Four-speed DVD writers expected mid-year

The next speed jump for recordable and rewritable DVD drives is expected to come as early as May this year now that two Japanese companies have completed development of components crucial for faster drives.

As write speeds in optical drives are pushed higher, laser diodes -- the components that produce the light beam which is used to read and write data to and from the disk -- need to be more powerful. Both Sharp Corp. and Mitsubishi Electric Corp. have developed such higher-power laser diodes, paving the way for 4X DVD-R, -RW, -RAM and +RW drives, said the companies.

The new components can deliver power levels of 100 milliwatts in pulses, making them around 40 percent more powerful than the 70-milliwatt types used for 2X drives. The means data will be able to written to the disk at a rate of 44M bps (bits per second), speeding up the time taken to write an entire 4.7G-byte disk to around 14 minutes. Double-speed drives take twice as long and single-speed drives take almost an hour to carry out the same task.

Power was not the only barrier to be overcome before the companies could begin selling the devices commercially, said Tetsuya Yagi, manager of Mitsubishi Electric's high-power optical device group. Higher-power laser diodes often have very short lives and both companies had to work on extending their life so that they would not burn out after a few hours, days or weeks of use, he said. The laser diode produced by Yagi's group has a life of around 4,000 hours, he said.

Both companies are about to begin shipping samples of the higher-power laser diodes, Sharp for ¥3,000 (US$22) and Mitsubishi Electric for ¥5,000, and they expect to begin commercial production in May or June. With each company preparing to produce 100,000 diodes per month, demand is expected to take off fast for the components as corporate and consumer users alike choose the faster drives that they will enable.

Sales of recordable and rewritable DVD drives are increasing fast as the initially high prices begin to fall. Today's drives, such as a combination DVD-RAM/DVD-R unit from Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., can be bought for as little as ¥33,000 (US$246) in Japan while prices in the U.S. for similar units are around US$300.

Sales of drives are expected to jump from an estimated 1.3 million in 2001 to 9.8 million this year, according to Jon Peddie, president of Jon Peddie Research, speaking at a press conference organized by the Recordable DVD Council, an industry promotion group, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. He predicted drive shipments would surpass 50 million in 2005.

The next step in rewritable DVD drives, the jump to 6X models, is not expected until sometime in 2003 when laser diodes capable of delivering 120 milliwatts of power will become available, said Yagi.

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