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When to Buy a DVD? Yesterday

Commentary: With machines selling for as little as $300, and a better selection of digital video discs, it's only a matter of time before the superior technology overtakes VCRs.

May 31, 1999|TOM SHALES | THE WASHINGTON POST

People ask when should they buy a DVD player. The answer is, "Last Christmas." The DVD really came of age about then, because displays of DVD discs became common in video and appliance stores throughout the country.

DVD stands for "Digital Video Disc" although it's sometimes said to stand for "Digital Versatile Disc" because some of them can also be played on computers. They're small silvery discs the size of audio CDs that can contain an entire movie on one side. Really long movies, like "The Ten Commandments," take up two discs, just as a really long piece of music would on an audio CD.

The advantages of DVDs over videotapes are as plain as the nose on your face; mainly, that the nose on your face would look much, much clearer and sharper on a DVD than it does on a cassette. The one horrible thing about VCRs is that they educated the American public backward on video quality. Almost all VCRs purchased today have extremely poor resolution, worse than one gets from watching a TV program over the air, on cable or via satellite.

DVDs are at least twice as sharp, with picture quality that can be absolutely breathtaking and audio quality at least as good as audio CDs have. DVD players can be bought for as little as $300 and DVD discs can be had for as little as $17.47 via Internet suppliers. Some stores may also discount them as much. They're supposed to retail from about $20 to $40.

There are some requirements for getting the most out of DVDs' magnificent possibilities. You should have a TV set with at least 400 lines of resolution. How do you know how many yours has? Don't try counting them; you'll get an awful headache. Check the owner's manual or ask your dealer.

In addition, the TV screen should be 25 inches or larger if you really want eye-popping visuals.

And then, of course, ideally you would have a stereo system that includes Dolby Digital Surroundsound, and that requires five speakers and a subwoofer. Getting complicated, isn't it? But all these amenities are for home-entertainment gourmets. Even casual viewers can enjoy the benefits of DVDs without taking out a second (or third) mortgage.

In America we have suffered for years, some of us unknowingly, under the oppressive NTSC technical standard of video reproduction. Foreign countries like England have been on the PAL standard, which has always provided better pictures. Now, with advances like DVD and the arrival of HDTV--high-definition television--we're catching up.

And so TV watching is going to change. A tiny black-and-white set with rabbit ears may be OK for watching "The Jerry Springer Show," but today's high-tech movies suffer horribly. Viewers are beginning to realize that if you invest enough money, you can get movie-quality images right at home.

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If I didn't already have a DVD player, I'd buy one now because of some recent additions to the disc library. 20th Century-Fox, previously a scaredy-cat about entering the DVD market, has just released sparkling, shimmering DVD versions of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals: "Oklahoma!" "The King and I," "Carousel," "South Pacific" and "State Fair."

The great thing about movie musicals on DVD is that with the remote control you can hop, skip and jump through them, playing only the musical numbers and ignoring the plot. And DVDs can be played over and over and over with no deterioration in quality.

I flipped through "The King and I" the other night. Wow. Fabulous sound and color. "The King and I" and I were never happier together.

One disadvantage of DVDs is you can't record on them. But that is a technological inevitability that shouldn't be far down the road. For now, today's play-only DVD machines seem to have long life spans ahead of them before some better format comes along.

You can't throw out the VCR just yet. But you can look forward to the day.

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