New digital disc will make the videotape as outdated as vinyl

It looks like a CD player, it plays discs that look like CDs, but it does far more than just play music. The Christmas present to die for, if you've got as much money as Di or Dodi, is a DVD (Digital Video Disc) player. In a few years, these new hi-fi gadgets could make videotapes as outdated as black vinyl discs.

The CD-sized discs look no different from the music variety, yet they can hold almost 30 times more data - enough for the digitised video of a feature film, with a picture quality far better than videotape, plus soundtracks (in different languages, if required) and music with CD-quality sound. They will also give the same control over film playback as a CD, and never degrade.

Besides that, DVD players - which are already on sale in the US and Japan - will also play your existing music CDs, thus completing the integration of TVs with hi-fi systems. However, such benefits do not come cheap. The starting price of DVD players in the UK this year will be around pounds 600 - though as with CD players, released more than a decade ago, that price should fall once the market grows.

DVD players are expected on the market either this year or early next year from Philips, Samsung (which launched one here in June), JVC, Sony, Toshiba, Pioneer and Panasonic.

However, the Japanese electronics giants which make most of the DVD players have found themselves caught in a chicken-and-egg game with the American studios which license the films to go on to discs. There will only be a few films purchasable by Christmas to play on any new DVD player in the UK.

The reason is fears of piracy, which have already delayed the introduction of DVD. Criminals were quick to realise that it is easier to make multiple copies of a CD than a videotape, and each copy is perfect, so setting up digital protection has delayed releases. The film studios have also had to placate the giant video rental chains, which suspect their business - worth about pounds 5bn in the US alone - might disappear.

Similarly, worries that air travel would let people buy DVDs of films in different countries, and so ruin the studios' carefully planned film releases (and attendant merchandising) has led the world to be split into six "zones", where only DVD players and discs from matching zones will work together. China, notorious for counterfeiting, is defined as a zone by itself.

Thus, although you can now fly to the US or Japan and buy a DVD player, it will not play any DVD film disc you buy in this country, and vice-versa, because the discs and players have a technical key-and-lock to prevent it.

One cause for relief is that all DVDs should work in every player and so the video format wars of the 1970s between Betamax and VHS will not be repeated. However, Sony and Philips announced earlier this week that they will not cooperate with other companies attempting to devise a standard for DVDs for computers, which will be able to offer enormous, erasable storage capacity.