn't he?


 

 



Getting Started with MultiMedia

by Alan Zisman (c) 1993. First published in Our Computer Player, April 16,1993

Have you been feeling snowed under by computer buzzwords? Is 1993 going to
be "The Year of the LAN" (as has been claimed for every year since about
1986)? Or is this the year when you're finally going to have to figure out
what is "Multi-Media"?

Okay... multimedia gets your computer to combine video and sound. So
haven't games been doing that forever? Is this just another way to get me
to spend more money, along with upgrading all my software every year to 18
months?

Well, luckily, writing these reviews lets me try stuff out without having
to buy it. Unfortunately, I DO have to give the hardware back. But when I
got word from Allan Ng that Fastech Computers (140-3771 Jacombs Road,
Richmond, BC, V6V 2L9; tel: (604) 279-9686, fax: 279-9787) wanted me to
try out a multimedia setup, I was there like a flash.

I got to take home the basics to get going with multimedia: a sound
card, in this case, a MediaVision Pro Audio Spectrum 16 (PAS 16), and a
CD-ROM player, an internal UAC DM-3024 (there's also an external model),
distributed in Canada by CD Source (800-667-3472) and GMS Datalink
(604-327-4335). The UAC is also sold under the Texel brand name.
As well, I got a pair of shielded speakers
to use with the sound card (CompuCon Screen Beat, model 201), and some software:
Kodak's Photo CD Access software, and Lotus 123 for Windows with Multi-
Media SmartHelp (oops, there's those darn buzzwords again).

MAKING IT ALL WORK

After a demo at the FastTech office, I rushed home. I opened
up my case, popped in the sound card, slid the CD-ROM player in,
connected a few cables, and was ready to go.

Well, not really. Even I realized that I'd probably have to install some
software drivers so my computer would recognize the new additions. Okay.
The PAS 16 came with three disks worth of software. And on disk 1, there
was even a program called INSTALL. Let's run it and see what happens.

INSTALL started up, and immediately gave me an error message and quit to
DOS.

Okay... this is getting serious. Maybe I'd better look in the manual.
Nope, all it says is to run INSTALL. Well, with a little playing around,
I discovered that Disk 3 was all the Windows stuff... and that installed
fine, using Windows 3.1's Control Panel, and the Add Drivers option. (You
can't use sound cards as easily with Windows 3.0, unless you get the
multimedia add-ins... one more reason to upgrade, if you're still
putting it off). So I could get sounds to work fine under Windows, but
there was no DOS support, and the CD-ROM wasn't recognized.

There's always a time when it pays to give up and get outside help. For
that, however, I had to wait til morning. I phoned Fastech, and spoke to
Victor, the technician. He recognized my problem, and told me NOT to run
INSTALL... to look on Disk 1 for a program called MENU, which would give
me the choice to install with or without a CD-ROM unit.

SOUNDS NICE

This time, it worked fine. (And no, it wasn't listed in the manual, and
there were no README files on the disk with an explanation). This was the
only complaint I have with the PAS 16. This sound card plays and records
16-bit sounds, which are the same quality you get on your stereo CD (the
older generation of sound cards only supported the less-accurate 8-bit
sounds). It's the only sound card that's officially Sound Blaster
compatible according to the Sound Blaster people. That means it can be
used with virtually every game around. As well, it has a standard SCSI-port right
on the card. This means that it can be used with virtually any CD-ROM
player, with SCSI hard-drives, and to connect up to eight SCSI devices of
any kind, without using any additional slots. (Many other sound cards
either connect only one brand or model of CD-ROM player (the Sound Blaster series
for example), or (like the Burnaby-produced Gravis UltraSound), require you
to buy an additional 'daughter-card' to connect with SCSI models).

The PAS 16 also has an on-board MIDI port, so it can connect to musical
equipment. There are microphone and audio input jacks so you can create
your own sampled sound files (beware-- 16-bit sound files get big fast, especially
when sampled at the CD-standard 42khz, which the PAS 16 lets you do!)
As well, it can accept sound straight from your CD-ROM player.

