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Do You DVD? 
    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.

DVD Format

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.

DVD Features

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 edited.

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 all three).

DVD Players

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 movie.

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 high-definition TV.

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 PC.

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.