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Laserdisc was to video what the compact disc is to audio: a shiny silver disc that won't wear out (theoretically) and that promises the best reproduction of the recorded medium possible. It was "the Lexus of video" until DVD came along.

Besides having to duke it out with DVD, laserdisc has one very big drawback, or at least it could be a drawback to some: it can't record. That means it's useless if you want to tape TV programs, copy tapes from camcorders etc. DVD presently has the same flaw, but it has other advantages.

Laserdisc players typically claim a horizontal resolution (which describes the detail it's capable of reproducing) of 425 lines, as compared to about 250 for VHS. But resolution only tells part of the story; everything about the picture, including colour reproduction, blows VHS out of the water.

There are other advantages, too. Laserdisc players also handle audio CD's, so if you haven't yet bought a CD player, or want to relegate the one you have to another room in the house, laserdisc rides to the rescue.

Discs, like CD's, are also a lot more convenient. Most discs released in recent years are equipped with "chapter stops" like the tracks on CD's, so if you have a favourite scene you want to find, you can go there reasonably directly. You can also search a disc by time, and of course once the movie's over you can just eject the disc without having to sit there and wait for it to rewind.

Disadvantages? Sure. Besides not being able to record, the discs themselves are a lot bigger than CD's, so they won't fit into your CD case. However, because the discs are 12 inches in diameter, they're perfect at fitting the space left vacant when you moved your LP's into the basement. So you can recycle some of your furniture!

You also have to flip the discs over to play a whole movie, and if the flick is longer than two hours you'll have to change discs as well. That's because the CLV disc speed only gives an hour per side. CAV discs only play for half that long, but even the cheapest laserdisc player on the market will be able to take advantage of CAV's remarkable special effects capabilities.

Another potential drawback to laserdiscs is a lack of software. Oh, just about anything you want to see is available on disc, and there are a lot of special editions you can't get on videocassette, but finding them can be a pain. There just aren't enough software rental stores that carry discs and the DVD format will frighten a good many retailers out of from sinking a lot of dollars into laserdisc inventory. Fortunately, laserdisc has enough of a market already that it'll probably continue as a viable format for years yet (as long as the manufacturers and studios continue to make a profit there's no reason to think the format will die out - then again, remember beta videocassettes?)

There's a lot more selection for sale than for rental, thanks to mail order and a few "superstores," so you may have to look carefully for the software.

What to look for:

The big features to consider are double sided play and digital effects. Double sided play is just what it says: you don't have to get up and flip over the disc. This may or may not be an advantage to you. Digital special effects give you the special effects features of CAV discs (freeze frame, etc.) on CLV discs. If you like going frame by frame through a movie, or re-running scenes to see how they were done, this is a nice feature since most of the movies available are released in CLV.

The downside is that digital effects add quite a bit to the price of the player, much more than double sided play (or autoreverse, as it's also called). We think the digital effects are a more worthwhile feature than autoreverse, but you usually have to get autoreverse (and kick in a couple of hundred dollars) before you'll find digital effects. It figures.

Players range in price from about $400 to $1000 US, though you can spend more or less than either end of the scale, depending on sales or how high end you want to go.

Should you buy, or should you forget about the format?

As Hamlet said, "That is the question!" Now, we don't claim to be all-seeing gurus and the spectre of DVD has appeared. But even if DVD does catch on, the history of consumer electronics shows it should take several years.

Ditto for DVD software. Even if it's wonderful, and it is, it'll take years for there to be enough of a library for it to rival even laserdisc, let alone VHS.

So there's still a window of opportunity for the prospective laserdisc purchaser. Most players are priced low enough, and will last long enough, that you can enjoy the format for several years before having to confront the question of DVD or any other new video format.

And you may be able to get some laserdisc movies cheap as people sell off their inventories and convert to DVD.

Good luck!


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January 31, 2006