It doesn't currently accept voice input... you can't tell your computer
do open a file or start a program directly. For that you need the new
Microsoft Sound Card, but that's not Sound Blaster compatible, and so
doesn't support any software running outside Windows. Or look for MediaVision's
new Pro Audio Studio... pricier, but even more of all the goodies in the
PAS-16, including voice input.

Then I tried out the CD-ROM player. I had one minor glitch getting my
system to recognize it; I'm running DOS 6, and the version of the MSCDEX
program (this is run in your AUTOEXEC.BAT to tell your computer you've
got a CD-ROM) that shipped with the PAS-16 got me an "incorrect DOS
version" error. Luckily, DOS 6 comes with an updated version of this
file; when I used that one, it started right up, making the CD-ROM player
drive G:.

The sounds came out loud and clear through the Screen Beat speakers. You could also
use a ghetto blaster or your home stereo, but be aware of one potential problem:
the big magnets in standard speakers can cause visible shadows on your computer's
monitor. To avoid this, either keep the speakers at least a couple of feet away
from your monitor, or get shielded speakers designed to be used near a computer.
The Compucon Screen Beats are shielded, and I didn't notice any problems.

IT'S NOT HOW FAST YOU DO IT...

If you're used to running software from your hard drive, CD-ROM players
are going to seem slow. While many current hard drives boast access times
of less than 20 msecs, CD-ROM players typically access data with speeds
around 300-400 msecs, twenty times slower. A more important number,
though, is data transfer rate-- how fast data can move from the CD-ROM to
your computer. Too slow, and animations, for example, will seem jerky.
This is a problem with many of the older units now available at bargain
prices; they'll work fine for viewing a static database or encylcopedia, but won't
be able to support the newer multimedia animations and video.

There is a 'Multimedia PC Marketing Council', which has published minimum standards
that must be met for hardware to call itself MPC capable. Hardware with the bright
MPC logo ensures that it meets a MINIMUM standard to meet Windows multimedia needs.
They say you should look for at least 150 kb per second data transfer for a multimedia
capable CD-ROM drive.  By comparison, an average hard drive can transfer 750 kb per
second or more.

New standards add to the confusion, and instantly make a lot of existing
hardware obsolete. Last fall, just as I was thinking the CD-ROM market
was stable, two new standards emerged, suggesting to me that it was time
to wait before buying.

First, NEC created a dual-speed drive. This unit ran audio CDs at
standard speed, but ran CD-ROMs at double speed, doubling data transfer
speed to around 300 kb/sec. The UAC DM-3024 that I tested, also supports
dual-speed. This lets it run animations very smoothly, and speeds up loading
large graphics. (For the near future, Pioneer is talking about quad-speed-- four
times the standard rate).

Shortly after, Kodak announced the PhotoCD standard. This enables CD
players to read disks of photos. They're aiming at two markets... on the one
hand, they want to sell PhotoCD compatible home units that can play audio
CDs, but can also be attached to your home television to view your
photos. (Somehow, (call me old-fashioned) I can't quite see this catching on. A photo album seems
like such a more convenient way to view your snapshots and I can't
imagine sending Grandma a CD of shots of the new baby).

The other target is computer CD-ROM use. Here, I think we may have a
winner. However, if you're looking for a PhotoCD compatible CD-ROM
player, you have to be aware of one more buzzword. MULTISESSION.

YOUR PICS ON A DISK

The idea here is that in order to get your photos onto a CD disk, you
take your film in to London Drugs (or wherever you get your pictures
developed now)... they sell you a blank CD (about $10), and develop your
pictures onto it (at about $.75 per shot). You can then go view it on
any player that supports PhotoCD (yes, you can do all this today). But
your CD holds about 100 pictures. So when you've got another roll of
film, you can take your same CD, and get your new pictures added to it.
This is where you need multisession support. Without it, your software
will only recognize the original set of pictures added to the disk.

Soon we'll be able to take multisession support for granted; it adds
little to the cost of the players. But for now, make sure that any new CD-
ROM player you buy supports PhotoCD with multisession. (You may simply need to get
a new set of drivers to support multisession-- that was the case with the PAS-16
and UAC DM-3024 I tested).

