The increasing number of audio-visual formats available to the consumer can make the choice utterly bewildering. Manufacturers launch a new platform claiming it is the latest and greatest and that we all need one. Consumers, however, are rightly wary of buying into something that is not compatible with anything else they have at home and may disappear from the market in little more than a couple of years.

Over the past 20 years, we have been offered VHS, Betamax, CD, CDi, CD-ROM, LaserDisc, DAT and MiniDisc, as well as a range of game consoles and their various formats. Music, video and computer formats are incompatible and there is little thought given to upgrades. Consumers are left with a stack of black boxes and a cynical conviction that the industry is primarily concerned with fast turnover.

However, this may all be about to change, DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) was launched in the UK in 1997 as a video playback platform and appeared to be yet another system to confuse consumers. But DVD video is only the first stage in a new development that will unify music and video playback, recording and multimedia applications. The goal is to provide a single format for the audio-visual market, so eventually it will be possible to have one machine for video, hi-fi and multimedia.

DVD works in a similar way to CD, but is more efficient at storing data; one disc can hold more than seven times as much information as a CD. Video quality is much better than normal video, and audio capabilities exceed CD. DVD also offers a host of extra features, such as films that have a number of language options, descriptions of the action for the blind, parental locks and information on the actors or performers.

DVD audio products will debut in Japan next summer. Initially they will be aimed at music enthusiasts, and the upgrade is helped by the fact that DVD machines will play your old music CDs as well. DVD audio has a wider frequency range than CD, providing a much fuller, richer sound. There is the option of special remixes through six channels, which can give the effect of being seated at a live performance.

The real impact of DVD will be through the introduction of a rewriteable DVD (DVD-RW), developed by Pioneer. The recorder (shown above) is being positioned for an assault on the ailing VCR market, hoping to achieve the supremacy that CD has over vinyl. DVD-RW is of a better quality than VHS video in standard mode (up to two hours 15 minutes), and gives a similar picture to VHS in long play (six hours). Future development will probably improve the quality, but nonetheless DVD benefits from being compact, allowing instant access to any part of a recording (no more fast forwarding) and avoids tape dropout and damage. Discs can be used again and again without the quality deteriorating. Other features include the timeshift facility, which means you can start to record a film, go and make dinner and start watching the film even as the end is still being recorded. There are already plans to put DVD into camcorders, using a smaller, more portable and convenient disc.

However, when this will be in the shops is difficult to say as the publishing and licensing companies are still finalising their copy-protection systems.

This will probably mean recordable DVD arrives in Britain in 2000. In the meantime, do not expect the profusion and confusion of formats to disappear. Recordable audio CDs are already on the market and Sony and Philips are developing Super Audio CD, a kind of CD upgrade. DVD's multimedia compatibility should help it to become the consumer standard, but as the VHS/Betamax war demonstrated in the Seventies, the best product does not always win.