Computer compact discs offer multimedia entertainment But you'll need to add a drive to use them.

Computer file

March 23, 1992|By Lawrence J. Magid | Lawrence J. Magid,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

For the past seven years, Microsoft has sponsored the International Conference and Exposition on Multimedia and CD-ROM. Past expositions were dominated by companies selling high-end business products and software development tools.

This year's conference, held earlier this month in San Francisco, featured an increasing number of exhibitors with products aimed at homes and schools.

CD-ROM stands for "compact disc read only memory." The discs themselves are identical to the ones you play on your home stereo. However, in addition to storing music, computer CDs can store text, graphic images, animation and moving video. Hence the term "multimedia."

A computer CD can store more than 600 megabytes of data -- about 400 times the capacity of high-density floppy disks. To "play" a computer CD you need to add to your computer a drive developed for it. You may also need a sound board and other equipment. Most computer CD drives can also play musical CDs but audio players won't work with a computer.

All CD drives are slower than hard disks but some are faster than others. Unless you're willing to wait for your data, get one that runs at 400 milliseconds or better. The lower the number, the faster the drive. You'll pay between $500 and $795 for a high-performance drive. Slower drives start at around $400. Some dealers are bundling an excellent Sony drive with several discs for as little as $545.

As is often the case, Macintosh users have it easier than people with IBM compatibles. Mac CD drives plug into a port on the back of the machine and all Macs are capable of playing sound. CD drives for IBM compatibles usually come with an interface board. You'll also need a special sound board for audio.

To be certain you can use any multimedia disc, including those that run under Microsoft Windows, users of IBM compatibles should get a CD drive and sound board that comply with the Multimedia PC (MPC) specifications. You can look for the MPC logo or ask your dealer to guarantee that the product meets the MPC standard. MPC discs require a PC with a 386SX or higher central processing unit, a hard disk of at least 30 megabytes, a minimum of 2 megabytes of random access memory and a VGA color monitor.

The only reason to buy a CD drive is to run interesting software. Unless you're willing to spend time and money just to tinker, look around for software before you take the plunge.

After looking at a lot of titles, I have mixed reactions. On one hand, the technology is interesting and promising. But some titles are more expensive, less accessible and, in some ways, less appealing than TV or print.

The 1991 Time Magazine Compact Almanac, (202) 244-4770, is a case in point. The $145 disc, which contains the full text of every article that appeared in Time from 1989 through April 1, 1991, and selected articles from 1923, is a great research tool. I enjoyed browsing through articles going back to Time's first issue in 1923. The disc also contains video clips from network television archives.

However, the video wasn't nearly as crisp as an image you would see on TV, the text wasn't as appealing as Time's printed version and it was several months out of date the moment it was published. I highly recommend it for schools and libraries, but I wouldn't buy it for my home unless, perhaps, I had high-school-age children.

I would spend $69.95 for Sierra On-Line's Mixed Up Mother Goose (MS-DOS), (800) 326-6654, now that I've seen William, my 5-year-old, use it to peruse Little Jack Horner's house and help "Mary Mary Quite Contrary" tend her garden.

Compton's Multimedia Encyclopedia (MS-DOS, Windows and Mac) is impressive but, at $895, is out of range for most home users. The Grolier Electronic Encyclopedia (Mac and MS-DOS), at $395, is more affordable. Both products include the full text of the multivolume print versions in addition to photos, charts, graphs and sound.

Microsoft's Multimedia Beethoven: The Ninth Symphony (Mac and Windows), at $79.95, is another great learning tool.

For a more selective list, order EduCorp's free 16-page catalog at (800) 843-9497. There you'll find a variety of titles for Mac and PC, including Heavenly Bodies, a $199 Mac adults-only disc that has nothing to do with astronomy.

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