Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 142 / JULY 1992 / PAGE 92

Get Ready for Multimedia - What is this thing called multimedia and what will it do for entertainment?
by Gregg Keizer

Multimedia gets tossed around like a chip of ice in the North Atlantic, bandied about by PR drones who know it only as a hot button that's supposed to make entertainment-software consumers salivate. But don't be intimidated: you already know multimedia.

If you're playing PC games that have been produced in the last couple of years, they're probably full of multimedia: still images, animated graphics, sound effects, sweeping musical scores, even human-sounding speech. When you see multimedia as an adjective today, though, you mean all that and a little more. The term refers to an integrated presentation that includes massive numbers of images, herky-jerky video clips, soaring stereophonic music, and plenty of digitized speech. More often than not, the presentation comes on a compact disc, not a floppy.

In fact, MPC (Multimedia Personal Computer), the single established multimedia hardware/software standard, relies on the compact disc, among other requirements. So while multimedia may be a burning buzzword, it's really nothing more than another step down the same entertainment road you've been traveling all along.

Still, you're probably not prepared for the multimedia game titles that will straggle onto the shelves this year. To keep up with the technological times, you need to beef up your home PC. Assuming you have a 386SX or 386 equipped with 2MB-4MB of RAM, VGA or Super VGA, and a hard disk in the 40MB-80MB range, you'll spend $600-$1,200 to make it multimedia-ready.

The most expensive add-on is a CD-ROM drive. Multimedia of all kinds, games included, needs the storage space that only a compact disc--with more than 600MB--provides.

Once priced at stratospheric levels, CD-ROM drives now are much more affordable. One of the lowest-priced is Tandy's CDR-1000, a $400 internal drive that's fairly easy to install yourself. An external drive is a possibility, too, if your PC doesn't have an empty drive bay or if you don't mind losing a bit of desktop real estate. A good choice here is the Sony Laser Library, a drive-and-software combination that features an external Sony CD-ROM drive and six CD-ROM titles; the Laser Library typically costs around $600.

As you look for a CD-ROM drive, remember that many (but not all) of 1992's multimedia entertainment programs will sport the MPC logo. Only MPC-compatible drives are guaranteed to play MPC-labeled software. The Tandy CDR-1000 meets MPC specs, for example, while the Sony CDU-535 included in the Laser Library doesn't (though the Sony CDU-541 internal drive is MPC-ready).

An MPC CD-ROM drive will run MPC and non-MPC multimedia CD titles, while a non-MPC CD-ROM drive restricts you to DOS multimedia CDs. While the future of MPC isn't guaranteed, Microsoft's interest and backing can't be ignored. Whether MPC succeeds or fails is a matter that will be decided by PC users as a whole, but by sticking with MPC-compatible components, you're covering all bets. If MPC takes off, you're ready. If it doesn't, your PC will still be able to run DOS CD multimedia titles.

Final verdict? The smart move is to get an MPC-compatible CD-ROM drive for your computer.

Sound On!

Your second major multimedia addition is a sound card. Something has to pump out the stereo sound effects, musical scores, and voice-overs.

If your PC sounds off with an Ad Lib audio board, one of the two de facto standards in PC audio, yank it out. It just can't carry the tunes and speech that developers are cramming on compact disc-based multimedia games. If your system includes a Sound Blaster board, the other current standard, you're safe--for now.

What if you haven't made the move to audio or you settled for a pre-Gold Ad Lib? Then you can choose from a variety of audio cards, including Sound Blaster Pro, Ad Lib Gold 1000, and the new 16-bit Media Vision Pro AudioSpectrum and Ad Lib Gold 2000 boards.

All are more expensive than previous-generation cards, but as a rule, they are easier to install, they sound better, and they include more features. All four meet MPC specifications, in that they're capable of producing digitized speech and can be connected to MIDI equipment (the latter's for creating multimedia presentations of your own, not for gameplay).

Only two of these boards offer 16-bit sound: the Media Vision and the Ad Lib Gold 2000 cards. You can't get 16-bit sound from any of the current upgrade kits. The next jump in PC audio will be 16-bit sound, so while all the cards satisfy current multimedia needs, only two are ready for the future of multimedia. The others will do for the next couple of years, though, as publishers stretch to take advantage of their features. Keep this in mind as you decide how much to spend for sound on your multimedia system.

One thing you can safely buy is a pair of self-amplified speakers to put beside your PC. Headphones handle multimedia sound, of course--every audio board includes a headphone jack--but you'll find the experience much more comfortable and natural when the roar of dragons and the wail of the wounded come out of larger speakers. After all, you don't watch television with headphones on, do you?

Self-amplified speakers--some made expressly for Pcs, some not--are available from a variety of sources. Both Radio Shack and Bose market excellent powered speaker systems.

Put Card A in Slot B

The quickest way to move up to multimedia entertainment is with an upgrade kit. Several companies sell these all-in-one collections of CD-ROM drive, interface card, audio board, connecting cables, and Microsoft Windows 3.1 with multimedia functionality. All you add is your home PC.

The adventurous will strike out on their own and patch together a multimedia game-playing machine by grabbing a CD-ROM drive here and a sound card there. That much work isn't worth it for most. Nor is it a big money saver.

The fact is that a package like Media Vision's Multimedia PC Upgrade Kit is hard to turn down. Although it lists at nearly $1,000, most mail-order dealers sell it for around $750. Included in the Upgrade Kit are a Sony CDU-541 external CD-ROM drive, a Pro AudioSpectrum sound card that doubles as the SCSI interface card, Windows with Multimedia Extensions, and two CD titles. Fill an empty slot with the Pro AudioSpectrum and an empty drive bay with the CDU-541, and inside an hour, your PC's ready to play CD games.

Other companies promise similar feats of computer transformation. CompuAdd, Creative Labs (Sound Blaster), Tandy, and Video Seven are four more sources for multimedia upgrade kits. Each relies on its own pairing of sound board and CD-ROM drive, but in the end, any one of them makes your PC a multimedia game machine.

That's a Lot of Quarters, Pal

For all the ease with which you can turn your current PC into a multimedia game player, though, the biggest question still hasn't been asked.

Is the price you pay for the move to multimedia worth it? After all, that much money translates into 15-20 top-priced PC games or a lot of quarters down at the mall arcade.

Whether the price is a bargain depends on how badly you want to lead the charge into multimedia games.

It's unlikely that you'll see more than a couple of dozen CD and/or MPC games through the end of 1992. A scant few have made it out developers' doors so far--BattleChess, where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, and King's Quest V, for starters--and the trickle won't turn into a flood anytime soon. And PCs won't even be the only place you can play CD games. Video-game decks from Sega and Nintendo will get CD capability either late this year or early next.

On the positive side, remember that a multimedia computer can do more than play games. It'll run any CD title, whether a reference work for the home office or an educational disc for the kids. And it'll keep working hard with word processors, page-layout software, spreadsheets, and databases.

The bottom line for multimedia entertainment is fuzzy. If you want to stay state-of-the-art and can't bear to miss even the beginning of the most amazing home entertainment since VGA color met PC games, go multimedia now. If you can bide your time, do so; when an irresistible game comes along, you can upgrade quickly and easily.

Clearly, computers are headed for a more integrated way of dealing with sound, speech, and moving images. Whether that trend makes its way into your house depends on how important games are to you and your family.