Video CD Player in a thrift store
Hannah Stryker / How-To Geek

Many folks in the United States may never have heard of VCDs. However, in many parts of the world, these CD-based movies were the main way anyone could get their hands on the latest and greatest Hollywood hits.

A Brief History of VCDs

VCDs have quite an interesting history. It all started in the late 1980s when engineers at a little company called Philips developed the technology for Video Compact Discs. Well, Philips, along with some other small companies you may have heard of, called Sony, Matsushita, and JVC. VCDs were first introduced to the market in 1993 and quickly gained popularity, especially in Central and Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

During the 1990s, VCDs became the primary means of watching movies at home in many countries worldwide, superseding tape-based media such as VHS and Betamax. However, as DVD technology improved and became more affordable, fewer people saw the appeal of VCDs.

By the early 2000s, VCDs started fading and eventually becoming obsolete. Today, they are mostly a forgotten technology. Although, you can still buy them in some parts of the world!

Why VCDs became popular in the 1990s

In the 1990s, CD technology was already well-established in the music business and was making its way into computer multimedia and gaming consoles. It was also when video compression had a major leap in quality versus size, with the advent of MPEG-1 video, which is the format used for VCDs.

VCD wasn’t the first disc-based home video solution, which would be LaserDisc, but the major difference here is that VCDs are digital rather than analog. Each disc could hold about 74 minutes of video. With later discs reaching 80 minutes as CD capacity grew to 800MB.

VCDs are cheap to produce, and players were likewise affordable. Even with the advent of DVD players, most were backward compatible with VCDs, so demand for these cheap (and sometimes legally dubious) discs remained strong.

VCDs vs. VHS

While VCDs may never have gained much traction in North America, it’s not hard to see why they would become a popular alternative to VHS tapes in other parts of the world. The discs were cheap, compact, and didn’t degrade with use. VHS players were expensive, complex, and prone to failure. VCD players were comparatively simple and much more reliable and affordable.

While a VCD player didn’t allow you to record broadcasts, it made it easy to watch movies at home for a low price. It’s also likely that the rise of pirate CD duplication helped make VCDs popular. CDs can be duplicated quickly and cheaply, and the copies are the same quality as the original and don’t degrade with repeated playback.

But what about the actual video quality? Overall, VCDs offered about the same visual quality as VHS tapes. Both media types had visual artifacts, but tapes showed analog glitches, and VCDs the typical “macro blocking” or image breakup video compression can exhibit, especially in fast-moving scenes.

VHS tapes had objectively better audio since VCDs compressed audio by reducing high and low frequencies. Still, contemporary CRT TVs did a good job of masking image quality issues VCDs had thanks to their relatively primitive video compression technology.

While many movies came on multiple VCDs, this wasn’t a major inconvenience compared to VHS, which needed to be rewound after use, taking up more time than a disc swap. Since home video involves pausing the movie at your convenience, a mid-movie break isn’t the worst compromise.

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DVDs Spelt The End of VCDs

If you’ve never heard of VCDs until reading this very article, then you probably think that the jump was straight from VHS to DVD in the evolution of home video. But in many parts of the world, it was VCDs that were battling it out against DVD technology in the early 2000s.

Besides the major leap in video and audio quality, DVDs included multiple language tracks, subtitles, and extra content. At the same time, DVDs include all the advantages VCDs have over VHS.

Unlike the short reign of VCDs as the digital video solution of choice, DVDs are still going strong today alongside their successor – Blu-Ray. In this age of high-bandwidth streaming video, Blu-Ray will unlikely get a successor, but the DVD will likely be around for a long time. Especially in parts of the world that embraced the VCD as a cheap and convenient way to access entertainment.

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Sydney Butler has over 20 years of experience as a freelance PC technician and system builder. He's worked for more than a decade in user education and spends his time explaining technology to professional, educational, and mainstream audiences. His interests include VR, PC, Mac, gaming, 3D printing, consumer electronics, the web, and privacy. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Research Psychology with a focus on Cyberpsychology in particular.
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