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WORKING WEEKEND: Recordable DVD Is A Many-Splintered Thing

8 Feb, 2002 By: Bruce Apar

One reason for DVD's popularity with the general populace is its simplicity. Yeah, we know all about the (fade in on stentorian-voiced announcer) "superior picture and sound quality," but believe me, that's only the half of it.

Equally responsible, if not moreso, for the hockey-stick growth curve on which DVD is gliding along, is its unitized compactness, especially compared with the cranky collection of moving parts inside a videocassette -- (okay, so the 5-inch platter does spin, but a future iteration of DVD resides in a no-spin zone, where the laser moves, but the disc doesn't.)

Yet, impressive as it is, DVD's skill set is still a few cards short of a full deck, namely in its lack of user-recording capability. Soon enough, though, even that shortcoming will be gone. Recordable DVD is getting ready for its close-up, and, following the lead of the play-only older generation, its simplicity is simply breathtaking.

The industry's various architects of DVD have gotten together and determined there should be as many DVD recording formats as there are major Hollywood studios – or so it seems.

To keep it simple, each of the recordable DVD configurations has been given a slightly different designation.

With technical descriptions provided by my friends at Maxell, a leading maker of recording media, here's the rundown:

The seminal format is, of course, old reliable but nonrecordable DVD Video. Then there's DVD-R, "a write-once version of DVD upon which content may be recorded only one time." It uses a dye that, once altered (or burned), cannot be changed again. Fair enough. And simple to comprehend.

Next up is DVD-RAM, "a rewritable version of DVD upon which content can be recorded more than once, as many as 100,000 times, on nine internal recording surfaces. Used for audio/video and computer applications, data is recorded randomly on the disc. It is playable in some computer DVD drives and set-top players." Okaaaay. We guess that means the data is not recorded in a serial, linear fashion -- we guess. Hold that thought.

Let's not forget about DVD-RW, "a rerecordable/erasable DVD standard Pioneer developed for audio/video data applications that lets users record data sequentially to the disc, over 1000 times, on three internal recording surfaces. It is playable in many computer DVD drives and set-top players." Now, we're getting somewhere. RAM is random (as in Random Access Memory), RW is sequential, or serial, as we surmised above. Score one gigabyte for logical deduction.

What's this, now? You say there's also something called DVD+RW? We'll bite. Turns out it's very similar to DVD-RW, only different enough not to be recognized by the DVD Forum, an official standard-setting body with more than 200 members that include major hardware and software makers of DVD goods and services. DVD+RW is supported by Hewlett-Packard (HP), Philips and others, and is, of course, playable on many computer DVD drives and set-tops." The companies behind DVD+RW are planning to introduce DVD+R, a write-once version, a la DVD-R.

Unlike the dye used in DVD-R, the above three rewritable/erasable formats use a metal alloy called phase-change that allows rerecording. However, while the write-once DVD-Rs are said to last 40 to 250 years after recording, the less durable rewritable DVDs will conk out after a mere 25 to100 years. What wimps.

There are things recordable DVD won't let you do. Such as experience full interoperability. DVD-R will play on all other types of DVD drives, while DVD-RAM, DVD-RW and DVD + RW will not play on all of each other's drives.

So, where is all this leading? Not so fast. Maxell estimates there are some 650,000 recordable DVD drives in the U.S. at this time, virtually all inside PCs. In 2002, it projects another 1.5 million recordable DVD drives being shipped, 60% to 70% in PCs, the rest in set-top DVD recorders from names like Panasonic and Philips.

And DVD continues to wend its way into every conceivable entertainment device, the latest host being a camcorder made by Hitachi that uses mini-DVDs (8cm, or about 3.5 inches, versus the 12cm, or 5-in. diameter of a full-size DVD) to record 30 to 60 minutes, and will play in many brands of set-top DVD players. Next up are mini DVD-Rs for camera recording. I'm surprised Hitachi doesn't just call its DVD camera a RAMcorder.

Of course, the big question for DVD Video suppliers and retailers -- and copyright-agnostic consumers -- is whether DVD movies can be copied to DVD-Rs, RAMs and all that other stuff. According to Maxell, that's a negative, "due to sophisticated copy protection methods."

Well, due to sophisticated code crackers such as the notorious SmartRipper, DVD movies have been copied to hard drives, burned to recordable DVDs and transmitted on the Internet. But that's a truckload of worms we'll save for another day.

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