With multisession PhotoCD, running the Windows PhotoCD Access software
provided by Kodak, you load a 'contact sheet' of small images of all
the photos on your disk. You can pick an image, and view it in larger
sizes that range from 'wallet-sized' to 'poster'. (Kodak's photo
finishing background is apparent here... I'd prefer to choose among size
in inches or pixels). You can view the picture in very-grainy standard 16
colour VGA, in less grainy 256 colour or grey-scale resolution, or in true colour 24-
bit resolution (16.7 million colours!) This obviously depends on what
resolutions are supported by your computer's video card and drivers. On
my new ATI Wonder XL24, 256 colour images looked okay, but the 24-bit
images were spectacular, and still only took about a few seconds
to display on screen (an accelerated video card would obviously be a boon
here).

You can also easily crop the images
as you please. The resolution is very fine; changing image size showed
none of the blockiness that you get if you blow up a standard bit-mapped
picture (I gather four separate files are loaded onto the disk for each image,
so you're not really blowing up the picture... you're switching to a larger
version). I looked at a picture of a child, focussed on one of her eyes,
and expanded it to the largest size. At that resolution, I was able to
make out the image of the photographer, reflected in the black of her eye.

You can copy and paste an image from the CD to another application, or you can export
in a variety of graphics formats (PCX, TIF, EPS, etc), saving the image
on your hard drive. (Again beware... 24-bit images also eat up hard
drive space).

That makes this a natural for desktop publishers. Before, if you wanted
to make use of photographic images, you could leave a blank space in your
publication, and send along a real photo, letting your printer use
traditional methods of color separation and stripping to add this to your
work. Or you could scan the image, using a $2000 or more scanner, saving
the resulting multi-meg sized file on your harddrive, so you could
manipulate it directly in your software. Pretty quickly, you'd end up
with a large harddrive, filled with 24-bit images.

But a single CD holds 650 megs or so of data... and with a CD-ROM player,
you can just pop a new CD in when you need more space. So file size is no
longer an issue. And multisession, PhotoCD capable CD-ROM players are
currently costing between $350-800, much less than the price of a
scanner. You lose the immediacy of being able to scan an image and use it
right now... you have to take a picture and send it out for development
(and there currently isn't one-hour PhotoCD development), but if you can
wait a couple of days, it's easily available, and it's cheap.

As I've said, I think this one's a winner.

CARTOONS WITH A SPREADSHEET?

And your CD-ROM player doesn't just support PhotoCD. It can also be used
with the rapidly growing number of software titles available as CD-ROMs.
Some are enlarged versions of existing software, others are unique to the
CD-ROM media, as they require the large amount of space this provides.

Lotus 123 for Windows, for example, is also available on floppy disks. The CD-
ROM version has some advantages, which I think we'll be seeing more and
more:

-- Installation is a snap. No more disk swapping, just start it up and
sit back. (It installs to your hard drive so that it can load and run
faster. With some software, you can choose to install some of it onto
your harddrive, leaving other functions that you use less often (clipart
for example), on the CD-ROM disk). Software companies love CD-ROM since
it's cheap to manufacture, and makes it's harder for software pirates to
copy than a bunch of floppy disks.

-- The documentation is available on disk. This means that you can access
all the documentation as hypertext (oops, I slipped in yet another buzzword...did
anybody notice?) directly through the program's help facilities. You
can get as much detail as you need, without having to get up, find the
coffee-stained manual, and shuffle through the index. This version of 123
doesn't even include printed manuals (another cost-saving measure for the
software publisher).

-- In addition to the standard documentation (but on disk), there's multimedia help. Choosing this gets you a series of
animations; instead of static writing about a topic, the animation SHOWS
you how it's done. And if you choose, a real human voice TELLS you what's
being done (you can get cartoon voice bubbles if you prefer silence or
don't have a sound card installed). In many cases, this can be a more
effective way to learn new techniques.

Other software making use of these techniques include multimedia
versions of WORKS for Windows and WORD for Windows, both from Microsoft,
a company which has been pushing CD-ROM for years now.

