A Trip Down Amnesia Lane: Video CDs

The 1990s and early 2000s were a pivotal time for digital video, with rapid advancements in technology and the rise of several new video formats. Among these were VCD, CVD, SVCD, and the lesser-known KVCD, each offering unique capabilities and shaping the way people consumed and shared video content. In this article, we will delve into the history and development of these formats, exploring their technical specifications, advantages, and limitations relative to newer formats like DVD.

VCD Movie Release

VCD: Pioneering the Digital Video Revolution

The VideoCD (VCD) format is a digital optical disc format that was introduced in 1993. It was developed by Sony, Philips, Matsushita, and JVC, and it was designed to hold video content on the standard compact discs that were popular for music at the time. The VCD was the first format to distribute films on a digital optical disc (LaserDisc predates it but was analog), and it was a precursor to the DVD format.

Technical Specifications:
Video Resolution: 352x240 (NTSC) or 352x288 (PAL)
Video: MPEG-1
Bitrate: 1,150 kbps
Supports Interlacing: No
Audio Quality: MPEG-1 Layer II audio, 224 kbps

VCD Resolution

VCDs stored video using the original MPEG-1 compression codec, which allowed up to 74 minutes of video to be stored on a standard 650 MB compact disc. This capacity was later expanded to 80 minutes with overburning techniques on 700 MB discs. The format supports a resolution of 352x240 pixels for NTSC and 352x288 pixels for PAL video, which is considerably lower than DVD quality but roughly comparable to VHS. Despite its lower video quality compared to later digital formats, VCD was popular in Asia and other markets due to its affordability and the simplicity of producing discs, and it became the preferred format for movie distribution in countries like China and Indonesia. The VCD's limitations, such as low resolution and limited storage capacity, prevented its widespread adoption in the West and paved the way for the development of more advanced formats. Nevertheless, an impressive number of titles were commercially released on VCD during the 1990s, including Friday the 13th, The Last Emperor, The Butterfly Effect, and Star Wars

CVD: A Step Up in Quality

In the late 1990s, as the digital media landscape was rapidly evolving, the China Video Disc (CVD) format emerged as an innovative solution aimed at bridging the gap between the existing VideoCD (VCD) format and the emerging Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) technology. Developed by the Chinese government and a consortium of electronics manufacturers, the CVD offered a number of improvements over the VideoCD, nost notably a higher vertical resolution and the option to use the superior MPEG-2 video compression codec that was used in DVDs.

Technical Specifications:
Video Resolution: 352x480 (NTSC) or 352x576 (PAL)
Video: MPEG-1 or MPEG-2
Bitrate: 2,620 kbps
Supports Interlacing: Yes, with MPEG-2 only
Audio Quality: MPEG-1 Layer II audio or Dolby Digital audio

CVD Resolution

The CVD format distinguished itself from its predecessor, the VCD, by offering an improved video resolution and the flexibility of compression methods. While VCDs were constrained to a resolution of 352x240 for NTSC systems and 352x288 for PAL, CVDs leveraged a higher resolution of 352x480 (NTSC) or 352x576 (PAL). This resolution, sometimes referred to as Half-D1, was actually a standards-compliant, if seldom used, image resolution for the DVD specification, meaning that discs encoded with the CVD format were actually playable in most DVD players. This interoperability was crucial in markets where consumers were hesitant to invest in new technology due to cost concerns or the availability of media in the preferred format.

The enhancement in resolution resulted in a noticeably clearer and more detailed picture, and MPEG-2's support for interlacing and soft pulldown made CVD an appealing option for consumers wanting better video quality than VCD without the expense of upgrading to the (at the time) very expensive DVD format. Additionally, the CVD format's support for both MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 compression codecs further solidified its position as a versatile and improved alternative to VCD, offering a balance between quality and storage efficiency.

Despite these advantages, like VCD, the CVD format's impact was primarily regional, with its popularity concentrated in China and some parts of Asia. In these markets, the cost-effective nature of CVD provided a compelling option for consumers caught between the lower quality but widely available VCDs and the superior but more expensive DVDs. The CVD format thus served as an intermediate solution that offered improved video quality at a minimal additional cost, addressing a specific consumer demand in these regions. However, the ascendancy of the DVD format, with its significantly higher storage capacity, superior video and audio quality, and advanced features such as interactive menus and multiple subtitle tracks, eventually led to the decline of both VCD and CVD formats.

SVCD: Bridging the Gap Between VCD and DVD

CVD wasn't the only challenger in the late 1990s vying to become the successor to the venerable VideoCD. The Super Video CD (SVCD) format emerged in 1998 as a joint venture between China and Hong Kong. Developed by Philips, Sony, and China's AVS, Super Video CD aimed to offer a higher-quality alternative to VCDs while maintaining compatibility with existing CD and DVD players. Resolution was increased both vertically and horizontally, but runing time was also decreased just as substantially.

