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New Features in DVD Players (4/2000)
by Douglas Dixon
(See DVD for Video & Computers)
Do you DVD? DVD is coming on strong as a great way to watch
movies. Not only do movies look great on DVD, but they also include lots of
interesting additional material and interactive options. Whether you rent movies
for the evening, or buy them to save (or for the kids to watch over and over
again), releases in DVD format are just more fun.
Even better, prices for DVD players continue to fall. Basic
players are now available for around $170, and high-end units for around $250.
The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) reports that during 1999, DVD players
became the fastest selling product in the history of consumer electronics (based
on sales during the first three years of a product's introduction), with sales
topping 4 million units. CEA estimates that DVD player sales will reach more
than 6.5 million units in 2000.
DVD players also continue to get more interesting. A new
generation of products was introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in
early February, with companies like Samsung Electronics (Rigefield Park, N.J.)
demonstrating products with higher-quality video and audio and advanced features
for viewing DVD's.
Movies on DVD look good because they are stored digitally at
high quality, using MPEG-2 video compression at 720 x 480 resolution. Not only
is there no analog noise and degradation, but DVD players provide around 500
lines of vertical resolution on your TV, compared to around 240 lines for analog
VHS tapes. DVD's also can sound better on your home theatre system, since movies
typically include Dolby Digital AC-3 compressed audio in both 2-channel stereo
and full 5.1-channel surround sound.
The large capacity of DVD discs offers the potential to do
more than just show a movie. A single DVD can store over 4.7 GB (around seven
times a CD), or enough to store a 2 1/2 hour movie at good compression quality,
plus leave room for some additional material. But DVD discs also can be
"dual-layer," doubling the capacity by storing two layers of
information on one side (by refocusing the laser beam). Movies like Disney's
"Tarzan" use this approach to fit additional trailers, music videos,
and even a trivia game onto a single DVD.
Another approach to doubling the capacity is to simply use
both sides of the disc. Releases like "Ghostbusters 2" use this
approach to provide both the original theatrical widescreen (scope) format and a
full-screen (standard) version, one on each side. The widescreen version, at
2.35:1 aspect ratio (also called "16 x 9 anamorphic" or
"scope"), can be viewed on a widescreen TV, or will be
"letterboxed" (shown with black bands at the top and bottom) on a
standard TV. The full-screen version, at 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is cropped on the
sides, or "re-formatted to fit your TV." The problem with a
double-sided DVD is that there is no place to put a label, so you need to read
the tiny writing around the inside of the disc to tell which side is which.
The DVD format was created from the beginning to support
interactive features including menus and indexing, alternate audio and video
tracks, and even user-controlled branching within the material. You can expect
movies released on DVD to provide at least some of these features, including a
visual index of the movie with thumbnail still images so you can jump directly
to a specific scene.
Most movies also include additional material such as movie
trailers and behind-the-scene documentaries, and sometimes additional scenes
that were cut from the movie. Some DVD releases, like "Armageddon" and
Disney / Pixar's "A Bug's Life" Collector's Edition, go further by
including a second full DVD disc with supplemental material like original
storyboards, demonstrations of visual effects, music videos, and outtakes.
The movie studios continue develop new creative and
entertaining ways to enhance movies on DVD. A Lawrenceville company, Front Porch
Video, has been in the forefront of the development of DVD technology since its
founding in 1996, and now provides a full DVD production facility for authoring
material to DVD. Dean Harris, president, worked at Toshiba in Princeton,
developing the first DVD pre-mastering system for Time Warner.
"The menus are fun," says Harris, "people like
to jump to their favorite scenes." And the design of the menu screens
themselves can be very creative. "Look at the video motion menus for
'Saving Private Ryan'," says Harris. "They show an edited version of
the battle scene, with fades and compositing, so just looking at the menu gives
a feel for the entire movie."
DVD's can provide great support for the hard of hearing and
for alternate languages. "You can watch a movie in another language,"
says Harris. "It's very educational. I have a friend from Germany who is
learning better English from watching movies in German with English subtitles.
He's learning American slang English, not what they teach in classes. He's
teaching himself American pop culture."
For example, Disney's "Tarzan" DVD includes optional
subtitles in English and Spanish, and alternate language tracks in French and
Spanish, which provides a fun way to practice learning a foreign language. The
"Ghostbusters 2" DVD includes alternate language tracks in English,
Spanish, and Portuguese, and subtitles in English, Spanish, Portuguese,
Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Thai!
The alternate audio track also is often used for a director's
commentary, in which the entire movie is accompanied by voice-over discussion by
the creative team, describing their thinking while it was being created and
Some DVD's also provide multiple camera angles for the video,
so you can switch points of view as it plays. For example, the Sarah McLachlan
"Mirrorball" concert DVD includes three songs during which you can
switch viewpoints between a close-up view of McLachlan, a wide-angle view of the
stage, and a camera isolated on the band (as well as the edited combination of
Since even the most basic DVD player can play any DVD movie,
and provide access to all the special features programmed on the movie disc, how
can manufacturers differentiate their products? They do this by providing higher
quality internal processing, additional external interfaces to high-end home
theatre equipment, and extra viewing features beyond those provided by the
For example, the new lines of DVD players that Samsung
announced at the CES industry show in early February have high-quality internal
video and audio processing, with 10-bit video DACs and 96 KHz / 24-bit audio
DACs (digital to analog converters).
To provide more viewing options, the Samsung players also
feature additional video and audio processing to provide 2x audio playback so
you can still listen to the movie while scanning forward. The also feature a 4X
video motion zoom function so you can zoom in on a portion of the picture even
while it is playing
For more convenient user access, the high-end DVD-711 and
premium "12" series players add a jog/shuttle dial on the front panel
for precise control when skipping through the DVD. The "12" series
also features a full-sized headphone jack with volume control for listening to
audio CD's and music DVD's
Interfacing to high-end audio and home theatre equipment can
require lots of different connectors, depending on your equipment. For
high-fidelity audio output, the Samsung players feature a DTS (Digital Theater
System) digital optical audio output for 5.1 channel digital surround sound. The
"12" series also includes a coaxial digital audio output, and the
high-end DVD-812 adds an integrated Dolby Digital decoder with six discrete
audio outputs for theatre-like sound.
For higher-quality video output, the DVD-711 includes separate
component video outputs (Y, Pb, and Pr) for a projection or future
Finally, the PC-based MP3 format is now coming to set-top DVD
players. The higher-end DVD-711 and DVD-812 players now include an integrated
MP3 audio decoder to play compressed audio files (from CD). They also add a
second laser pick-up that is needed to access CD-R and CD-RW discs burned on a
The new Samsung models will be available in March and April,
at suggested retail prices of $199 to $279 for the base series, $249 to $299 for
the premium series, and $449 for a five-disc carousel changer.
Samsung Electronics America, Inc.