Recordable DVD options abound

If you want to record your own DVD video, transfer old VHS material, or archive nearly 10GB onto a single disc, you'll find plenty to serve your needs in stores this year. A broad selection of DVD devices in the works, including second-generation models, were in the spotlight at PC Expo/TechXNY last week.

Besides anticipating a growing selection of devices with new capabilities, consumers will see prices continue to drop. Recorders that were once US$2000 or more now sell for $1000 or less, and drives that once cost $1000 are available for $500 or less. Media prices hover around $8 for DVD+RW as well as DVD-RAM, and are down to about $5 for DVD-RW and DVD+R, while DVD-R can be had for as little as $2.

In fact, user choices abound--and may actually be overplentiful. Buyers still have to contend with three major (and incompatible) formats for DVD recording--DVD-RW/R, DVD+RW/+R, and DVD-RAM--and it doesn't look like that will change this year.

Multi-Format PC Drives

One bit of good news for confused consumers: Panasonic Consumer Electronics Inc., Hitachi Ltd., and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. each demonstrated a new multi-format PC drive that handles both DVD-RAM and DVD-RW/R, as well as CD-R/RW.

Panasonic's LF-D521 series drive is expected to ship in October priced under $500. It writes DVD-RAM and DVD-R at 2X, DVD-RW at 1X, and reads DVD-ROM at 12X. It writes CD-R at 12X and CD-RW at 8X, and reads CD-ROM at 32X.

The SR-T03 DVD-Multi Drive from Samsung should also make its debut in that timeframe, with the same specs and an expected price of $300 to $350.

Preparing a similar drive is Hitachi. Its GMA-4020B drive should be out this fall, and will share the same specifications, but pricing has not been set yet.

Competing with these drives is a new external model from Shecom Corp., the $459 Ikebana DVD+RW/+R, which offers both FireWire and USB 2.0 interfaces. It writes DVD+RW and +R at 2.4X speed, and reads DVD-ROM at 8X; it reads CD-ROM at 32X, and writes CD-R at 12X, and CD-RW at 10X.

Users will also be able to choose among recent releases from Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV, as well as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sony Corp., and Ricoh Co. Ltd. --all of them DVD+RW/+R drives.

Also newly available is the DVR-A04, recently released by Pioneer Corp. This DVD-RW/R drive, shown at TechXNY, writes DVD-R at 2X, DVD-RW at 1X, and reads DVD-ROM at 6X, as well as supporting 24X/4X/8X CD-RW/R speeds. Prices for internal drives range from about $400 to $450, while HP's external dvd200e lists for $599.

There has been speculation that a drive that handles all three DVD formats will be available late this year, but no company has made such an announcement.

Home Recording

Users looking to record DVD at home will also have new choices this fall, but here clear separation remains among the three formats.

Panasonic unveiled its third-generation DVD recorder, the DMR-E30, which is expected to hit retail shelves in July. The new model updates and replaces the DMR-E20, which will be discontinued, and drops prices: the DMR-E20 made its debut priced at $1500, but the DMR-E30 will list for $800. Like its predecessor, it offers Panasonic's time-slip function, so you can start watching a program from the beginning even while the rest is still being recorded, or watch a program previously stored while another is being recorded. This model, too, lacks a FireWire input.

Panasonic also showed its DMR-HS2. The new model includes a 40GB hard drive that stores up to 52 hours of EP-mode video. It has a PC Card slot so you can transfer still images to your recorder to store on the hard drive and display them as a slide show, or burn them onto discs. Like the DMR-E30, the HS2 features progressive scan; unlike it, the HS2 has a FireWire port so you can directly hook up your DV camcorder.

Thanks to its hard drive, the HS2 also protects you from filling a disc. If you set something to record and your disc has insufficient room, it will automatically "relief record" onto the hard disk. Panasonic says the unit is expected to ship this fall, priced about $1200.

Toshiba also showed its recently announced RD-X2 DVD-ROM/DVD-R recorder, which also features a hard drive, this one with 80GB of storage, and many features of the DMR-E30. It too is scheduled to ship this fall, with a list price of $1500. JVC displayed a similar prototype model, without announcing pricing and saying it will initially ship only in Japan.

Recent recorders from Philips and Pioneer are already at your local store. The newest Philips model, the DVDR-985, records to DVD+RW and +R (unlike its predecessor, the DVDR-1000, which needed a firmware upgrade to add +R recording), and made its debut in April priced at $1000, which is $500 less than the DVDR-1000. It supports FireWire input, along with standard analog and S-Video, and component in and out ports.

Also available is Pioneer's DVR-7000, which records to DVD-RW/R and accepts FireWire input as well as component input. It is priced at about $1200, down from about over $2000 at its debut last year.

Which Format

All three formats have ardent proponents, and each has merit. DVD-RAM, for example, can be rewritten 100,000 times compared with 1000 for its rivals. It also offers double-sided discs, so you can get up to 9.4GB of data per disc versus competitors' 4.7GB. It features error-correction mechanisms that slow down certain functions, but also protect your data.

Its major problem is compatibility. Very few of the DVD players and DVD-ROM drives in the market today can read a DVD-RAM disc. Panasonic's line of 14 DVD players now includes ten that can handle DVD-RAM, but it is in the minority. Just because that is the case now does not mean it will be true in the future, says Jeff Cove, Panasonic's vice president of strategic alliance and business development. Moreover, the addition of DVD-R to many DVD-RAM products (drives and consumer recorders) means users can burn to a highly compatible format if they choose.

Both DVD+RW/+R and DVD-RW/R are already more compatible than DVD-RAM. Each claims slightly better compatibility than the other; no exhaustive list exists, however. DVD+RW has slightly faster speeds, requires slightly less time to format and save your disc, and lets you edit files directly on the disc without having to transfer your work to the hard drive and then re-import it to disc once done. And with the introduction of the write-once DVD+R capability earlier this year, the two camps are evenly matched in core functions.

But DVD-RW/R has been around longer, has a larger installed base, and is slightly cheaper, especially with its media. Its speeds will rise to 4X for DVD-R and 2X for DVD-RW later this year, say representatives of the Recordable DVD Council, the DVD Forum's promotional arm. The DVD Forum sets standards for DVD-RAM, DVD-R and DVD-RW. The format also builds in a bit more copy-protection mechanisms than DVD+RW, which may give it an edge with content providers.

When you buy a new PC, the make of drive may not be up to you but dependent on your vendor. Dell Computer Corp. and HP offer DVD+RW drives, while IBM Corp. uses DVD-RAM drives with some of its PCs. Sony and Apple Computer Inc. systems come with DVD-RW drives. Compaq Presarios from HP currently offer DVD-RW drives, but they will be phased out in favor of DVD+RW drives by year end. For example, two Presario models announced at TechXNY will ship in July with DVD+RW drives.

On the consumer electronics side, ultimately, what consumers buy may depend on their loyalty to a particular brand rather than a technology, says Danielle Levitas, IDC's director of consumer devices. But for now, prices remain too high for the mass market.

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