Video CD (VCD) Mini-FAQ
This is not really intended to be a definitive VCD FAQ with lots of technical info; that has already been handled here. Rather, this page is meant to help those Hong Kong movie fans who are interested in watching movies on this medium. Special thanks go out to Tim Youngs from the Mobius Home Video Forum and Leigh Melton's VCDs for Beginners for adding some of the info featured here -- if you want to correct or add anything to this FAQ, feel free to e-mail me.
Why would you want to buy/view movies on VCD versus VHS/DVD?
The main reason is cost; they usually go from around 5-15 US dollars depending where you buy them and the popularity of the movie, versus about $10-20 for a VHS tape and $15-30 for a DVD. A second reason is convenience; VCDs can be played on a variety of devices (see below) and, as their cases are the size of music CDs, they are often easier to store versus the bigger VHS/DVD cases. Lastly, there are some films or specific versions that are available on VCD and nowhere else (e.g., the VCD version of Bullet in the Head with John Woo's original ending).
What is the picture/sound quality like?
This can vary widely. Good VCDs will have picture/sound equal to a good VHS transfer.
How come they come on two CDs?
CD-ROMs can only store up to about an hour (70 minutes) of video. Some VCDs use different compression methods to get the video on the disc and have the movie on just one CD, but this usually results in poor quality.
How can I play VCDs?
Most newer DVD players and DVD-ROM drives will play VCDs. CD-ROM drives will also allow you to play the files in conjunction with a program such as Windows Media Player (for PCs) Simple VCD (for Macs). Another good VCD program for PCs is Jing's MPEG Player (available at http://www.seller-club.com/~vcdcut) which allows you to do things like turn still frames into pictures, edit MPEG files, etc.
There are also stand-alone players available in Asia, and if you have a PlayStation or Sega Saturn game console, there is an adapter available from some on-line stores that lets you play VCDs (try going here for more info). Even though the Playstation 2 can play DVDs, it cannot play VCDs. The Dreamcast can play Video CDs, but it requires modifying your system (which may damage it and voids any warranty you might have) and using illegal "boot discs" to start the movie.
Are there any regions or other lock-out methods? Are VCDs copy protected?
VCDs have no region codes or any sort of copy protection, which is why they're a favorite medium for pirates.
I can't figure out how to play VCDs on my computer.
While in your movie viewer program (i.e., Windows Media Player/Simple VCD), use the explorer to look on your CD-ROM drive (usually the D drive on PCs). The movie files (usually contained in the "mpeg" folder) will have a .dat extension on them (in Windows, you will have to set the explorer to show all files to see them). Select the file and the movie should run normally.
My computer freezes when I try to play VCDs.
This is most likely due to a conflict with your video driver and codecs (compression programs). If you are using a PC, head to http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com and see if you have the latest codecs and Direct X. You may also want to check under "My Computer" to see if you have any conflicting codecs (it's best to keep the Microsoft ones and delete any similar entires). If this does not work, your computer may be running too slow; try closing all the other programs/windows.
Can I get American movies on VCD?
Yes, stores like http://www.videocds.com sell them. Some Asian video shops sell Chinese-subtitled/dubbed versions of US movies.
There are two languages playing when I watch the movie, how do I select one or the other?
If you are using a DVD player, just hit the language/audio button to switch over to one of the channels. If you are using a computer, it will vary upon which program you are using. The easiest way to do it is just to go into your computer's control panel/system settings and switch the balance.
When using Windows Media Player version 6 or below, go to the "View" menu, then down to "Settings", select "MPEG Audio Decoder", finally choose "First" or "Second" under "Channel" then hit "Apply" to finish. Newer versions of WMP are not very VCD-friendly; the only way to change the sound mix is to go into the Control Panel and switch the balance. Of course, in this case, you will only have sound coming out of one speaker. In this case, I would suggest just getting a stand-alone VCD program.
The picture looks cropped/squeezed, is there any way to fix this?
This is due to the different video formats of Asia (PAL) and North America (NTSC). Try using an all-region DVD player or a computer. (Hong Kong TVs have both formats, so this is not a problem for native viewers.)
I hear people talking about "artifacting" and "pixellation"; what do they mean?
These are the result of poor compression methods, basically, you will see small specks/blocks of color onscreen. For example, look at the picture below and notice the blocky color in the background. This is more distracting if you watch the movies on a larger screen.
