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Few Titles Exist as Hype Exceeds Drive to DVD-ROM


The DVD-ROM revolution did not arrive on schedule--and perhaps never will.

Back in 1996, computer hype-meisters were going nuts about the introduction of DVD-ROM discs, which look exactly like CD-ROMs but can hold seven times the digital information. The boost in capacity offered a major step forward for computer multimedia. DVD-ROMs can present full-screen video and rich stereo sound, instead of the stamp-size viewing windows and tinny music of CD-ROMs.

"Everything was going to be DVD," said Mary Craig, an analyst with the Dataquest research firm.

DVDs eventually did catch on, but not in computers. DVD players hooked up to TV sets took advantage of the fact that a full-length movie could fit on a disc and be played back with far higher quality than possible with videocassettes.

The players became a hit while DVD-ROMs languished. Only about 15% of the computers shipped since 1997 have come equipped with DVD-ROM drives, according to a Dataquest study.

As sub-$1,000 home PCs started to hit the market, manufacturers overwhelmingly kept CD-ROM as the standard for most of their lines. "A PC maker can get a CD-ROM drive for about $30, today," Craig said. "A DVD-ROM drive costs almost double. That's a huge difference when price is so important."

Uncertainty about the future of DVD-ROMs has stifled the development of programs to play on them. Currently, only about a dozen DVD-ROM programs are available for home computers and all are based on earlier CD-ROM titles. Most make use of the increased capacity only to cut down on the number of discs in the package. That leaves only a few programs with added DVD-ROM enhancements. And they range from promising to downright terrible.

"Encarta Reference Suite 2000"

The most valuable enhancement to the DVD-ROM version of Microsoft's "Encarta Reference Suite 2000" is that it ties together three different products--an encyclopedia, world atlas and dictionary--on a single disc. This is term paper heaven, even though the integration of the three isn't quite seamless. Microsoft says that cross-reference searches will be much improved in the 2001 edition to be released later this year.

Encarta, which debuted with an encyclopedia in 1993, has never offered much in the way of useful multimedia, and that situation hasn't improved with the DVD-ROM. For example, the current version offers a video clip on world religions that lasts only 25 seconds.

Although a company representative said the video quality had been somewhat enhanced, I couldn't tell the difference when looking at the same clip on the CD-ROM version of the suite. That's OK, I learned a lot more the second time around.

The only truly new feature of the DVD-ROM is "Virtual Flights," and it's simply awful. It shows you a view from the air of a flight between any two places on Earth chosen in the atlas. But that view includes only fuzzy graphics of landforms, leaving out cities, highways and most other prominent attributes. In addition, the feature is painfully slow.

By the way, if you are interested in buying the suite, it might be best to wait for the 2001 version that will not only have more reference works but also cost a bit less. It will be available later this month.

"Eartha Global Explorer"

DeLorme, a company that specializes in mapping software, has put out some groundbreaking programs in the past, but "Eartha Global Explorer" will not join those ranks. This world atlas features nice looking maps, but, unlike Encarta, it offers little additional information about the places you're viewing.

For example, when I asked "Eartha" for info on Santiago, the capital of Chile, it came up with three sentences basically telling me that the city was founded in 1541, the population is 4 million and that it's the "political, cultural and financial center" of the country. Actually, it's probably a good thing that the information was scant because there was no way to print it out.

Eartha offered to gather more information from the World Wide Web but could only come up with two Chile travel sites. A sixth-grader with a search engine could do better. Oh, well, what do you want for $13?

In contrast, when I asked the "Encarta" atlas for Santiago information, I got a one-page article, plus the chance to choose from 43 additional encyclopedia articles on the history, notable residents and arts and architecture of the city. And it all could be printed. As for a Web search, "Encarta" found 17 specific sites, including ones for the U.S. Embassy in the city, the University of Chile, a guide to beaches and a radio station that features local news and sports.

The DVD-ROM version of "Eartha" also has a flyover feature, and it's as bad as Encarta's, but it includes a strangely animated bird named Floyd who speaks in a computer voice to tell you about the wonders of places you can't see down below. Small children might be frightened by Floyd.

I was.

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