Journal: News & Comment

Thursday, March 09, 2006
# 12:02:00 PM:

Why DVDs suck

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macro- DVDI've come to believe that DVDs suck. There are a number of reasons:

  • They're fragile. I've had DVDs start skipping or become inoperable with much less abuse than old VHS tapes or audio CDs. Many rental DVDs from our local video store, and even some video and data DVDs I've purchased, have failed right out of the box.

  • They're hard to use. My kids are a good measure here. They were able to master old VHS tapes easily: pop in the tape and it plays, or maybe you have to press a button. If you left off somewhere, it starts right up again there, regardless of which VCR you're using. Not so with DVDs—your player might remember where you left off, if it hasn't been unplugged, or you haven't played anything else in the meantime. But it might only give you 10 seconds to decide whether to continue, and for kids who can't read yet and don't yet have lightning button reflexes, that's too short. Plus every DVD has a different menu system, which means every time we get a new one I'm asked "How do I play it, daddy?"

  • They take away your control. What is a key frustration of any DVD viewer? Having to sit through the FBI/Interpol warnings we've all seen thousands of times, plus the inane flying production company logos, without being able to fast forward or skip ahead or get to the menu. Why on earth are people who make the movies we buy able to decide how the electronic devices that we own are going to behave? (It only gets worse. See below.)

  • The standard DVD box is crap. The little tines that hold the disc in seem less prone to breaking than those on CD jewel boxes, but otherwise DVD boxes are inferior: they're thicker and larger, and so harder to store, they don't hold their booklets very well, and the discs tend to rattle around inside. Plus so many of them are coated in super-difficult-to-remove plastic tape at the edges that you need a knife to open it—and might still hurt yourself.

  • The curse of the editions. Is it pan and scan, widescreen, collector's edition, super-extended multi-DVD edition, tenth anniversary edition? What are the differences? Do I really care about behind-the-scenes making-of featurettes for Dodgeball? (Then again, maybe they're better than the movie.)

  • Overload. Related to the previous point. As with any high-capacity format, those who produce them seem to want to load DVDs up with as much stuff as possible, regardless of quality. Just as the advent of the LP record yielded 45-minute albums (and later, 80-minute CDs) from artists who really only had a few good singles in them, now DVDs create movies and operating systems and software loaded up with "extras" that many of us never use.

  • The death of the all-in-one recording box. Want to record a show? You can't use the same box you use to play movies from the video store anymore. If you have a TiVo or other digital recorder, you have that, or maybe you have a media PC of some sort. DVD recorders are an interesting solution, but the discs aren't generally reusable. Not too big a deal, but an annoyance nevertheless.

  • Region coding. Now we get to the meat of it. Movie company paranoia means that if you buy a copy of Lord of the Rings in Japan or Europe, it won't play on your North American DVD player or DVD-capable laptop. That's not a technical limitation, like the old NTSC/PAL/SECAM video format issues—it's built in intentionally as part of the DVD standard, as a way to try to prevent you from getting a perfectly legal DVD in one part of the world and then playing it somewhere else where distribution agreements might make it more expensive, or just different. But if you travel a lot, or move between continents, or (most importantly) buy DVDs that you can't even get in your home market? You're SOL, because, again, movie companies want to tell you what to do.

  • The technology is insulting. So many of my annoyances above are about treating customers like criminals: difficult-to-open packaging, region coding, encryption that prevents you from making a legal copy of your DVD onto, say, a video tape so your kids can play it and get jam on it without you having to worry about ruining your original. Combo DVD/VCR units that won't record from DVD to VHS. Upcoming high-definition standards that (in one case) might do away with region coding or (in another) create fewer regions, but which otherwise layer so many digital restrictions on the discs that you might have to buy a new TV because movie makers require that the cable between your player and your display be encrypted so you, the evil evil customer, can't make a copy of their precious, precious $75 million formula romantic comedy.

Yes, the video and audio quality are better than with the old tapes. Theoretically, if perfectly cared for, DVDs should last longer. But those are almost their only real benefits, and I don't know if they are worth it. Too bad, because it's too late—my local video store is purging all their VHS tapes and going all-DVD. I think I'll take as much of my watching as possible to video podcasts.


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