Cost of PC multimedia gets affordable at last

HOME COMPUTING

November 02, 1992|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

You hear a lot of talk about "multimedia" in the PC world, but for most users it's just that -- talk.

The idea is simple: combine the music, voice and sound effects from advanced computer audio technology with the incredible storage capacity of a CD-ROM player to produce interactive applications that dazzle the senses and tickle the imagination.

The technology has been around for years. But for owners of IBM-compatible computers, it has been very expensive -- and devilishly difficult to get everything working together.

But there's good news. The major manufacturers have agreed on the Multimedia PC standard for hardware and software, and it looks as though multimedia may finally be available to the masses.

Consider Media Vision's new Fusion Computer CD Sound System. Sold through retail chains, the Price Club and other consumer outlets for as little as $420, it's incredibly cheap for what you get.

The package includes a Pro Audio Spectrum sound board, a NEC CDR-25 external CD-ROM drive, a pair of Labtec stereo speakers, and a CD-ROM software bundle that includes Compton's Family Encyclopedia and three popular game titles -- Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego, Wing Commander II and Ultima Underworld. The price is about the same as you'd pay elsewhere for a CD-ROM drive alone.

None of the hardware is state-of-the-art, but it will get you into the multimedia game. The price is several hundred dollars below most multimedia packages -- low enough to tempt buyers who might otherwise put a Super Nintendo and a couple of games under the Christmas tree.

Installing this kind of equipment is never easy, but Media Vision has done its best to take the pain out of the process with an illustrated manual and a simplified software installation program.

First, you'll have to open your computer and find two adjacent expansion slots. The sound board occupies only one, but the SCSI connector for the CD-ROM that attaches to it with a cable effectively renders the next slot useless.

The fit was very tight in my kids'computer (a 386DX in a baby AT case), but once I was finished tinkering inside, hooking up the speakers and the CD-ROM drive was a snap, thanks to a clear illustration in the manual.

The real challenge is getting the software drivers for the sound board and CD-ROM installed so the machine will recognize them. Depending on the circuit boards and memory resident software installed on your system, there may be conflicts with hardware interrupts and Direct Memory Access channels that require a lot of tweaking -- probably more than most casual users can manage.

Media Vision's installation program is supposed to examine your system, resolve the conflicts, and set everything up for you. Unfortunately, the installation program bombed on my computer.

That meant I had to install the software manually, copying it to my hard disk and making arcane changes in my system configuration and autoexecute files. The instruction book explained part of this process, but not enough. In particular, it doesn't explain how to install the sound editing software that runs under Microsoft Windows.

I called Media Vision's 800 technical support number. Not surprisingly, the lines were jammed. When I did get through, I had to wait 24 hours before someone got back to me. The call eventually came from a helpful engineer, and I was able to get most of the problems resolved.

The culprit was probably an incompatibility in my test computer, which is several years old. Also, my computer uses a bus mouse, which conflicts with the sound board's basic settings.

Once I got everything running, the Fusion System was delightful. The Pro Audio Spectrum (PAS) sound board did a passable job of emulating Creative Labs' Sound Blaster -- the most popular sound board on the market. That means software designed for the Sound Blaster will work with the PAS board. Newer programs are more likely to have direct PAS support.

Although it's relatively slow, the CD-ROM functioned flawlessly. If you've never had an encyclopedia on-line, you're in for a treat. While Compton's isn't the slickest on the market, it's a snap to use. If youknow the title of the article, it can take as little as three seconds to bring it to the screen. It took only 15 seconds to find every article containing the word "rocket," which sure beats doing it by the book. Unlike more sophisticated electronic encyclopedias, Compton's doesn't have hyptertext links (allowing you to look up related articles by clicking your mouse on key words), but if your child doesn't understand any word he's reading, he can click on it and a definition will pop up.

Many articles have illustrations which appear when you click on a photo or map notation in the margin, and a few have sound tracks to go along with them. Printing is a bit awkward, but you can capture pieces of an article to a "notebook" and save the text as a file for use with a word processor.

If you're looking for entertainment, you won't be disappointed. The Carmen Sandiego detective game was an absolute delight, with hundreds of digitized photos, as well as music and voice (including a travel agent with a Brooklyn accent who will make you want to shoot the computer).

The other games are more problematical. They require so much memory to produce speech that you'll probably have to change your system configuration files and reboot your computer to make them work. That's undoubtedly why Media Vision's start up software doesn't install them automatically.

Is the Fusion CD right for you? It's certainly inexpensive enough, and by multimedia standards, easy to install. You'll probably have to learn a bit more about your computer than you want to know, but the results can be worth the effort.

For information, contact Media Vision, 3185 Laurelview Court, Fremont, Calif. 94538.

(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

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