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Page last updated at 12:55 GMT, Thursday, 21 December 2006

Lost in translation

Shopping for televisions
Christmas shoppers face a baffling list of acronyms

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

The Christmas rush to buy gadgets and techno-toy televisions is in full swing. But is there any chance of a translation from all those annoying acronyms?

Oh yes. It's compatible with "BD-Video, DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD+RW, CD, CD-R/RW, MP3, JPEG".

This isn't made up - it's the list of formats that function with one of the big-selling DVD recorders of the moment. And in case you're worried, it's got DVI, HDMI and Scart sockets as well. (Scart, for the uninitiated, is a French-originated standard for an audio visual connector, standing for Syndicat des Constructeurs d'Appareils Radiorecepteurs et Televiseur. Except, having named it, the French call it something entirely different - Peritel, to be precise.)

"OK. Which one of these works the telly?"

What in the name of Alphabetti Spaghetti is all that about? How did we get into this acronym fever? You want to buy something to watch a film on the telly, not learn a programming language.

Step into the world of televisions, recorders and music players and you're entering a forest of jargon. Not only are there rival formats, there are rival formats that sound almost identical.

You've got a camcorder for Christmas morning, ready to catch that look of disappointment on your child's face. But what happens when you stick in the disc for recording? Did you say DVD-R? How wrong could you be? Duh! It's DVD+R. Of course they won't work.

Perhaps no one has told us that there's some competition to replace ordinary speech with a long string of disconnected letters and numbers.

Socket to 'em

What was the name of that DVD recorder from Sony? The one with the catchy name? Yes, the RDR-HXD860 DVD/HDD Recorder. Or that telly from Panasonic, the PDP-427XD-TS10 Plasma HD Ready Digital Television. And how about TiVo and PVR, or DVR as PVRs are called in the US. That's US as in United States by the way.

Screens in a shop
LCD, plasma, HD, digital... televisions are in transition

This kind of language is catching. If you buy the Humax PVR9200T it has a USB connection, boasts an EPG and works with an MP3. If you buy a KD55A20S11XTNS television you can enjoy its SXRD panel, BBE digital sound and it's got an HDMI socket, obviously. What does any of that mean?

And there's no sign of this snowstorm of acronyms lifting - with battles between formats set to intensify.

There's HD DVD versus Blu-ray. And there are DVD+R and DVD+RW backed by one bunch of manufacturers and DVD-R, DVD-RW and DVD-RAM backed by another crowd. And DVD+R DL and DVD-R DL for anyone wanting a little extra stuffing in their turkey.

But hold on. Let's get some translation. What do these acronyms stand for? Let's start with the basics. What do the letters DVD represent? It's digital versatile disc. Or else it's digital video disc. There's not even agreement over that - with another school of thought suggesting that DVD isn't even an acronym. It's just DVD. End of.

Switched on

Michael Gabriel, spokesperson for manufacturers Sharp, says that the options on offer "can be confusing for consumers".

The LP (long player) - originator of all this acronym hell?

But he says that it's a reflection of the huge amount of transition taking place in home electronics.

There's the switch from analogue to digital television, cathode-ray tube sets are being replaced by LCD and plasma, high-definition television is arriving and there's the convergence of computer technology with DVDs and televisions.

We now almost take it for granted that we can take a disc out of a laptop and stick it straight it into a DVD player and watch it on television.

"When there's so much innovation and manufacturers are looking for the next step forward, there will always be competing technologies," he says.

And he says that manufacturers are aware of the difficulties - and have been encouraging retailers to help demystify what's on offer.

Consumers have also been carrying out their own research before hitting the High Street, he says, particularly using buyers' guides and manufacturers' advice on the internet.

Ordinary folk, says Mr Gabriel, are much more switched on. But maybe we're just on stand-by.

Terms such as "Freeview" have worked, he says, becoming widely recognised by shoppers. And industry-standard logos have, apparently, become a way of raising awareness.

But yes, he concedes, "the electronics industry has always loved its acronyms."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I work in IT (Information Technology) and even I get confused with all the acronyms! I recently went to the shops to buy a DVD recorder and was bamboozled about whether it supports + or - discs. I ended up paying more for one that supported both. Maybe that's what manufacturers want, confuse us all into buying the more expensive models.
J, Manchester, UK

The best comment on this madness I've seen was in a 'Dilbert' cartoon, where the pointy haired manager gets concerned when all the best TLA's (Three letter Acronyms) for projects had already been taken, and he gets dilbert to work on a FLA (yep, four). However, working in IT myself, let's remember it is a geeky industry anyway, where pleasure is taken in analysing, writing and testing lines of characters in strange computer languages. Would you really want to deny us the simple pleasure of a clever or sometimes rude acronym ?
an Johnston, Horsham, West Sussex

The whole cause of the problem is geeks designing for geeks, and then the products being let out into the real world. This is speaking as some one who has a basic understanding of the use behind all the acronyms used, and would like some of the products that use them. I feel that we should use the Freeview example (which if memory serves correctly can also be called DVB-T) and use words rather than random letter/number combinations.
Barnaby, Oxford

You might "take it for granted that we can take a disc out of a laptop and stick it straight it into a DVD player and watch it on television" but it's news to me!
Suzanne, London

These days it can get really confusing for people with all these acronyms flying about. 3G GPRS wap WiFi are some more we can add to the pot but do people really know what they are and what they do. The industry needs to start thinking Simple English with clear definitions. Some consumer magazines have gone along way to demystify some of these.
Kelvin, Preston

Well you can say the full version if you want but it might take a while to say it! e.g. "I would like a computer with 1GB RAM, DVDRW, 4GHz CPU, 500GB HD, 500W PSU with SLI 3D GFX please" ... becomes... "I would like a computer with 1 gigabyte of Random Access Memory, Digital Video Device with Read and Write capabilities, 4 Gigahertz Central Processing Unit, 500 Gigabytes Hard Disk, 500 Watt Power Supply Unit with a Scalable Link Interface ready 3-Dimensional Graphics card please."
James Battersby, Manchester

I get increasingly frustrated with all these different formats and codes when the differences only serve to make us more out of pocket and make different companies more money. In the next few years, we're going to be barraged by high density DVDs in 2 major different formats, whereby to watch some of the films we love we'll have to either buy two machines or, like J from Manchester, have to fork out much more for a multi format player! Also, why have multi region DVDs, when they're all the same disc just with different encoding?? Money!
Ben E, South Africa

Note to manufacturers and techies: these acronyms are not helpful - they are a barrier between your products and your customers. Use codes between yourselves as most trades and professions do (builders, plumbers, engineers, doctors etc) but please use plain english when dealing with consumers/end users.
Paul, Potto, N. Yorkshire

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