DVD-RAM hits surprising speeds

The rewritable DVD formats--DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM--are gaining on their write-once cousins DVD-R and DVD+R in speed. But here's a bigger surprise: The first leap forward is coming from DVD-RAM, traditionally the slowpoke of the crowd.

A new 5X DVD-RAM standard speed was recently unveiled by the RAM Promotion Group. It's not vaporware: Readying 5X DVD-RAM drives are Hitachi-LG, which expects a release in June, and Panasonic, shipping in August. Maxell will have 5X DVD-RAM media in June as well. Previously, DVD-RAM maxed out at a mere 3X, while +/-RW managed 4X.

And the discs may get a whole lot faster sooner than we've come to expect. The DVD Forum (which controls both the DVD-RAM and -R/RW standards, but not +R/RW) and Maxell are talking about releasing 16X DVD-RAM within the next 12 months.

By comparison, only today's fastest drives burn write-once DVD+/-R discs at 16X. Write-once optical media has always been faster because writing on erasable media is inherently more complex. A coating that can be altered by a laser beam and then returned to its original state generally requires a longer burn than one that can only be changed once.

The RAM Leap

What makes DVD-RAM's leap over the +RW and -RW formats so surprising is that, at least for PC users in the United States, the format has acquired the image of an also-ran. Even some of the DVD-CD combo drives that drew excitement last year support only +RW and -RW formats.

But when it comes to drives in set-top boxes that people attach to their TVs instead of installing into their computers, DVD-RAM is the market leader. And its popularity is greater outside the United States. It's the "most popular format in Japan right now," says Rich D'Ambrise, director of technology for Maxell America.

There are reasons for its popularity--despite its compatibility problems with many DVD movie players and generally higher media prices. DVD-RAM is more robust than the +RW and -RW formats. It protects the integrity of your data with tricks normally associated with hard drives, such as marking off bad sectors. And it's more rewriteable: DVD-RAM discs are rated as capable of 100,000 rewrites, compared to 1000 for its two competing rewritable formats.

But no one has ever called it a speed demon.

"This is probably the first time that RAM jumped out in front in the speed race," says Tony Jasionowski, a spokesperson for RAM Promotion Group and the DVD Forum.

Playing Catch Up

Of course, going from 3X to 5X, skipping over the 4X supported by competing formats, sounds like typical performance leapfrogging. RAM was a little behind, and now it's a little ahead, but will it soon be a little behind again?

The DVD+RW Alliance contends the technology can handle 5X now and, soon, faster speeds.

"We believe we have a solid foundation to surpass 5X," says John Main, a Hewlett-Packard integration architect.

Most observers expect the next generation of +RW/-RW drives and media to manage 8X. Toshiba expects 8X drives to become available this summer, says Tom McGoldrick, director of support engineering.

"Technical specs for DVD-RW 6X and 8X are now being discussed," notes H. Irie, DVD Forum secretariat. "We expect that 6X DVD-RW will be introduced first, probably this autumn."

But does it matter? End users look only at the first speed listed on a drive, making the rewriteable speed irrelevant, says IDC analyst Wolfgang Schlichting. People "refer to highest number, which is the write-once speed. It's a little bit harder to get users excited about 12X/8X compared to 12X/4X," Schlichting says.

New Material

Maxell's new 5X DVD-RAM discs will be the first products to use what the company describes as a breakthrough technology that could enable faster discs: Bismuth Coupling Material. According to Maxell's D'Ambrise, this new optical coding for rewriteable discs overcomes many of the speed problems associated with writing to a surface that can be rewritten.

There's no technical reason to tie BCM to DVD-RAM; it could just as well be used on +RW and -RW discs. But about Maxell's plans to do so, D'Ambrise says only, "We're looking at it."

Yet Maxell has another, more definite plan for BCM: 16X DVD-RAM. According to D'Ambrise, the company has already achieved this speed in the lab, and expects to sell discs in the first quarter of 2005. The 16X DVD-RAM drives should be on the market by then, as well, says Jasionowski of RAM Promotion Group and the DVD Forum. And Irie, also of the DVD Forum, adds, "The 16X format also might be available for DVD-RW, but it depends on market demand."

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Lincoln Spector

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