TECHXNY - Recordable DVD wars heat up

Last week's TECHXNY (aka PC Expo) brought both good news and bad news to those who want to record their own DVDs.

First the good news: Real products exist both for your PC and your living room that will let you create DVDs with your own data or video--and that video can be played in your living room DVD player. Prices, although still high, are starting to come down. And a host of new products are coming this summer and fall.

The bad news: You still have to deal with several incompatible versions of re-recordable DVD.

DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, and DVD-R are all standards developed by the DVD Forum, an industry group with more than 250 members, though it is not a regulatory standards body. Yet another format, DVD+RW, has been developed by an alliance of major companies, including Hewlett-Packard and Philips Electronics. And yes, it is confusing even to those who follow the industry closely.

New DVD-RAM Products Debut

Panasonic, a leading proponent of DVD-RAM, showed several new products, both for PCs and the consumer electronics market. The company has started shipping its DVDBurner, a $US600 drive that combines DVD-RAM and DVD-R (write-once) capability into one drive. It has been shipping DVD-RAM drives since last year.

The new drive addresses DVD-RAM's primary weakness: incompatibility with existing DVD-ROM drives and home entertainment DVD players. The DVD-R capability lets the drive create video and data discs that most existing hardware can read and play back. However, you still need separate media for each type of recording -- you can't mix DVD-RAM and DVD-R content in one disc, or easily convert content from one type to another; you must instead re-record.

That's not such a problem if you're working your video through your PC, where you can store the files on your hard drive, but in the living room it may be.

Panasonic has also announced its next-generation home entertainment DVD recorder, the DMR-E20. Updating the DMR-E10, released last year, Panasonic again adds DVD-R functionality to the DVD-RAM recorder and brings the price down significantly: The first generation recorder had a list price of nearly $US4000; the new model, expected to ship in the fall, will have a list price of $US1500. That means its street price could be about $US1000, say Panasonic spokespersons.

The unit is missing some features -- notably an IEEE 1394 port for digital camcorder hook-up (it has analog ports) -- but it does add some interesting new features, including what Panasonic calls a "time-slip" function. This lets you record one program and simultaneously go back through the DVD-RAM disc and watch what you've already recorded.

Say you come home midway through the football game -- you can continue recording while you watch from the beginning, and you can even catch up to the game in progress. Or if you've missed last week's Sopranos but are now recording this week's episode, you can watch the first episode all the way through while the recording of the current episode continues.

You can also create play lists of the material on the disc and edit and reorder any way you like, then play it back. For example, you may have hours of video of your child's birthday party, but you can select certain scenes and weave them together, then store your selections to view just those highlights instead of skipping around when you want to watch.

These features only work if you're recording to DVD-RAM, however. If you want to record video that you can share with those who don't have a DVD-RAM player or drive, you must record onto DVD-R discs. And unless you have the source video stored onto separate media like an analog VHS tape, you have to choose which format to use before you record. To transfer content stored on a DVD-RAM disc to DVD-R, you'll need a separate recorder or PC drive.

Media prices are also set to come down. A Panasonic spokesperson says the company will release media three-packs that should drop the cost of a single-sided 4.7GB disc to about $US10 per disc from current $US25 prices.

Panasonic has also announced a slew of new products, from portable DVD-RAM players to new camcorders and DVD players, that will read DVD-RAM discs. The various products will ship this summer and fall.

LaCie Group and QPS also debuted combination DVD-RAM/DVD-R external drives at TECHXNY, which should sell for $US699 and $US799, respectively.

DVD+RW: Finally Here?

After years of promising products, the DVD+RW alliance seems to be on the verge of introducing both drives and consumer recorders using the DVD+RW format. And the group has gained a new ally in Dell, a major direct PC vendor that joined the DVD+RW Alliance at TECHXNY. Dell announced its intent to offer systems with these drives by the fourth quarter of this year.

As they did at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, the proponents of DVD+RW--HP, Philips, Sony, Yamaha, Ricoh, MCC/Verbatim, and Thomson RCA -- got together for a demo of their forthcoming products.