How can I tell if a VCD is a bootleg?
Usually pirates will not care how their product looks. The case will probably look poor (bad color printing), the CDs will be blank and there will sometimes be a "LD" on the cover. Cheap bootlegs will use CDRs or CDRWs, which are easily recognized since they will have different colors other than silver on the bottom. Probably the best indicator is cost -- if a VCD is very cheap (less than US$5) chances are good it's a bootleg. Official VCDs usually have some kind of holographic sticker on the case as well.
If you're ever not sure, the best thing to do is just ask the dealer. Usually retailers, even street vendors, are pretty up front if their product is legit or not -- and if they try to avoid the question, there's a good chance that the product is a bootleg.
Why should I care if the VCD I'm buying is a bootleg?
Piracy is dealing a major blow to the HK movie industry. Movie studios and producers are having trouble coming up with money for productions because piracy cuts so much into profits (read this article for more info). Besides, most bootlegs -- which are usually shot inside a theatre using a camcorder -- have atrocious quality. If you enjoy Hong Kong movies, you should do the right thing and support the industry.
Is there a site that offers reviews of VCDs?
There used to be one, but after some shenanigans by an idiot who had some personal vendetta against the webmaster, it was taken down. Some HK movie sites have VCD reviews (such as this one) ; you can also try the alt.asian-movies newsgroup or Mobius Home Video Forum if you have questions about a particular title.
Are VCDs subtitled?
Most VCDs have the Chinese/English white-on-white subtitles found on most HK VHS tapes. On some movies, the subs can be small and hard to read. Some newer VCDs have the subtitles on the lower "black bar" of the widescreen picture or electronically printed onto the frame (similar to what DVDs have), which makes them easier to read.
How Can I tell if a VCD is subtitled?
Most will say right on the front or back cover. Look for something similar to this:
The circled Chinese characters are "ying wen," which means "English language."
Of course, this does not hold true for all discs. Sometimes, a case says the movie is subtitled when it is not (as with Swordsman II). Usually, most reputable shops/sites will tell you up front if a VCD is subbed or not.
Can you turn the subtitles on or off?
If a VCD is subtitled, you cannot turn them on or off.
Are there any extras on VCDs?
While fairly rare, if you hunt around on the discs using your computer, you can sometimes find extras like trailers or wallpapers (they sometimes have trailers that play automatically before the feature). Some discs have menus that will appear on certain players and you use your remote keypad to navigate the disc.
Where can I buy VCDs? Is there any difference in prices between shops?
Most Asian ("Chinatown") video shops will usually have at least a few HK VCDs in stock. Online, almost all HK video stores will also have VCDs; check my links page for a listing. As for prices, Hong Kong-based sites like YesAsia have lower prices for the VCDs but often high shipping charges, while the reverse is true for US-based sites like Poker Industries. Physical stores in the same area usually have roughly the same prices, though individual store owners may sometimes cut a deal (i.e., if you are buying lots of VCDs at once, they may knock a few bucks off the total). Street vendors have the cheapest prices, but the quality of their product is always suspect, and there's really no way to return any defective discs.
How can I make my own VCDs?
If you want to know this to pirate movies, go break your fingers. However, if you want to make backup copies of your VCDs, a VCD of trailers, etc., it is a fairly simple operation if you have the right program. Since this is not meant to be a techincal FAQ, if you are interested, you can check out VCD Help for more info.
Why are VCDs so popular in Asia?
There are several key reasons. Southeast Asia is very humid and so VCDs will hold up better than VHS tapes. Also, they cost a lot less than tapes or DVDs. Due to the ease of copying and distributing VCDs, they quickly caught on with pirates as their favorite medium, and people quickly bought up cheap VCD copies of movies (pirate versions of movies are often available the same day -- or even before -- a movie premieres). The stand-alone players themselves are quite cheap, sometimes as low as US$60. Their smaller size fits in well with many Asian residences which are often smaller than their Western counterparts (and thus there is not as much of a need for replicating the "home theatre experience"). As for why they haven't caught on in other parts of the world, it's probably due to the confusion that would arise from them being packaged so similarly to music CDs, and the fact that most households already have a VCR and/or a DVD player (unlike in many parts in Asia, where VCRs and DVD players are still very expensive).
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