Try scratching this DVD

Tough new protective coating promises longer life for DVDs and a brighter future for emerging Blu-ray technology. Photo: One tough disc

Researchers at electronics giant TDK have developed a tough new coating that promises to make scratched DVDs a thing of the past and that will help usher in an emerging data storage format with 10 times the capacity of the current DVD standard.

In a test conducted by CNET News.com, a DVD treated with TDK's coating survived a determined attack with a screwdriver and a Sharpie permanent marker with no effect on playability--a remarkable feat considering how easily standard DVDs can be damaged, for example, by children.

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What's new:
Japanese electronics giant TDK has developed a tough new coating that makes DVDs scratch-proof.

Bottom line:
TDK's coating could become crucial for the long-term competitiveness of Blu-ray, a next-generation DVD technology.

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"Wow, every family with a young boy could really use that," quipped Elizabeth Berry, a Berkeley, Calif., resident and one-time Netflix DVD-by-mail subscriber, when told of the scratch-resistant coating. "My 3-year-old must have destroyed half my DVD collection."

Already one of the most popular technologies in history, the DVD is poised for further greatness as companies tinker with improvements such as better durability and increased storage.

Earlier this year, Japan-based TDK began selling blank recordable DVDs treated with its patent pending polymer. The coating has also been endorsed by the industry group behind the next-generation DVD format known as Blu-ray Disc, which has faced significant concerns over its susceptibility to scratches. On Tuesday, Hewlett-Packard said it will include Blu-ray drives in its PCs starting in late 2005, thanks in part to improvements made possible by TDK's technology. PC giant Dell is also supporting Blu-ray.

DVD-Rs coated with TDK's novel polymer, billed as armor plated with UV protection, currently cost $5.99 each. That's significantly more than the average $1 price for most standard DVD-Rs. But prices could fall quickly once manufacturing volumes kick up. Less than three years ago, uncoated DVD-R discs sold for around $6 each.

TDK's coating could become crucial for the long-term competitiveness of Blu-ray, which can hold up 50GB of data on a dual-layer disc compared with the common 4.7GB DVDs. The format is facing off against rival technology known as HD DVD, which stores less data--30GB on a dual-layer disc--but is no more damage prone than ordinary DVDs.

Both Blu-ray and HD DVD use blue lasers instead of the red lasers used in current DVD technology. Because blue lasers use a shorter light wavelength than red lasers, they can read data that is packed together more closely, boosting storage capacity.

While HD DVD places the data layer at the same depth as current DVDs, Blu-ray places the data layer much closer to the surface. This allows the discs to hold more data than HD DVDs. But it also renders them more vulnerable to damage, so much so that the Blu-ray industry group stowed its rewritable discs in a protective cartridge, much like a cassette tape.

Blu-ray Disc partners like the storage advantage that it has over HD DVD as well as the futuristic interactive features proposed for the Blu-ray specification. But the use of cartridges would be a deal breaker for some potential partners.

"One of our requirements was that it had to be cartridge-less," said Maureen Weber, general manager of optical storage at HP. "We felt that consumers were used to a bare disc and they wouldn't look favorably to a clunky case."

HP and Dell played significant roles in the battle over a DVD rewritable format; their support of the DVD+RW format helped to make that the dominant specification. The companies also helped to drive down the cost of the drives and discs by including them in their PCs. Many are expecting the same scenario to play out with Blu-ray.

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