Coming to a Home Entertainment Center Near You

DVD: Devil Video Discs or DiVine Discs?

illustration by Jason Stout

Quite a few years ago, my home was broken into and robbed. Thieves being practical individuals, they stole just about every electronic appliance that could be carried off. There were nothing but dusty outlines on the hardwood where the television, VCR, amplifier, and cassette deck had formerly resided. In fact, the area in front of the couch looked like Cindy Lou Who's house after the Grinch was done. With one exception. The turntable was still sitting in its normal place. If I'd needed any proof that vinyl was truly dead, this was it. Not that I was surprised; I'd bought a CD player when they first appeared and declared to anyone who would listen that this was the future. No more having to replace vinyl albums that were defaced by skips, warps, or worn-out grooves. CDs represented a major technological breakthrough and would outlast us all.

One other item that had been ripped off during the burglary was my brand-new laserdisc player. Laserdisc had been around for a while, but was gaining a broader audience about this time. The sound and picture were vastly better than videotape, and many of the films on laserdisc were letterboxed (almost all are now), had trailers or other interesting additions, or even incorporated footage that had been absent in some films' commercial releases. With a decent-sized television, a Dolby receiver, and a few extra speakers, home theater became an affordable reality. The library of movies available in the format mushroomed. Life for movie lovers was sweet. Laserdisc rentals even became commonplace.

Recently, a new kid on the block has arrived. DVD. The electronics industry has wrapped DVD's fingers around laser's throat and the new technology is quickly throttling its predecessor to death. Is DVD better than laserdisc? A little, but not the quantum difference that existed between laserdisc and tape. Certainly, it's nice to have an entire feature on one side of a disc. More affordable? That, too. But the same things that were lost when vinyl bit the big one will disappear again. The smaller package size will destroy any artistry the box art might have. Decent liner notes will become a thing of the past, or will require a magnifying glass to read. And, ultimately, plenty of money will be made, because DVD has an advantage that laserdisc could never have matched. DVD drives can easily be fitted into the housing of almost all new desktop computers, and with that, another critical step in marrying video to computers will be taken. This will give DVD a huge market that laser never had a shot at. So DVD is going to bury laserdisc. Count on it. If you don't believe me, check the store shelves. It's happening already.

Not that the inevitability of DVD is necessarily a bad thing. It's the fact that the electronics' industry is giving the public no real choice between the two that's somewhat annoying. Then again, maybe we deserve it. Given Beta and VHS to select from, we in America went with the latter format.

Still, if current trends toward compact size continue, I have a horrible feeling that the future may resemble the scene from Men in Black where Tommy Lee Jones demonstrates an alien playback system with the teeny-tiny little silver disc and says "Now I'll probably have to buy the White Album again." There's something seriously disproportionate about being able to wear Spartacus and Ben-Hur as earrings, or having to be careful not to leave Lawrence of Arabia lying around because it's a choking hazard for small children. For now though, I'm content in the knowledge that my laserdisc player and discs are becoming less and less worth stealing.

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