A DVD-ROM multimedia solution for PCs

Media convergence. With those words, the entertainment industry was supposed to combine with the computing industry to create "interactive entertainment." So far, media convergence has produced only a handful of bad games on poorly produced video. Such ill-fated ideas as interactive television (remember Microsoft's Tiger platform?) and set-top boxes that let viewers use their TVs to wade through the Web have hindered the potential inherent in melding PCs with traditional entertainment.

DVD-ROM might be the technology that finally realizes this potential. After spending years in R&D, entertainment and computer companies have developed a medium—DVD-ROM—that promises to make existing media (such as CD-ROMs and laser discs) obsolete. How? Through DVD-ROM's inherent convenience. Consider a multiple CD-ROM package such as Microsoft BackOffice, for example. You can fit all four BackOffice CD-ROMs onto one DVD-ROM. Do you like high-resolution annotated movies but can't handle wrangling those unwieldy laser discs? One dual-layered DVD-ROM can store the contents of your most comprehensive laser disc boxed set without requiring side and platter breaks. Above all, DVD-ROM is a high-capacity storage medium. A standard single-sided, single-layer DVD-ROM disc holds 4.7GB of information. Fill the other side of the disc, and you're looking at 9.4GB of data. For users who'd rather not flip sides, Reverse Spiral Dual Layer (RSDL) DVD-ROMs can store up to 8.5GB of data.

Creative Labs' entrance into the DVD-ROM market is not surprising. Creative is one of the leading manufacturers of multimedia peripherals, and the company's DVD-ROM product is worthy of its distinguished pedigree. The PC-DVD Encore Dxr2 multimedia kit for upgrading PCs includes an internal 2X DVD-ROM drive, a Dxr2 MPEG-2 decoder board, and cables that connect the kit to your PC.

The PC-DVD Encore kit is easy to install, and uses an ATAPI interface. Connect the DVD-ROM drive to the EIDE ports on your motherboard, and you're ready to go. Unfortunately, Creative doesn't offer a SCSI version of the kit, which means the DVD-ROM drive will tax the CPU. However, the DVD-ROM drive supports ultra direct memory access (UDMA) mode, a small consolation to those with UDMA support in Windows NT 4.0. The PC-DVD Encore kit doesn't ship with NT drivers; you must download the drivers from Creative's Web site. As with most new multimedia products, the PC-DVD Encore kit doesn't support versions of NT earlier than NT 4.0.

After you install the DVD-ROM drive, you can set up the Dxr2 Board, if you plan to use it. The Dxr2 Board is a PCI decoder board that connects to your video card via a pass-through cable—a mixed blessing. The pass-through cable enables fairly seamless switching between the two display devices at the expense of video quality, particularly at higher resolutions. Many add-on video board vendors (particularly those that ship 3Dfx Interactive's Voodoo-based boards) compensate for the video degradation that pass-through cables cause by using industrial-strength shielded cables. No such luck here: The Dxr2 Board's pass-through cable is a flimsy piece of plastic. The upside is that unless you're running at resolutions higher than 1024 * 768, you won't see too much picture degradation.

I mentioned that the PC-DVD Encore kit's DVD-ROM drive clocks at 2X. If that sounds slow, it isn't. For a reason I still don't completely understand, the standard that measures DVD-ROM speeds differs from the standard that measures CD-ROM drives. For example, a 150Kbps CD-ROM drive speed translates to 1X for DVD-ROM; 300Kbps translates to 2X. The 2X DVD-ROM speed works out to about 2.7MBps. If you access CD-ROMs with the PC-DVD Encore kit's DVD-ROM drive, you might see speeds of up to 3MBps. The PC-DVD Encore kit's DVD-ROM drive uses constant angular velocity (CAV) technology, which spins the disc at a fixed rate, so you won't see best-case-scenario speeds until you access data on the outer edges of the disc.

The PC-DVD Encore kit can play your favorite movies. In fact, some studios now release exclusive DVD-ROM content, so you can pick up a copy of New Line's Lost in Space at any Best Buy or Circuit City and watch it on your PC-DVD Encore kit's DVD-ROM drive. The catch is that the DVD-ROM software that the PC-DVD Encore kit includes won't run without the Dxr2 Board. The PC-DVD Encore kit includes the Dxr2 Board, so why wouldn't someone use it? That question has two answers. The first answer is that the Dxr2 Board is a PCI solution, and with many motherboards containing as few as three PCI slots, some users might not have free slots. The second answer applies to Pentium II users: If your CPU is running at 300MHz or faster, you can decode MPEG-2 video with software, rather than with a hardware decoder such as the Dxr2 Board. When you use software to decode video, you don't need to plug up a precious PCI slot. Therefore, if you want to use the PC-DVD Encore kit's DVD-ROM drive without the Dxr2 Board, you'll have to purchase another DVD-ROM player, such as Zoran's SoftDVD.

But if you have the slot space to use the Dxr2 Board, you're in for a treat—the board's MPEG-2 decompression is excellent. After installing the Dxr2 Board, I selected a few DVD movies and loaded them into the PC-DVD Encore kit (purely in the interest of testing, of course). Even with action-intensive films such as Twister and Godzilla, I saw no hint of artifacting. Artifacting is a technique that helps compress film for transfer to DVD: Background elements in a scene remain static (or artifacted), often causing subtle blocking or nonfluidity. In addition to its excellent decompression, the Dxr2 Board acts as a line doubler to smooth out video, resulting in a more filmlike quality.

As film aficionados know, a 17" or even 21" monitor can't do anamorphic wide-screen movies justice. Because the Dxr2 Board is equipped with composite RCA and S-Video outputs, you can use the board to pipe video from your PC to a large-screen TV. The Dxr2 Board includes an AC-3 output that lets you connect the card to any Dolby Digital receiver. The PC-DVD Encore kit's video and audio output are top-notch, rivaling the most expensive set-top DVD player on the market.

Because DVD-ROM drives are backward compatible with CD-ROM drives, you can replace your existing 8X clunker with the PC-DVD Encore kit and gain DVD support to boot. If DVD takes off the way I think it will, you'll need a DVD-ROM drive to handle the next generation of software programs.

PC-DVD Encore Dxr2
Contact:
Creative Labs * 800-998-1000
Web: http://www.soundblaster.com
Price: $229
System Requirements:
100MHz Pentium processor, Windows NT 4.0, Windows 98, or Win95, 16MB of RAM, 8MB to 55MB of hard disk space, SVGA video card, 16-bit color depth recommended, EIDE controller, One PCI slot, One full-size drive bay