CD movies are more available, but still won't put the Bijou in your lap

Personal Computers

March 24, 1997|By Stephen Manes

WORKING LATE on some mind-numbing presentation? Slip a movie disk into the CD-ROM drive and pay homage to the boss by running "Dumb and Dumber" as you pretty up the slides. Is the airplane movie as bland as the food? Open your CD-ROM-enabled notebook and savor the street language of "Menace II Society."

The personal computer as VCR and television rolled into one is an idea that has not quite caught on. The forthcoming DVD format promises high-quality audio and video but presents a chicken-and-egg problem. Consumers are unlikely to buy players until a wide variety of content is available, but producers may be slow to develop titles before players gain widespread acceptance. But if you are really impatient to use your computer as a small-screen theater, you can probably do it now without upgrading hardware.

Video CDs, direct descendants of karaoke disks, were originally designed for players that connect to standard TV sets, but computers with MPEG-1 hardware or software can play them too. Popular abroad, particularly in Asia, the format laid an egg in the United States, in part because computer monitors accentuate the blocky video that TV screens can hide, in part because MPEG capability has only recently become a familiar feature on home machines and in part because many people want to spend less time with their computers, not more. Sound quality is often excellent, and the list of more than 850 Video CD titles available in this country at about $25 each includes "Forrest Gump," "Apocalypse Now," five "Star Trek" odysseys, many James Bond films and a pile of pornography. The disks can be hard to find; one source is CD Movies Plus, 888-236-6843 or www.cdmovies.com.

Now Sirius Publishing Inc., has introduced what it calls MovieCD, a format that does not require MPEG and works on many older, cheaper computers. Fifty titles from Betty Boop cartoons to Grateful Dead concerts and "The Mask" have been released at about $15 to $20 for two-disk features and $10 for shorter programs; Sirius plans to have 500 titles in release by the end of the year. MovieCDs require a Windows machine with at least a 486/66 processor, 128 kilobytes of cache memory, eight megabytes of RAM, a double-speed CD-ROM drive, 10 NTC megabytes of hard disk space, at least one megabyte of video RAM and a Sound-blaster Pro-compatible sound card. A Pentium processor, 16 megabytes of RAM, a quad-speed CD-ROM drive and 256 kilobytes of cache are recommended.

The movies work best in 16-bit (or "high") color mode. With a monitor set for 640 by 480 resolution, they play in a window one-fourth the size of the screen; as resolution increases, the window gets smaller. You can move the window around, but working on other programs while a movie plays is likely to be annoying with all but the fastest computers. On a Pentium 90 with double-speed CD-ROM drive, playing a movie while typing made for long delays before keystrokes appeared on the screen, and saving documents briefly froze the video. On a new Pentium 200, movie and word processor coexisted happily.

On decent monitors, the windowed picture can be adequate if you are willing to overlook jagged diagonal lines and blotchy continuous tones. But a title like Robert Altman's "The Player" clearly reveals how much visual density is missing, and the slow dual-scan LCD screens found on many laptop computers can smear the action even more. Except on music titles, MovieCD audio is typically monaural and sometimes distorts when the volume gets loud. For full-screen playback, you can choose the lesser of three evils. Do you like your images in chunky blocks, or would you rather look at them through a virtual Venetian blind or a coarse window screen?

An on-screen control lets you play the video in slow motion, advance or rewind it frame by frame or jump instantly to a particular sequence by entering its position in minutes and seconds. Rewind and fast forward work poorly with slow CD-ROM drives, smoothly with high-speed models. The version of the playback software you get depends on what title you buy, though newer editions are installed more or less automatically when you run newer titles, and you can download the latest model from the company's Web site at www.moviecd.com. More information: 602-951-3288.

A catalog, film clips and nearly two megabytes of program software are available at the Web site. It is hard to imagine amassing a collection of titles in these derriere-garde formats when high-quality DVD content appears imminent. But a movie on CD might help while away a boring flight when playing solitaire seems too interactive for your mood. Just pray your batteries go the distance, use headphones in consideration of your neighbors and expect pictures that will not remind you of Cinerama.

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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