By the way, you can also play your standard audio CDs in your CD-ROM player, either
through your computer's speakers, or through headphones on the CD-ROM or on your
sound card. To do that, install the Windows 3.1 MCI CD Audio driver through Control
Panel, then look for software to play Cds. I found five different low-cost
shareware programs on a local BBS that offer on-screen CD control. I've settled on
one that's bargain-priced: free. CD Player was published as a utility by PC
Magazine a couple of months ago. It lacks some of the programability of the others,
but the price is right, and it works like a charm. Now I can listen to music while
I write this article. Who says multimedia isn't here yet?

As well, there's a whole world of CD-ROM software that I haven't had a
chance to look at yet... games (the CD version of Kings Quest V has the
characters talk, instead of use voice bubbles), encyclopedias, databases,
and more. I had to give this setup back after two weeks, but I hope I'll
be getting more opportunity to find out about what's out there, and to let
you know in the coming months.
 

CD-ROM Buzzword Roundup

MPC -- this is the logo of the Multimedia PC Marketing Council. MPC-compatible
machines are at a minimum, 386-based, with 2 meg RAM, a 30 meg hard drive, a CD-ROM
player (with a data transfer rate of 150 kb/sec or better, an average seek time of 1
sec), an 8-bit sound card that supports digitized sound and MIDI, and either
Windows 3.1 or Windows 3.0 with Multimedia Extensions.

CD-ROM XA -- stands for eXtended Architecture, a CD-ROM standard that is more
advanced than the MPC standard. It supports interleaving, permiting data and sound
to be mixed together. MMCD (Multimedia CD-ROM) is a format developed by Sony, based
on CD-ROM XA; some popular software requires MMCD-compatible drives.

Kodak Photo CD -- as discussed above, this specification, also based on CD-ROM XA permits
high resolution photographs and other images to be stored on CD for home use or
computer use. Be sure to make sure that a Photo CD-compatible drive also supports
multisession, the ability to add more images (up to a hundred) to a CD.

SCSI -- Small Computer System Interface, is a standard way to add devices,
including scanners, CD-ROM players, hard drives, etc, on any type of small
computer. It is commonly used on Macintoshes, Amigas, and other computers, but is
only now beginning to catch on with PCs. Up to 7 devices can be 'daisy-chained',
using only a single slot.

Ultimedia -- this standard was created by IBM for its Multimedia Personal Systems.
It's also based on the CD-ROM XA standard.
 

Buying a CD-ROM player

With more than 3000 commercial CD-ROM titles available, and more coming out every
week, many users are looking to buy a CD-ROM player. Prices have dropped, but there
are some things to be aware of:

Decide whether you want to buy a package or separate components. Several CD-ROM
or sound card manufacturers are selling bundles; a CD-ROM player, a sound card, and
often several CDs, typically at street prices ranging from $700-$1000. This can be
attractive, but as always, watch out. In some packages, even from respected brands,
you are getting an older, slower drive, that will not be able to handle future
multimedia CDs. When in doubt, look for the MPC logo, ensuring a minimum level of
future compatibility.

Older drives will probably not support Photo CD, if this is of interest to you.
Older, 8-bit sound cards will not sound as clear as the newer generation of 16-bit
cards. As well, think about whether the bundled CDs are actually of interest to you.

If possible, get a package that includes a SCSI connector; many of the bundles
include a proprietary connector. This will make it harder to upgrade one of your
components in the future. As well, while SCSI has been slower to catch on with PCs
than with Macs, it is becoming more common. Having a SCSI connector now means you
will be able to add other SCSI devices, including fast hard drives, in the future,
without sacrificing another slot in your computer.

For multimedia, the most important specification is the data transfer rate. The 150
kb/sec in the MPC standard is the minimum acceptable. If you can afford to, get a
faster multi-speed drive, like the UAC (Texel) DM-3024 or some of the newer NEC
models.
 

Some popular current models
 
Model List price
US$
MPC Transfer
rate
Access
time
Interface Photo
CD
Hitachi CDR3700PC $865 yes 150 300 proprietary yes
Mitsumi LU0055 $200 no 150 350 proprietary yes
NEC CDR-84 $795 yes 300 280 SCSI yes
Philips CM205XRS $499 yes 150 375 proprietary no
Toshiba TXM 3401E $895 yes 330 200 SCSI yes
UAC DM-3024 (Texel) $499 yes  300  265 SCSI  yes

 



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan