With the Minidisc and Digital Compact Cassette, the benefits are mostly hype

By Steve Daly
Updated January 28, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

It happens twice a year. Just after New Year’s and again in midsummer, TV morning shows and newspapers go gizmo happy, parading nifty innovations in electronic gear. Ostensibly they’re reporting ”news” from the Consumer Electronics Show, a giant convention whose primary role is to generate positive media buzz—and spur sales. This year, the coverage seems especially gushy regarding anything to which the words digital or interactive can be attached. But what’s the inside story on the technologies that have been hyped as the Next Big Things?

The MiniDisc

What It Is: Music on two and a half inch diskettes. You can access favorite tracks instantly, just like on a CD, and record your own customized discs, too (blanks run about $15).

What It Isn’t: An affordable alternative to the audiocassette, even though it’s being hawked as ”the ultimate cassette.” (Funny: there’s no cassette involved in an MD player, but Sony’s pitch does make a handy marketing peg now that stores have begun phasing out prerecorded tapes in favor of CDs.) Hampered by high prices (the newest portable MD player lists for $550), the format has found fewer than 50,000 customers. By contrast, CD-player sales hit 20.5 million last year. Sound quality is hardly better than a cassette’s and not as good as a CD’s; it leaves even drum machine-driven pop sounding thin.

Where It Could Be in the Year 2000: Under a stone marked ”MD: DOA.”

The Digital Compact Cassette

What It Is: Basically a souped-up, shrunken VHS tape—except the sound is digitally recorded.

What It Isn’t: Cheap. Even though two DCC manufacturers, Technics/ Panasonic and Marantz, have drastically slashed prices, the simplest DCC players are still at least $550 list (half what prices were last year). You can’t get to your favorite tracks easily or quickly. With typical boom-box player/recorders under $100, who wants to pay so much for audiotapes—especially since DCC’s sound has some of the same data compression pitfalls as MiniDisc’s?

Where It Could Be in the Year 2000: In basements next to Beta VCRs.

The Video CD

What It Is: A disc that looks exactly like a CD but offers up to 74 minutes of full-motion images along with digital sound (but since it’s compressed, the sound’s not as detailed or clear as a CD’s).

What It Isn’t: A good way to watch movies, since most run at least 100 minutes and would require two discs. But even shorter programming, such as music-video compilations, isn’t well served by the format. As demonstrated at a crowded, hot convention kiosk (the better to discourage visitors, it seemed), video CDs of concert clips looked fuzzy and full of smeary visuals (picture Wayne and Garth having a flashback).

Where It Could Be in the Year 2000: Repackaged as the biggest damn hoop earrings in history.