For years, the only people who could afford DVD players were the super-rich. Damn them. Fortunately, over the past few years an abundance of affordable DVD players have made it to market, meaning they're now well within the price range of the average household. Couple that with the fact that the catalog of DVD movie titles is filling up at a fantastic rate, and it's easy to see why VCRs across the country are living in fear that they will soon be cohabitating with the 8-track in the attic. Want a player to call your own? Read on…


How DVDs were created

"DVD" stands for Digital Video Disc (or Digital Versatile Disc as the British seem to prefer). It's a disc that's 4 ¾ inches in diameter, 1.2 mm thick, and can store 8.5 gigabytes of data on one side (or the equivalent of about 6,800 floppy disks).

Back in 1994, Sony and Phillips announced that they would jointly develop a technology that would replace CDs for data storage. The intention was also to develop a media format that could replace VHS tapes and LaserDiscs as a way of storing movies and delivering them to consumers. Meanwhile, Time-Warner and Toshiba were working on their own competing technology (those bastards!).

The two teams unveiled their products within weeks of each other, and the rush to market was on. Apple, Compaq, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Microsoft collectively feared that another VHS-vs.-Beta war would ensue - these companies wanted to use DVD technology for their computers, and the last thing they wanted to worry about was adapting their product for two different formats. So they made their own existences less miserable by demanding that DVDs be made in only one format.

So Sony, Phillips, Toshiba, Time-Warner and a handful of other companies all got together and decided on a uniform standard for all DVDs, making life easier for everybody. Fast forward eight months later, and the assemblage of DVD developers were still quibbling over how to produce a five-inch disk. But they eventually got everything ironed out.

How DVDs work

On a CD, the data is read off the disc using an infrared laser; a DVD works in the same way, but it uses a shorter wavelength laser so that it can read smaller "pits" or little pockets in which data is stored. Smaller pits mean more of them on a disc, hence more information. DVDs also have not one but two layers per side that can store information. And DVDs can carry info on both sides (front and back) for a total of four data-holding layers. So while a CD can fit about 20 minutes of compressed video, a DVD can hold about 135 minutes… per layer. That means that one double-layered double-sided DVD can hold up to 9 hours of Steven Seagal. Will wonders never cease?

If that's not enough for you, check out these other benefits of DVDs:

  • DVDs play with 540 lines of horizontal resolution. Compare that to a VHS tape, which plays with 210 lines.

  • DVDs sample audio at higher rates (all that means is that the sound is better).

  • DVDs can support multiple aspect ratios - that is, movies can be viewed in their original wide-screen versions (16:9 ratio) as opposed to their formatted-to-fit-the-screen ones that TVs use (4:3 ratio).

  • DVDs can hold up to 32 language tracks.

  • DVDs can support split screens, director's cuts, alternate endings, voiceovers, and any other interesting little doodads.

And as your reward for sitting through all that, you win a piece of trivial information that you might actually be able to drop into conversation some day:

Q: What was the first movie put onto DVD?
A: The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night.