Philips demonstrated the same consumer recorder it showed at CES, the DVDR 1000. It acts much like a VCR, except it creates DVD discs, complete with the same menu and scene-preview features you'll see on standard commercial DVD movies. And like those DVD movies, DVD+RW proponents claim their discs can be viewed on most existing DVD players and DVD-ROM drives, a big plus for the format.

Frans Bos, strategic alliances manager for Philips, says the unit should debut in the US at the end of August, priced below $US2000. The new price levels are a drop from company statements at CES, when representatives said the price range could be between $US2000 and $US3000.

Thomson RCA's Rick Koertge, manager of DVD product planning, says Thomson will also have a recorder available in late September with much the same functionality as Philips' product, and also likely priced below $US2000.

HP demonstrated its drive, due out in the third quarter of this year, and likely priced below $US800, according to Christine Roby, HP's worldwide product manager for personal storage solutions. The drive will handle both DVD+RW and CD-RW.

Media prices should be competitive with that of other formats, say representatives of MCC/Verbatim and Ricoh, which will also have drives. DVD+RW discs should be about $US20 per disc; media should be available at the end of summer, to match the schedule of drive vendors, says Jon Ishihara, manager for Mitsubishi Chemical Media (MCC/Verbatim).

Alliance members also talked about DVD+R, a new component of the DVD+RW format, which lets you write once instead of multiple times. That functionality may not be present in the first generation of drives and recorders, although the vendors hope it will be included. Philips' Hans Driessen says the Alliance "focused on the re-recordable function, and once that was stable, focused on +R."

If the functionality is not present in first generation products, plans exist to add it through a firmware upgrade. That's manageable for drives installed in PCs; no concrete plans are available for the upgrade path for the consumer recorders.

What About DVD-RW?

Pioneer has had success with its recently introduced DVR-A03, which combines DVD-RW, DVD-R, CD-RW, and CD-R functionality into one drive, priced at $US995. Compaq, Apple, and most recently Sony have all bundled the drive with some of their systems as well.

Unlike DVD-RAM, DVD-RW can create discs that are compatible with most existing DVD players and DVD-ROM drives, although you must go through a fairly simple finalisation process (which adds several minutes to DVD creation) and burn the discs in DVD video mode instead of video recording mode. If you want to re-record, you must then de-finalise the disc, then finalise it again once you've modified the content. DVD video mode has a more limited preview menu than video recording mode.

And this spring, Pioneer will come out with its DVR-7000, an updated version of a consumer recorder first introduced in Japan, and demonstrated at TECHXNY. The unit should be priced at or below $US2800, and it will offer both IEEE 1394 ports as well as s-video and composite video. The new unit boasts an improved user interface, is more compact, and now plays CD media, according to Andy Parsons, senior vice president of product development and technical support.

LaCie and QPS also debuted external combination DVD-RW/DVD-R/CD-RW/CD-R drives at the show, which should sell for about $US995 and $US699, respectively.

Assessing the Proposed Standards

All three camps tout the features of their own standards.

DVD-RAM can be rewritten up to 100,000 times (others up to 1000 times), and offers double-sided discs with up to 9.4GB of storage (others are single-side, 4.7GB only). Proponents claim it has faster data transfer rates and access times than other formats, which let you have functions like time-slip. Products are out now. But it is a different technology, requiring a different optical pickup from standard DVD discs, and making it incompatible with the bulk of existing DVD hardware.

DVD+RW has long promised products with the highest levels of compatibility with existing hardware. Proponents also say DVD+RW's built-in defect management and use of both CAV and CLV recording technology make it equally good for data and video. Now, products may finally be available so that claim can be tested. The high level of compatibility makes it very appealing, but DVD+RW's competitors already have products in the market, which may affect acceptance.

DVD-RW bridges the two camps, offering more compatibility than DVD-RAM, but requiring a couple more steps in order to achieve it, unlike DVD+RW. Like DVD-RAM, products are out now.

Unless you need DVD recording functionality now, or you're really eager to try it out, you may be better off waiting a year or so before you venture into these crowded, and confusing, waters. By then, prices should drop, and we may have a better idea which standard will be with us for the long term.

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