Rewritable DVD drives? Don't buy one

If you're craving high-capacity storage, you might have your eye on one of the rewritable DVD drives now hitting the market. But hold on to your wallet. The optical storage industry has divided itself into four hostile camps, producing four mutually incompatible disc formats for recordable DVD. The result -- a disc using one format won't play on a drive supporting another. Our advice: Wait until the dust settles and one format emerges victorious before you invest.

If you're craving high-capacity storage, you might have your eye on one of the rewritable DVD drives now hitting the market. But hold on to your wallet. The optical storage industry has divided itself into four hostile camps, producing four mutually incompatible disc formats for recordable DVD. The result -- a disc using one format won't play on a drive supporting another. Our advice: Wait until the dust settles and one format emerges victorious before you invest.

Toshiba, Panasonic, and Hitachi should soon be shipping drives supporting DVD-RAM, the first of the four formats to come to market. Ranging in price from $US750 to $1000, these drives will let users record and rerecord data onto discs holding 2.6Gbper side (single-sided discs will cost about $30 each, double-sided about $50). By contrast, writable CD-ROM discs hold 650Mb.

According to preliminary vendor specs, DVD-RAM drives will record at 1350Kb per second, or 9X speed; today's CD recorders typically write data at just 2X or 4X. While such speeds don't make much difference in playback -- titles aren't yet optimised to take advantage of faster drives -- they affect recording. Because cutting a disc can tie up all of your PC's resources, the faster your drive can record, the sooner you can get back to work.

DVD-RAM drives will both record and play DVD-RAM discs. But what happens if you want to share a disc you've recorded? Unless your friends have a DVD-RAM drive (or one of the DVD-ROM drives due out in Q3 from manufacturers supporting the DVD-RAM spec) they won't be able to play your disc. (As if that's not confusing enough, DVD-RAM drives will be able to play CD-ROM, CD-Recordable, CD-Rewritable, DVD, and DVD-ROM discs.) Another drawback: The DVD-RAM discs utilise caddies, the same clumsy disc holders that are found on older CD-ROM drives.

DVD-RAM is just the first recordable DVD format out. By the end of this year, you can expect to see drives supporting a second format: DVD+RW (it stands for DVD+Rewritable). DVD+RW drives should cost about the same as their DVD-RAM counterparts, but their vendors (including Hewlett-Packard, Mitsubishi, Philips, Ricoh, Sony, and Yamaha) claim they'll perform up to 50% faster. Furthermore, DVD+RW media will offer slightly more storage capacity -- the discs hold 3G bytes per side -- and the drives won't require caddies. As with DVD-RAM, DVD+RW drives will play all of today's existing CD-ROM and DVD-ROM formats; future DVD-ROM drives from HP, Philips, and others will also play DVD+RW discs. But you won't be able to read DVD-RAM discs on a DVD+ RW drive, or vice versa.

While DVD-RAM and DVD+RW are the likeliest candidates for mainstream success, two high-end rewritable DVD formats are waiting in the wings. By the middle of next year, Pioneer plans to ship a product for the company's new DVD-R/W format. The upside: The discs hold 4.5G bytes per side, and you can play a DVD-R/W disc on any DVD-ROM player. The downside: You can expect to see a price tag of $3000 to $5000. (Pioneer already ships the only recordable DVD product on the market, the $16,959 DVR-S101 drive, which uses the write-once DVD-R format.)

Meanwhile, NEC is backing the MultiMedia Video Format standard, which will support a voluminous 5.2Gb per side. As its name suggests, MMVF is designed specifically for video; 5.2Gb can hold 2 hours of video. NEC plans to release MMVF drives in Japan at the end of this year. It is not yet known when the drives will arrive on US shores or whether they'll be compatible with DVD or CD media. But the drives will likely be targeted at -- and priced for -- professional video editors.

So which recordable DVD format will prevail? According to analyst Bob Katzive of Disk/Trends, it's too early to tell. He says the format battle will resolve itself in one of two ways. Either optical storage vendors will join together and agree on one universal standard, or the formats will duke it out on the open market; Katzive believes the battle scenario is more likely. And while DVD-RAM is first to market, DVD+R/W follows so closely that this early advantage may not mean much.

Thus, our word to the wise: If you need an optical storage recorder now, buy a CD-RW drive. But if you can wait, sit tight for 12 months until the confusion over rewritable DVD clears. If you leap in now, the results could prove as useless as a warehouse full of Betamax tapes.

While rewriteable DVD drives stumble to market, manufacturers continue to push their DVD-ROM players ever faster. This summer a number of companies will release DVD-3 drives, which spin DVD-ROM discs at speeds of 4X and faster and play CD-ROM titles at 24X or more.

The problem is, all that speed may be wasted. Like today's standard DVD drives (which adhere to the DVD-2 standard), DVD-3 drives will be able to play CD-ROM, CD-R, and CD-RW discs, making them adequate replacements for an aging CD-ROM drive. But unless titles are specifically written for a given drive speed, they won't play any faster at 24X than at 12X -- the speed at which today's DVD-ROM drives play CD-ROM discs. More important, with so few DVD-ROM titles (other than movies) on the market, there's very little compelling business need to purchase a DVD-ROM drive in the first place.

Despite these drawbacks, Sony plans to ship its $379 DDU220E/H DVD-ROM drive upgrade kit, due out by the time you read this. The kit contains a 5X DVD/24X CD-ROM drive, a PCI MPEG-2 decoder card from Sigma Designs, and two DVD-ROM titles. You'll also see this drive aboard Sony's new Vaio PCV-E203, which at press time was scheduled to ship in June. Toward the end of this summer, DVD-3 drives from Hitachi, Pioneer, and Toshiba should also hit store shelves. Speed, specs, and pricing are not yet final; Pioneer says its drive will run DVD-ROMs at 4X or 6X, CD-ROMs at 32X.

Our suggestion: If you're looking for high-speed DVD, wait until the rewritable standards battle is settled, and then pick a drive based on the winning format. Otherwise, stick with today's DVD-2.

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