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    DVD will take a while yet, but in the meantime, watch out for those so-called fast CD-ROM drives

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #361 September 24, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    In the eternal quest for more, DVD sounds good. (Don't worry about what the initials stand for: it used to be Digital Video Disk, but it's way beyond that already.) DVD is promised as the next generation of digital everything, potentially replacing your home audio CD-player and VCR, as well as your computer's CD-ROM, with a disk the same size as today's CD, but holding 4.7 gigabytes (billions of characters). Subsequent models will hold even more.

    Storing about eight times as much data as today's audio CDs or CD-ROMs, that's room enough to store a feature-length movie or lots of multimedia computer data. The system is even planned to be "backwards-compatible," allowing you to play your current audio CDs or digital CD-ROMs in it. Promised for a year or so later are read-write models which, among other things, could finally replace the 1987-style floppy disks we're still using in our computers. Sounds good: so what's holding it up?

    The first models have been announced for this fall, with several Japanese electronic manufacturers, including Toshiba and Matsushita (Panasonic), clearly aiming for the consumer Christmas market. But powerhouse Sony is prepared to pass on the holiday shopping, and says it won't have products on the market until next spring at the earliest.

    Problems? Early adopters can expect to pay top dollar for the privilege of being the first on the block. Home users will find only a few movies available: the big studios are holding off until their concerns about digital piracy are met. (Similar concerns virtually killed digital audio tape-recorders a few years ago.) And the first generation of drives won't let you record onto them.

    Producers of multimedia CD-ROMs don't need the capacity of DVD yet, and few are prepared to create products for what will, at first, be a very limited market, although Microsoft has said that it will release a multimedia-crammed DVD edition of its Encarta encyclopedia.

    You may want to wait for the big Hollywood studios: the release of feature films will probably trigger real consumer demand, both for home entertainment and for computer use. You may want to remember that the first computer industry conference on data CD-ROMs was sponsored by Microsoft in 1985, and it took about eight years for that format to become commonplace. Things move faster now, but it will still take time for use of DVD to become widespread. Analysts for Disk/Trend in Mountain View, California, expect that it will take until 2000 for DVD use to surpass the current CD and CD-ROM formats. But if you want to be on top of the DVD buzz right now, you may want to contact Vancouver's Rainmaker Digital Pictures (phone 874-8700, fax 874-1719), which is pioneering DVD video production.

    Fast enough?... While you wait for DVD to be released, and then to become a common standard, you may be tempted to upgrade your CD-ROM. Prices are low, and looking at the ads, you'll see lots of units listed as 6x, 8x, or even 10x speed. What's it all mean? Single-speed (1x) runs at the same speed as an audio CD, which is fine for listening to music or for accessing a text-based database, but just too slow to play video clips without annoying stops and starts. A year or so ago, double speed (2x) was common, while quad-speed (4x) has become common more recently.

    Suddenly, even higher-speed units have been released and have become affordable, but you may not want to rush to upgrade to these. Because multimedia software is produced for the more common 2x and 4x drives, it doesn't necessarily run any faster on a speedier drive (sort of like driving a Porsche on the city streets that aren't designed to allow you to use your car's power to its full capacity).

    Even worse, it appears that many of the lower-priced units have a bit of a problem. It seems that many of their distributors actually have been buying 4x drives from major manufacturers and then resetting them to run at higher speeds. They do run at the advertised speed, but because the hardware wasn't actually designed for such a rate, users are discovering that their life expectancy has dropped dramatically.

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