Is Video CD a Real Alternative to DVD?

2000: You’ve probably seen the online ads from and read the press releases: Video Compact Disc (VCD) lets you watch movies on Macs or PCs that don’t have DVD drives.

Maybe you were skeptical. I certainly was. After all, DVD stores several gigabytes of data and provides output good enough for the new generation of digital TVs. CDs only store about 700 MB of information; how can they offer anywhere near the quality of DVD?

VCD doesn’t claim to offer the same quality of DVD. It does claim to offer comparable quality to videotape. Most movies come on two discs, which means they are more compressed than DVD.

There’s about a 6:1 difference in storage space between a single-layer DVD and VCD, but that doesn’t mean the quality is one-sixth that of DVD. It varies from film to film.

To test the quality of VCD, I obtained three movies from CoolVCD. I watched them on my DVD player (VCD is compatible with most DVD players) and also looked at them on my Umax SuperMac S900 with a 333 MHz G3 processor and 8x CD-ROM drive. (CoolVCD recommends at least a 4x CD-ROM drive and a 604e processor along with a recent version of QuickTime. Some movies will also require CD-ROM Speed Tools. This is all covered on the CoolVCD site, along with requirements for Windows computers.)

Never Been Kissed

scene from Never Been KissedThe first movie I watched was Never Been Kissed with Drew Barrymore and David Arquette. It’s an enjoyable movie about a 25-year-old reporter going back to high school for her first undercover assignment.

Except for a scene in a dark club (right), the quality is quite good. Artifacts (a side-effect of JPEG and MPEG compression) are visible in this scene, but they are rarely noticeable in the rest of the film.

As for the claim that VCD offers comparable quality to VHS tapes, Never Been Kissed proves the point. I watched it twice to verify that.


scene from EntrapmentEntrapment with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones goes beyond that, offering quality comparable to the best THX mastered videotape. In fact, it was as close to DVD quality as I’ve seen.

Entrapment is a compelling tale of honor among thieves (or lack thereof) along with double- and triple-crosses that leave you guessing how things will end. You’ll probably want to watch it a second time after you know how it ends – and you’ll probably enjoy it every bit as much on the second pass.

I never saw this on the big screen or on DVD, but I found the quality more than I expected.

The Avengers

Over the weekend I watched the third VCD, 1998’s The Avengers with Uma Thurman, Ralph Fiennes, and Sean Connery. I’d seen the movie on DVD and find the VCD edition vastly inferior. (Unfortunately, I am unable to play The Avengers on my SuperMac at home, my G4 at work, or my wife’s PowerBook G3, so I can’t show an example.)

Part of the problem may be the movie itself, which I find so dry that it never becomes compelling. It’s a shame because there’s a good storyline and good special effects. But because the characters have so little depth, the story isn’t as engaging as the above films.

Worse yet, from the opening credits and throughout the movie you’re constantly reminded that this is compressed video. Artifacts are the norm, not the exception as in Never Been Kissed. Given the choice, I’d take The Avengers on videotape instead of VCD.


Video Compact Disc lets you do something on an iBook, older iMac, and a lot of other Power Macs and PowerBooks that would otherwise be impossible without adding a DVD drive: watch movies.

Compressing movies with minimal quality loss is an art and a science. There are programs that can dynamically vary the level of compression for each scene to provide the best quality within the available bandwidth. It’s obvious those who mastered Never Been Kissed and Entrapment were concerned with a quality product, while it seems those responsible for porting The Avengers to VCD just wanted to get the job done.

It’s easy to understand why the compact, efficient VCD format has caught on in many Asian markets. A pair of discs in a case takes up a lot less room than a VHS tape, quality will not degrade with repeated viewings, and the price is very attractive.

If anything, this bodes well for DVD. If VCD with its adequate but limited quality can do this well, it will be very easy for DVD players to displace VCD players over time, especially since most DVD players are also compatible with Video CD.

VCD provides a way to watch movies on computers that don’t have DVD players and a way to own movies, such as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, that are not yet available on DVD.

  • Star Wars Trilogy on VCD, CoolVCD. Not yet available on DVD. First Video CDs mastered using THX process. Just US$26.88 plus shipping.

Keywords: #videocd #vcd