Mac Musings

Video CD Reconsidered

Dan Knight - 2001.06.06

About a year ago I discovered Video CD (VCD), a low cost, low tech alternative to DVDs. In Is Video CD a Real Alternative to DVD?, I looked at the quality of VCD and found quite quite a bit of variance. The best offer the quality of a top notch videotape and may be indistinguishable from DVD to the casual user. The worst should be avoided.

Since then, I've watched a lot more DVDs and VCDs. All of the DVDs have been of high quality, although some are compromised by the quality of the original medium (such as the Star Trek TV series filmed over 30 years ago).

VCD Convenience

All you need to watch a VCD is:

  • DVD player (almost all now support VCD)
  • Power Mac with a 4x CD-ROM and 604e or better processor
  • Pentium 166 or faster with a 20x CD-ROM, 32 MB video RAM, Windows 95 or later, and an MPEG decoder
  • PlayStation with VCD add-on
  • VCD player

I prefer to watch using my DVD player and 27" TV. I find watching movies on a small computer screen doesn't provide the same experience - but it works. Best of all, you don't need a DVD equipped computer to watch VCD movies.

DVDs are more convenient than VCDs. The entire movie is usually on a single disk that doesn't have to be flipped; every VCD movie I've watched comes on two disks, so you must take a brief intermission to change disks.

DVDs also give you a lot more options, such as second language, subtitles, surround sound, both widescreen and full screen on the same disc, additional footage, making of documentaries, etc. VCDs just give you the movie.

In that respect, VCD is easier than DVD. Almost every DVD loads and then waits for your input - if you want to watch the movie, you have to make a menu selection. That's poor interface. VCDs just start. That's good interface.

For a reviewer, the other advantage of VCD over DVD is simple: You can capture the screen. As I'm reviewing the Star Trek movies, it's easy to put the VCD in my TiBook, zip through the movie to a scene I want to capture, and snap it. DVDs deliberately prevent screen capture, so to get pictures for DVD reviews I'll have to hook my DVD player to an AV Mac. VCD is much more convenient for that, although that won't be a factor for most users.

VCD Quality

Video CDs have mostly been good. Over the weekend, I received The Star Trek Collection from CoolVCD.com, which contains the first seven Star Trek movies. I've watched four so far (see my reviews on Digital-Views.com). The quality of each has been excellent.

I have also been pleased with the quality of Entrapment, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the Back to the Future trilogy. These may not be as sharp as DVDs, but they offer good quality and won't degrade over time like videotape. Further, the Back to the Future trilogy and Star Trek: The Motion Picture are not currently available on DVD.

The Star Wars trilogy isn't available on DVD, either, so I bought the set on VCD. I already have the THX versions of the original trilogy on videotape, so I really didn't want to buy the "improved" edition on tape. Still, these movies are great fun, so I bought them. Compared to other VCDs, I was disappointed. Instead of movies carefully digitized for maximum quality, the Star Wars trilogy varies from good quality to very pixelated, especially when there's a lot of action on the screen.

At the lowest level of quality, The Avengers remains the only VCD I would rate as poor throughout.

VCD Value

In terms of value, the Star Wars trilogy sells for $28.88 at CoolVCD.com. The same set on tape sells for $35 in my local Meijer store and $29.95 from Amazon.com. For the better quality, I'd go with VHS in this instance.

Like Star Wars, the Back to the Future trilogy has never been released on DVD. Amazon.com lists all three tapes as out of stock, with a normal selling price of $17.99 per tape - $53.97 for the set. Video CD smokes that, because not only are the movies available, but they're only $7.88 per disc from CoolVCD.com. If you want the movies, VCD seems to be your only choice.

The situation is even better with the Star Trek Collection. Except for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, all the movies seem to be available on DVD at $25.49 each from Amazon.com. (VHS is $9.95 per movie.) Compare that to getting the first seven ST movies for $38.88 from CoolVCD.com - less than the price of four tapes or two DVDs. I call that a bargain.

Much as I enjoy the Star Trek movies, the fact is I have ST IV on a commercial videotape and several others recorded off TV. I wouldn't pay $25.49 apiece and buy the entire set - I probably wouldn't buy more than one (and ST:TMP isn't available on DVD right now). Even if the Star Trek Collection were available on DVD for $100, I wouldn't consider purchasing them. But at under $40, VCD is mighty attractive.

Conclusion

Video CD is a bit less convenient than DVD and never offers superior quality. However, most VCDs provide good quality (comparable to videotape) at an attractive price. Further, there are cases where DVD simply isn't available. (DVD lovers have a wish list with Star Wars and Indiana Jones at the top.)

Video CD would also be an ideal medium for releasing half-hour and hour TV shows to the market. In fact, Friends fans can buy episodes at $62.88 per season or $288.88 for the entire series (excluding the London wedding).

And bargain hunters should definitely take a look at the sub-$10 bargains available from CoolVCD.com and Eureka Movies. Try a VCD or two - you might find you like 'em.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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