Technical Specifications:
Video Resolution: 480x480 (NTSC) or 480x576 (PAL)
Video: MPEG-2
Bitrate: 2,000-2,600 kbps
Supports Interlacing: Yes
Audio Quality: MPEG-1 Layer II audio or Dolby Digital audio

SVCD Resolution

One of the key enhancements of the SVCD format was its exclusive use of the superior MPEG-2 compression standard, the same used in DVDs, which allowed for higher video resolutions and better picture quality compared to the MPEG-1 compression of VCDs. SVCDs supported resolutions of 480x576 in PAL and 480x480 in NTSC, a significant improvement over the 352x240 resolution of VCDs. This leap in video quality made SVCDs a more appealing option for consumers desiring near-DVD quality without the higher cost of DVD players and discs.

Moreover, SVCDs offered better audio quality, supporting up to two stereo audio tracks with higher bitrates and the option for Dolby Digital encoding. This enhancement in audio performance, combined with the superior video quality, provided a more immersive viewing experience. Another advantage of SVCD was its capacity for additional features not available on VCDs, such as multiple audio tracks, subtitles, and interactive menus. These features brought the SVCD format closer to the DVD experience, making it a competitive alternative for consumers and regions where DVD technology was still emerging or too expensive.

Like its predecessors, SVCD gained some traction in Asian markets, but its more complex manufacturing process and the declining cost of DVDs made it difficult for the format to gain widespread adoption.While it didn't achieve the widespread success of DVDs, SVCD demonstrated the potential for enhanced video and audio quality on compact disc media, paving the way for the universal adoption of DVDs.

KVCD: The Unofficial Competitor

The KVCD format was a less mainstream but intriguing chapter in the history of digital video formats, embodying the spirit of innovation and customization that has driven the evolution of media technology. Unlike commercial formats such as VCD, SVCD, and DVD, which were developed through industry collaboration and had wide hardware support, KVCD was born out of the digital enthusiast community. It represents a unique approach to optimizing video compression and disc space to achieve higher quality video playback on existing CD and DVD players.

Technical Specifications:
Video Resolution: Variable from 352x240 (NTSC) to 704x480 (NTSC) or 704x576 (PAL)
Video: MPEG-1 or MPEG-2
Bitrate: Variable, between 300 kbps to 3,000 kbps
Supports Interlacing: Yes
Audio Quality: MPEG-1 Layer II audio or Dolby Digital audio

KVCD Resolution

KVCD was developed by an online community of video encoding enthusiasts (of whom Yours Truly was a member) who sought to circumvent the limitations imposed by standard formats like VCD and SVCD. Spearheaded by a user known as "Kwag," the primary goal of KVCD was to maximize the efficiency of video compression to fit longer videos at a higher quality on a standard 700MB compact disc that could be played in standard DVD players. The innovation behind KVCD lies in its custom encoding templates, which significantly diverge from the specifications of traditional video CD formats. By employing variable bitrate (VBR) encoding—a technique that adjusts the amount of data used to store video information depending on the complexity of each scene—KVCDs could achieve noticeably better video quality than VCDs and even rival that of SVCDs in some cases. This method allowed for greater flexibility in managing disc space, enabling users to fit a full DVD movie on a single CD without substantial loss in quality. At a time when most people still had old tube-style TVs, the difference between KVCD and DVD was hard to distinguish with the naked eye.

While KVCD offered technical advantages over VCD and SVCD, it was never officially recognized or supported by electronics manufacturers. The format gained a following among video enthusiasts, particularly those looking to maximize the storage capacity of CDs while maintaining acceptable video quality. The technical achievements of the KVCD project were quite impressive for the time, achieving compression levels with MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 that rivaled newer MPEG-4 codecs of the day like DivX and Xvid. Today, KVCD stands as a testament to the creative ingenuity of the digital video enthusiast community. It highlights a period in digital media history when the limitations of technology prompted users to innovate within and beyond the constraints of existing formats. 

 The 1990s and early 2000s witnessed rapid advancements in digital video technology, giving rise to formats like VCD, CVD, SVCD, and KVCD. Each format offered unique capabilities and varying levels of video quality, shaping the way people consumed and shared video content during that era. While these formats have largely been replaced by more advanced technologies like DVDBlu-ray, and streaming services, they played an important role in the development and popularization of digital video. The history of VCD, CVD, SVCD, and KVCD serves as a fascinating snapshot of a transformative period in the world of digital video, showcasing the ingenuity and creativity of developers and enthusiasts alike.

Further Reading:

Archive of the KVCD Forum:

Video CD on Wikipedia:

Alan Burns February 4, 2024
Share this post