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A Few Words About D-VHS

Second Impressions on the D-VHS Format

Second impressions? How can these be my second impressions? Well, my first impressions were formed when I got a first look at D-VHS, during a special sneak preview of the format for the press. My initial thoughts were that the films looked and sounded great. After all, they contain high-definition video, created directly from the studio archive masters, and encoded at an MPEG-2 video bit rate of 28.2 megabits per second (broadcast high-definition video is only 19 megabits per second by comparison). In addition, they contain the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack at a whopping 576 kilobits per second, as opposed to the 384 kilobits per second (or sometimes 448 kilobits per second) found on DVD. But, since D-VHS is a tape-based format, it has all the disadvantages you'd expect from tape - it's prone to damage, you can't have all the supplemental bells and whistles you'd find on DVD... and you have to rewind the damned things. I thought D-VHS was a cool toy, but it would barely be a blip on consumer radar screens.

So what do I think now, after trying out a few movies in person? I think D-VHS is a cool toy, but it will barely be a blip on consumer radar screens. D-VHS looks and sounds truly amazing. I'm really enjoying playing with it. But I hate videotape. I mean, I really hate it. Already, in just a week of watching movies on D-VHS, I've seen tape hits and occasional digital errors in the picture caused by physical damage to the tape itself, as well as dust on the video heads of the player. And there's nothing more depressing than watching a movie in amazing quality... only to have to rewind the damned things. This is the 21st Century, right? Disc is the future, baby. Anyone who doesn't agree is entitled to their opinion... but I suspect they'll still be scratching their heads one day, when recordable HD-DVD makes tape go the way of the dodo bird and the dinosaur.

What Does D-VHS Mean for DVD?

This is the question most of you are probably interested in, judging by the sheer amount of panicked e-mails I've been receiving since we published out first story on the format. The e-mails usually go something like: "Oh my God!! Does this mean DVD is dead? Oh, no! DVD is dead, isn't it?!" or "You mean I've bought hundreds of movies on DVD only to have to buy them all again on TAPE?!" And then there's the more... well, I'll just call them "uninformed" e-mails. They go something like this: "D-VHS is clearly the MORTAL ENEMY of DVD!!! We have to KILL THIS JUST LIKE DIVX!!!" These people usually go on to ask how we even dare to review D-VHS movies, because that's going to undermine DVD.

To all of you I say... RELAX!

I mean, seriously folks! Take a chill pill. D-VHS has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in common with the now defunct Divx pay-per-view format, save for the fact that only some of the Hollywood studios have committed to releasing movies on D-VHS. How do I know? Because I do.

Some of you may be too new to The Digital Bits to remember this, but I was the person who broke the news about Divx! Back before The Bits was a website (it was then an e-mail newsletter), I posted the very first word about Divx on E-Town's It's All DVD forum (also now defunct). I had contacted Buena Vista in November of 1997, because they were (at the time) expected to announce that they were finally about to join the DVD bandwagon. Their press spokesperson told me that the studio was going to be releasing, "a version of DVD that's better than regular DVD, called Divx." So I posted this news online. I was then invited by the studio to participate in the original press conference with Divx (and Circuit City) CEO Richard Sharp, wherein he announced the format and answered questions about it. I asked a couple of very pointed ones, about Divx being a direct competitor for DVD, and received answers that convinced me that Divx had to go. Later that day, I posted information on E-Town on how people could access an audio recording of this press conference, to hear about Divx for themselves. Copies of the recording (and transcripts as well) flooded the Net shortly thereafter. Then, several months later, The Digital Bits published the very first public look at an actual Divx player. We examined the technology for ourselves, determined to keep an open mind. As several Divx executives told me (even as their format was dying) much later, it the most objective look at the technology anyone had ever done.

Free DVD!  Fight Divx!

Of course, we immediately decided that Divx WAS in direct competition to dominate the future of DVD. So the staff of The Digital Bits led the charge against the format. We started the FREE DVD/FIGHT DIVX Campaign, rallied studio and grassroots consumer support against the format and spoke against Divx in countless mainstream press interviews. We kept watch on Divx activities, politely dogged them at every turn and lobbied actively for the Divx-supporting studios to begin releasing movies on regular (then called "open") DVD. Ultimately, millions of consumers agreed with the outspoken early adopters, and Divx died a very expensive death (Circuit City, which created the format, lost some $114 million). All the studios did finally join the DVD bandwagon. And the rest is history.

So what does all this have to do with D-VHS? Trust me when I say that D-VHS is nothing like Divx.

D-VHS is an extreme niche product. The players are pricey (in the $1,500 range for the only model currently capable of playing the tapes). The movies are pricey (roughly $30-40 per tape with no extras, available from only a few retail outlets and online vendors). There are only a handful of films on D-VHS at the moment, with only an additional handful expected before the end of the year. Currently, only Fox, DreamWorks, Universal and Artisan support the format with major movie software (and few, if any, other studios are likely to join them). The consumer market is exceedingly small (you need a pricey HDTV to view the movies, and only about 2 million of those are in American homes at the moment). And the "press fanfare", the "hoopla", the marketing push for D-VHS is virtually nonexistent. Add to that the fact that DVD is now installed in some 30 MILLION homes in the U.S. and it's no contest. Bottom line: D-VHS isn't going to hurt DVD even in the slightest, any more than DVD-Audio and SACD is going to hurt the CD format in the forseeable future. As I said before, I expect it will barely be a blip on consumer radar screens.

However... D-VHS may actually HELP the development of a true high-definition disc format - the much revered HD-DVD that many of us consider the ultimate holy grail of home entertainment. Less than a month after the D-VHS format was announced, a group of manufacturers announced that they were developing a "Bluray" disc format to accommodate high-definition movies on disc. And the official DVD Forum (the group of studios and manufactures responsible for the creation of the DVD format) became much more active in working to finalize a physical disc format and technical specification for an eventual HD-DVD format.

So ANY success that D-VHS has is likely to increase the incentive of the DVD industry to bring viable HD-DVD to market. Think about it - these companies don't want D-VHS cutting into their current or future profits from DVD (or HD-DVD). They have as much at stake here as you do - even more financially.

So don't worry about D-VHS. It's a fun little toy for those who can afford it. And that's about all.

Our D-VHS Review Format

Obviously, D-VHS movies, being high-definition, represent a significant improvement in quality over existing, standard-definition DVDs. Conversely, they have to be graded on their own scale. So what we'll do, whenever possible, is to make links available in our D-VHS reviews to our existing DVD reviews of the same films. And we'll also include DVD Comparative Ratings in each D-VHS review, indicating what the DVD quality would be if we graded it on the same scale as D-VHS. Finally, whenever possible, we'll directly compare D-VHS video and audio quality to the DVD counterpart in the text of the review. All of these steps should allow you to gain a better understanding of just how much of an improvement movies released in high-definition can be. If you chose to abstain from adopting the D-VHS format (which is completely understandable, and will be the likely position of the vast majority of you), just think of these reviews as a little sneak peek at what you can eventually expect from HD-DVD in the not-too-distant future.

So... with that, it's on to the reviews! Just click on the link below to view our index of D-VHS titles reviewed. And, as always, I welcome your comments.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com


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