The war of the video CD

Tes Editorial

Watching pre-recorded films at home or school may never be the same again. Next year will see the arrival of "Super CD" formats that store films with broadcast-quality pictures, stunning surround-sound and multiple language tracks, all on compact disc.

Putting movies on to a video disc is not new. The Laser Disc format stores up to two hours of video pictures on a double-sided 12-inch disc. The VideoCD format, launched over a year ago, and used in systems including Philips CD-i, puts movies on a CD and already offers dozens of film titles, including Four Weddings and a Funeral, and James Bond classics like Goldfinger and Dr No.

Each VideoCD disc can only store up to 70 minutes of VHS-quality video, which means that most films need two or more discs. Last year, a group of Hollywood film studios issued a "wish list" of features they would like to see in a new CD movie format. This included: the ability to store up to 135 minutes of video with picture quality that is at least as good as Laser Disc, surround-sound, multiple-language soundtracks (allowing users to switch from say, English to French at the touch of a button), copy protection to stop users making unauthorised copies, the ability to store films in different picture formats (such as widescreen) and a parental lock-out system.

Last year Sony and Philips announced the Multimedia CD (MMCD) format, which offers all the features on the Hollywood wish-list. They thought that most film companies and electronics manufacturers would support it, but were in for a shock. Toshiba and Time-Warner announced a rival and incompatible system, SD (Super Density) which stores 142 minutes of high-quality video on a CD. Both can double the playing time by adding an extra recording layer to the disc, and both systems are also aimed at the computer industry as long-play CD-Roms.

The list of companies supporting SD is impressive and includes Matsushita (owner of Technics and Panasonic), Hitachi, Pioneer, Thomson, JVC, Samsung, Mitsubishi. MCAUniversal and MGMUA. So far, the only consumer electronics company to announce its support for MMCD is Nokia, although a number of CD-Rom manufacturers are backing it.

The scene is set for a new format battle, similar to the VHS versus Betamax video recorder war in the early 1980s. This could kill both new CD formats. In fact, major computer companies like Apple, IBM and Microsoft are refusing to support either format and want to see just one system on the market. The rival CD groups plan to launch their first players and discs in 1996 but many are hopeful of a compromise that will result in just one format reaching the market.

The new Super CDs do not mean the end for VideoCD. Its supporters point out that it will take time before any Super CD becomes a mass-market format, and by that time there will be hundreds, possibly thousands of VideoCD titles on the market. These will be compatible with the new CD players, which means that no one's VideoCD collection will be made obsolete.

The new CDs will not wear out and it will be quick and easy to find specific scenes. The SD group says its first players will cost around Pounds 400-500 each, although prices will fall. However, good-quality VHS recorders sell for around Pounds 180.

But VHS will survive for some time as film companies will not support a new format that allows users to make perfect copies of their titles. That's why MMCD and SD players will not be able to record. So don't throw away your VHS recorder just yet.

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