When is a computer not a computer? When it is a television. Maybe this seems strange to you now, but it won't soon. Trust me. The future is spinning in my CD-ROM drive. It is something called multimedia.
CD-ROM stands for Compact Disc-Read Only Memory. CD-ROM drives look like audio compact disc players. The discs are identical. And CD-ROM discs can contain regular compact disc audio.
But they also can hold massive amounts of computer-readable information. One compact disc can contain more than 640 megabytes of information. That's the equivalent of a stack of typewritten pages six stories tall. One disc can contain more than 1 1/2 hours of full motion video with sound.
With CD-ROM, I have used interactive video to help Sherlock Holmes solve a mystery. I have watched CNN news clips of the second Soviet revolution. I have played a board game that
moves and talks. And I did it all on my computer screen.
There are compromises. For now, to save disc space, most CD-ROM video runs at 15 frames per second, not the 30-or-so common in theater-quality movies. The video, displayed on your computer screen, looks grainy and less colorful than it does on a TV. The sound can be muddy and can get out of sync with the video, which can get jerky. At its worst, CD-ROM video is an annoying case of video hiccups.
But at its best, CD-ROM video blurs the distinction between television and computer by combining the advantages of both -- the sense of motion and sound on television and the total control of information afforded by computer.
Not just any IBM-compatible computer can run CD-ROM video. The more powerful the computer the better, and one with a 386 microchip is a minimum requirement.
You need a video card capable of displaying 256 simultaneous colors and a color monitor, too. You also need a sound card
capable of playing digital sound and a couple of amplified speakers.
And not just any CD-ROM drive will do. Some access information too slowly and don't display video smoothly.
You are best off buying a model that is part of a multimedia upgrade kit, which usually includes the sound card, software and a couple of amplified speakers, often for about $800.
Then prepare to be blown away by titles like these:
* Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective. (Icom Simulations Inc., This disc includes three mysteries to solve by watching snippets of video and following the leads the witnesses provide.
There are plenty of video clips -- 90 minutes' worth total -- all filmed for this product at a studio in Minneapolis.
* 1991 Time Magazine Compact Almanac. (Compact Publishing Inc., $149.95) Not only does this disc include 10,000 articles culled from Time's 68-year history, it also features more than 200 photos, 100 charts, color facsimiles of dozens of Time covers, 400 tables from the U.S. Statistical Abstract, the complete 1990 CIA World Factbook, a current events quiz with more than 500 questions and maps of 200 countries.