April 23, 1997. That was a day I will long remember. It is the day I finally decided that the new DVD format was a very viable technology. It was also the day that I went (no...make that "ran") to my local store to purchase my first-generation DVD player.
My first exposure to DVD was at some electronics show about a year, year-and-a-half ago (I wish I could remember which show, but...). We had seen an early demonstration of this new technology that promised miracles for your home video system...a 5" CD-type disc that would provide a picture better than tape, indeed better than laserdisc it was said. But not at that time. At least to many of us, the images we were shown looked barely better than those horribly-pixelated onscreen movies you'd see displayed on your typical home computer system. This was something that was definitely not better than tape, and I sure as hell didn't want one of those things in my house.
But time passed, the DVD technology supposedly improved, and DVD systems finally made their debut in March 1997 for home consumers. By this time, we've all heard the rumours about how wonderful DVDs look and sound, and of course I was curious as well. Rather than falling for the rumours or the hype, I decided the best thing to do was to run around town for a couple of weeks and take a look at the "new improved" DVD systems for myself. I wanted to see just how much this system supposedly changed since that long-ago demonstration..
So what's the real scoop on DVD, you might ask? Well, to my shock and surprise, the DVDs I tested were significantly better that what I had seen before. And by significantly, I mean really significantly. What I saw was an extremely sharp image, with extraordinary color reproduction (no bleeding reds!), with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, and everything contained on a 5" disc that holds up to 135m per side (give or take). The discs also feature up to eight language tracks (for dubbing, audio commentary or isolated music track purposes) and can handle up to 32 subtitling tracks. I was very, very impressed. I experimented with a lot of different systems (Toshiba, RCA, Proscan, Pioneer, Panasonic, Sony) being shown on a variety of sets (different sizes & manufacturers), and the picture was generally fantastic on most of them. There is something you should beware of, though...if you go out to your local store for a demo, keep away from the standard demo discs they use. Specifically ask to see a regular DVD release, like Blade Runner,Eraser or anything else they have on hand - any of these titles looks far better than the clips on the various demo discs. For example, I was in a Fry's Electronics store recently, and they were demoing the new Sony player on a 60" rear projection monitor. The demo disc was absolutely awful - the Free Willy and Twister clips were these disgusting, grainy things, and not something that would make me interested in the system. But shortly thereafter, a release copy of Batman was played on the Sony, and the image was gorgeous and everyone was impressed. There has also been a lot of talk about the horrible artifacts that show up on DVD titles, but to be honest, there were only a couple of instances where I found something to be "weird" (more on that later). Anyway, for lots of good information on the DVD format, we highly recommend checking out Jim Taylor's DVD FAQ online on our website.
So, on April 23, 1997, I decided to jump in head first and purchase a DVD player. After having looked at the variety of models, I went ahead with the Toshiba SD-3006 model - it had what I considered to be the best features, and more importantly, exhibited the best picture (at least to my eyes). I had everything set up and running within a few minutes, and without the slightest problem. Since I actually have my monitor adjusted properly, the discs I picked up looked even better on my 40" Pioneer than in any of the stores (big surprise there, huh folks?). Unfortunately, I wasn't able to check out the AC-3 sound, since the funds aren't available right now for an amp/decoder combination (donation of an amp/decoder would be gratefully accepted), so that will have to wait a while. A couple of quick tips for those of you who are considering getting players: for the best possible picture, connect your DVD player directly to your TV/monitor with an S-Cable, or if your TV can handle it, use the component outputs. The picture is much sharper than if you use the standard RCA plugs. While you can plug your player's video output directly into an A/V receiver, we've found that the picture does get noticeably degraded that way - go directly into your set if you can. Finally, never route your video output through a VCR - unlike laserdiscs, most DVDs are copy-protected, and chances are your picture will be distorted if you run it this way.
What I'm going to say next might upset some of you laserdisc fanatics out there, so try not to take it too personally, okay? After comparing some of the new DVD releases to their laserdisc counterparts, I have to honestly say that I prefer watching the DVD. I have found the DVD versions to be sharper than the LD versions, and the colors fantastic (again, no bleeding reds or hazy colors). As for the "horrible" artifacts I talked about earlier, I almost never noticed anything wrong with the release discs I've seen thus far - no noticeable pixelation, no smearing, no image freezing (some of those demo discs were a different story, though). Blade Runner was stunning, as was The Mask. So was Eraser, even though there was one quick scene at the very end, where Arnold is photographed through a rippling heat effect, that may be an artifact, but is very likely present in the original photography (it's identical on both the letterboxed & p&s versions, and I have to find an LD to check it against). Since I haven't watched Twister yet (considered an impossible-to-do-on-DVD title only several months earlier), I'll have to reserve judgment until a later time. The only real "artifact" I've seen so far is the anti-aliasing problem that laserdiscs and DVDs both share, in which thin diagonal lines may "vibrate" at times; this is not a problem with the discs or the transfers, but something that happens with every single monitor on the planet. Unlike laserdiscs, I found the DVD picture to be perfectly clean - no herringbone patterns, no specks, no snits, crawling glitches, and again, no color noise, all of which makes for very enjyle viewing experience. In fact, the only slightly annoying thing about DVDs is that fact that most movies fit completely on one side of the disc - by not having to get up and flip / change the disc, I don't have a good excuse to take a food or bathroom break anymore (I think I can easily get used to this...). Oh, and before I forget, those horrible MGM/UA and Warner cardboard cases have got to go....I'd personally like to see everything be released in CD-sized jewel boxes, or at least be given a choice (like Columbia TriStar is doing).
So what about your laserdisc collections, you might ask? Is you system obsolete? Can the two systems live side by side? Truthfully, I don't think anyone can really answer that question right now...only time will tell. But I do have to say that I really hope so. I literally have thousands of discs, and I absolutely will not be getting rid of them. I love the laserdisc system, and I believe it will be viable for many years to come. There is a wealth of programming material currently available that probably will not show up on DVD for years, not to mention all the wonderful laserdisc titles planned in the future. Am I still going to buy laserdisc titles? Yup! And I also going to pick up DVD titles? Already have! But sooner or later, whether we like it or not, it is inevitable that a better video reproduction system will come along. Time and technology do march onwards...
"Ohmygod! Blasphemer!" you may cry! Well, if that's what you're thinking, so be it. Remember, that was my initial thought not so long ago as well. But hey,don't take my word or anyone else's...go see it for yourself, and then judge it, not before. And besides, when was the last time most of you popped a vinyl record onto the turntable, eh?
Originally Created: 05/01/97