I WANT MY VCD!!! [DVD players are no longer standard on Macs (this year)… now what?]

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First there was the CD-ROM. It was fast, and it was large, and it was without limitation. But then came the DVD-ROM revolution (or so the recording industry would have us believe); rendering the lowly CD-ROM now ‘puny’ and the video on them ‘low res’. If you look at the shelves at your local retailer, the space that once held VHS cassette tapes is slowly being overrun by oversize don’t-steal-this-DVD boxes. Ask anyone on the street what a DVD is and they may not be able to tell you what the three letters stand for (we’re not telling, either); but most know that it means digital video on a disc that looks deceptively similar to its ancestor, the CD-ROM.

Other things they may not be able to differentiate are the increased capacity, decoding mechanisms necessary for MPEG-2, and conventions for menus and multiple audio tracks.

While these things are a boon to an entertainment industry that has become tiresome and over-hyped, not every home has a DVD player yet. It’s not the cost — decent hardware can be had for under $200. Perhaps many consumers are thinking, “Do I really need another device in my entertainment center?”

When Apple decided to include DVD players in their iMac systems in the last couple of years, industry pundits complained that the choice should have been CD-RW drives instead. But the Apple camp stuck to their guns, and now there are thousands of DVD-loving Mac users out there (many of whom bought external CD-RW drives as well).

Ring in the year 2001. Steve Jobs admitted to stockholders that sales figures and customer feedback begged a shift away from the default DVD. But what about all those Mac users who have finally become ready for the idea of watching movies on our desktops and PowerBooks?

Enter VCD (Video Compact Disk). Imagine a regular, run-of-the-mill CD-ROM with a movie encoded with the MPEG-1 standard, that can be read in any computer — and that can also be played on most consumer DVD players. Although it usually takes two disks to hold an entire movie, the playback quality is not much worse than a VHS tape. Windows users can use Media Player; Macs do well with QuickTime – and there are more shareware and freeware players (with VCR-like console controls) available for these and other platforms.

Why don’t you see VCDs at Best Buy and Circuit City? The publishers that own the movies we see (MGM, Columbia House, Disney, etc.) want DVD to succeed; the format has built-in copy protection, can be sold to specific regional markets, and drives sales of consumer electronics (if you have a DVD player, you may be more likely to purchase movies than you would be if you had only a lowly VCR). But the promotion of DVD disks in the United States doesn’t mean that you can’t get VCDs here. There are several vendors worth checking out that import these disks at such a low cost that it would be foolish not to check them out.

Another advantage of the VCD format is that finding software capable of editing your purchases is effectively impossible with DVDs. But I plan to order Star Wars Episode I (“The Phantom Menace”) on VCD, and take the time to edit out all the appearances of Jar Jar Binks. Then I’ll burn it back to a new disk and toss the original. Granted, I won’t be able to sell or trade the result legally, but at least I won’t have to put up with that blithering idiot anymore.

Dan Oblak

Video CD, or VCD, is a digital movie format. It’s basically a primitive version of DVD. A Video CD is a kind of CD. It looks the same as a music CD or a CD-ROM, except that instead of music or software, it holds movies, using compressed MPEG-1 video. Its resolution is 352×240 (NTSC) or 352×288 (PAL), which is roughly comparable to VHS.

A single VCD disc can only hold about 74 minutes of video, so for a typical movie, you need two discs. You can play VCDs back on a Video CD player connected to a TV, or on a fast PC with a CD-ROM drive. Some DVD players can also play VCDs.

Philips and Sony introduced video CD in 1993. It never caught on in North America, but it became hugely popular in Asia, where most households didn’t already have VCRs. In Asia, Video CD players are roughly as common as VCRs in North America: China alone manufactures 2 million VCD players a year.

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