DVD market growing, despite confusion over formats

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002
First published in Business in Vancouver,  Issue #641 February 5- 11, 2002, The High Tech Office column

CD-recordable (also known as "burners") and DVD drives are increasingly commonplace options for computers, while last year, home DVD players outsold VCRs for the first time. Not surprisingly, there's been increased interest in burning DVD discs, which have a capacity of 4.7 gigabytes and are able to store as much as six or seven CD discs. This is large enough to back up today's multi-gigabyte hard drives. 

As well, with digital camcorders and Firewire-equipped computers making desktop video editing increasingly practical, recordable-DVD is an attractive way to distribute these new-age home movies. (Don't count on copying Hollywood movies, however.)

But a few obstacles remain before recordable-DVD becomes a mass-market phenomenon. Drive prices have just dipped south of $1,000, a price-point where many users start to look but only a few actually buy. 

As well, there's a battle of dueling acronyms. Trying to make sense of the plethora of DVD standards is like watching a Sesame Street episode in which everything is brought to you by the letter 'D.' For instance:

DVD-RAM represented the first-generation of recordable DVD drives. Discs burned on these drives often cannot be played on home DVD players. Because of this, the battle is shaking down to two other similar looking but incompatible acronyms.

DVD-RW (also referred to as DVD-R/RW) drives started showing up last year, with models sold as an option in computers from Apple, Compaq, and Sony. (All three secretly offered the same hardware: Pioneer's DVR-103 drive.) DVD-RW drives can read both CD and DVD discs, and can write recordable (write-once) and rewritable CD and DVD discs. (Thus, Apple calls its offering the "SuperDrive.") The big advantage of these drives is compatibility. DVD discs written in them can be read in most (though not all) recent home DVD players and computer DVD-ROM drives. 

DVD+RW drives are more recent, from Hewlett-Packard, Phillips, and others. DVD+RW drives can write to CD-R and CD-RW discs, as well as to rewritable DVD discs (about $20), but not to the cheaper (about $10) DVD-R discs.

DVD discs made on these DVD+ RW drives can be read on an estimated 67 to 70 per cent of the installed base of home DVD players and computer DVD-ROM drives, making them less widely compatible than discs recorded using DVD-RW drives. However, users of DVD+RW drives can record discs by simply dragging files to the drive icon, treating these discs like a (very big) floppy drive.

I recently had loan of an HP DVD-Writer DVD100i drive ($899). It was easy to install into my PC, with the help of a video tutorial on the accompanying CD. HP's software starts up automatically when a blank CD or DVD disc is inserted into the drive. Similar to the software used with most CD burners, HP's software gives users options to use the blank disc in different sorts of ways: format it like a big floppy disk, back up a hard drive, create data or music discs, or create a video DVD disc.

In the later case, users can create a fancy video disc menu, though these menus are static, lacking the full-motion Hollywood glitz of Apple's iDVD 2 software. The drive is fast, quicker than Pioneer's popular DVD-RW model: 8x DVD reading, 2.4x DVD writing, along with 32x CD reading and 12x CD-R writing. It took about an hour to burn 4.7 gigabytes of MP3 music files onto a disc.

Despite the high cost and confusion over multiple formats, the market for recordable DVD drives is growing. Apple's Mike Evangelist says: "The adoption of this stuff is going to exactly parallel CDs and CD recording, but accelerated about three or four times. I think it's going to be a relatively short time before this technology is on every computer." 

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan