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Wednesday, August 28, 2002
Digital VHS teams with HDTV for a picture that comes alive

Just when you thought you were ecstatic over your DVD player, a new, even better-looking movie format comes along to confuse the home-video picture. Thanks to the success of movies on DVD, most people figure that the future of home entertainment is on disc. But new D-Theater digital videocassettes, which look like ordinary VHS tapes, hold up to 50 gigabytes of data -- an entire movie in high-definition format, about twice the resolution of DVDs.

This is good news for the 3 million or so owners of high-definition TVs who are itching for something to show off their next-generation sets. If they're lucky, owners now can receive a few local broadcast signals and, if they have digital satellite service, a couple of more dish-only channels.

And considering how little programming exists, HDTV owners need a recording format so they can archive programs to watch over and over. The handful of other D-VHS recorders brought to the market includes a new $749 Mitsubishi model.

As the creator of the VHS format, JVC has a vested interest in extending the natural life of VHS technology. It also has an ear tuned to the needs of Hollywood, which is worried about the pirating of movies. So JVC designed a prerecorded D-VHS format called D-Theater with encryption to persuade some studios to sell movies in high definition for the first time.

So far, Artisan, DreamWorks, Fox and Universal are on board, and the first nine videos were released this summer: The Peacemaker, X-Men, U-571, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Independence Day, Galaxy Quest, End of Days and music videos from Motley Crüe and Yes. It'll soon be a full dozen with new releases Big Momma's House, Entrapment and Don't Say a Word.

To get a feel for the experience, I borrowed a JVC D-VHS deck -- the only one so far to support the D-Theater format -- and some movies. For the full effect, I connected the deck to a $7,000 Panasonic 42-inch high-definition plasma display and a Yamaha top-of-the-line audio/video receiver.

I expected D-Theater movies to look better than DVDs. Still, I connected a Pioneer Elite DVD player to use as a barometer of D-Theater's performance.

I was amazed. Visually, D-Theater is not just an improvement over DVD. It leaves DVD in the dust, as difficult as that might be for DVD's growing legion of fans to visualize. The difference was so stunning that after watching the D-Theater versions of U-571, Terminator 2 and End of Days, the DVDs looked as if the lens had gone slightly out of focus.

End of Days has numerous New York skyline scenes (including one of the World Trade Center). On DVD, the skylines looked impressive, but on the D-Theater version of the film, the footage looked like a live fly-by in a helicopter.

The 1991 film Terminator 2 looked brand-new. In the finale, after Arnold Schwarzenegger bashes open the glass wall of the building, it's as if you're looking out into a real night sky full of helicopters and flashing police lights. In the steelworks where the Terminators meet their fate, the rich blues and oranges are far more formidable.

In this month's issue, Widescreen Review magazine says U-571 on D-Theater rivals the copy of an actual film master provided by Universal. I can say that U-571 surpassed any footage I had seen in all my broadcast HDTV viewing, including movies such as Gladiator and series such as CBS' CSI and HBO's Band of Brothers.

U-571's seafaring scenes were breathtaking. During shots underneath the attacking German destroyer, you can see extensive detail in the water's foam and bubbles. Of course, part of the submarine movie genre is the suffocating enclosure scenes. D-Theater shows the individual beads of sweat and pores on the faces of the crew and the steam of the humidity in the sub. Add the surround sound -- the creaking, the exploding depth charges, the leaking pipes -- and you almost feel as if you are part of the crew.

Not everything with D-Theater and D-VHS is an improvement. Compared to DVD players, D-VHS has primitive search functions: basic fast forward and replay when watching prerecorded tapes, plus a TiVo ( news - web sites)-like Skip Search function that fast forwards through 30 seconds of tape; hit that up to four times to skip an entire commercial break on home-recorded tapes.

The remote control has jog-shuttle functions -- continuously variable slow and fast tape winding -- but those work only on VHS tapes, not D-VHS. There's also the chore of tape rewinding. And those who love to explore DVD's extras will miss them on D-Theater.

You pay for D-Theater's superior video, too. The tapes run $30 to $45. And the format is still a niche market, so it's doubtful you'll be seeing the tapes on display at your local video rental parlor.

To make high-definition recordings, you must pair this deck with one of a select few HD tuners or set-top boxes with so-called 1394 or FireWire digital connections. Playback is through the component video inputs common on today's HDTVs.

Despite the shortfalls, D-VHS recorders are the only game in town. Any recordable HD-DVD technology is at least two years away.

If you've already spent thousands on a home theater and have little to watch on it, an added D-Theater investment might make it all worthwhile.

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