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Combo DVD/CD-RW drives flourish

After a slow start, combination CD-rewritable and DVD drives are showing up on more notebooks and desktops as an alternative to two separate drives.

    Do combo movie-watching and music-recording drives have the write stuff?

    Apparently PC manufacturers think so. After a slow start, combination CD-rewritable and DVD drives are showing up in computers as an alternative to two separate drives.

    Compaq Computer, IBM, Sony and Toshiba added the drives to notebooks earlier this year. Gateway and Hewlett-Packard plan to join the foray into notebooks later this month and in April.

    On desktop models, Dell Computer has offered combo drives as an option for some time. And last week, IBM added them to its high-end consumer NetVista 60 desktop.

    For consumers, the dual functionality can be enticing: A combo drive allows customers to back up information to CD-RW and CD-recordable discs, burn music CDs, and watch DVD movies. But computer makers may have a long way to go to convince desktop customers that one drive is better than two, analysts say.

    No matter their fate on the desktop, the combo units are expected to quickly become the drive of choice on many notebooks, where space is a major factor.

    "Combo drives certainly make a lot of sense and the most sense on notebooks," Dataquest analyst Mary Craig said. "Until now, frankly, CD rewritable has not been much of an option for the mobile crowd."

    Dataquest estimates that manufacturers shipped fewer than 1 million combo drives last year compared with about 30 million CD-RW drives. This year, the market researcher forecasts that 3.5 million combo drives will be shipped vs. 38.2 million for CD-RW.

    Because of the popularity of DVDs, consumers and business buyers have expressed interest in CD-RW for notebooks but resisted giving up the ability to watch movies while traveling.

    Jump at the chance
    More than 60 percent of notebooks sold at retail pack DVD drives, making them the must-have options for laptop owners, according to PC Data.

    Given the choice of having both formats, however, some notebook makers are betting consumers will jump at the chance of DVD and CD-RW. Dell's early solution focused on offering separate DVD and CD-RW drives. Dell's Inspiron 8000 notebook is one of the few portables on the market offering this feature.

    But moving to a single combo unit means the same features and functionality without the added hassle or extra weight of using two drives, say analysts and PC makers.

    The demand is definitely there for CD-RW drives on notebooks, they contend. Gateway, for example, sees CD-RW drives go out with just under 20 percent of the notebooks it sells. But given the drives are offered on only two out of five models, Gateway considers the rate fairly high, a spokeswoman said. The company expects to offer combo drives sometime before mid-April.

    Compaq jumped ahead of the pack by introducing combo drives as a build-to-order option on Presario consumer notebooks in January. Toshiba and Sony soon followed. IBM this month joined the crowd, offering combo drives as a build-to-order option on some ThinkPad portable models.

    Jonathan Kay, Compaq's consumer mobile product marketing manager, explained combo drives' appeal.

    "You have limited space on a notebook, so the ability to have a drive that combines both those capabilities into one appears to be a home run," he said.

    Kay said initial response to the combo drive has been overwhelming, although he wouldn't give exact sales figures. Still, the drive's popularity has prompted Compaq to offer a consumer notebook packing the drive. The new model, the Presario 1700 Series 17XL570, will appear on store shelves this week.

    Wait and see
    Regardless, Compaq is taking a wait-and-see approach to combo drives on desktops, contending for now that two drives are cheaper than one.

    Supplier sources estimate that PC makers pay $60 to $70 for a 16X DVD drive and about $100 for the fastest CD-RW drive. Samsung is reported to offer its combo drive for about $150, while higher-end models from Ricoh go from $170 to $185. Ricoh leads in speed, with 12X DVD playback and 12X CD recording.

    IDC analyst Roger Kay said Compaq's position is understandable.

    "It seems to be there is always an appeal to being at the bleeding edge, but from a cost-justified basis you don't need it," Kay said. "Two drives are probably more appealing to most people."

    This hasn't stopped Dell or IBM from offering combo drives on the desktop. Last week, IBM launched its newest Pentium 4 consumer model, sporting a combo CD-RW/DVD drive. IBM chose combo for space reasons, said Howard Locker, the company's chief technology officer for desktops.

    "We have a customer need for smaller form factors, where there's not really room for a separate DVD and CD-RW. The combo drive just takes up one hole in the box," he said.

    Locker also asserts that recent changes have broken the price barrier, at least for IBM. "Just recently, the combo drives are cheaper than the discrete CD-RW and DVD drives," he said.

    Still, PC Data analyst Stephen Baker is skeptical that combo drives will do anywhere as well on desktops as portables. One reason is the poor retail sales of combo drives. The drives have been on sale as add-ons to PCs for more than a year.

    "In terms of retail, combo drive sales are negligible," he said. "Given there isn't a lot of demand for DVD drives on PCs and that most people are adding a second or third drive, it doesn't make a lot of sense."

    Consumer misconceptions
    PC Data estimates that about 23 percent of PCs sold at retail pack DVD drives vs. 46 percent with CD-RW drives.

    IBM recognizes this too.

    "What will probably happen is anything that is a smaller footprint (PC) will go combo, and anything that is a micro-tower will stay separate as two devices," Locker said.

    IBM will soon expand combo drives to its NetVista X40 all-in-one PC, its smallest desktop built around an LCD display. "It's the perfect example of a small form factor where combo drives really play well," Locker said.

    PC makers also could face resistance from consumers and the preconceived notion that two drives are necessary to make copies of music CDs.

    "But that is simply not the case," Craig said. "Because most software stages the music on the hard drive before writing the CD, you simply don't need two drives."

    One place where combo drives had been expected on the desktop but didn't appear was on new Macs that Apple Computer introduced in January and February.

    "We expected CD-RW drives, but not at the expense of DVD drives," said Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal. He noted that most Macs sold in the previous 18 months sported DVD drives, and the company sold iMacs largely on video-editing and playback features.

    "All I can figure is that this is Apple's quick fix after initially missing CD-RW," Deal said. "I wouldn't be surprised if Apple's next iMac upgrade included both. If not, that could be a problem for Apple."

    Despite the focus on CD-RW/DVD combination drives, the ultimate combo may be Pioneer's DVD-R unit. This drive both reads and writes CDs and DVDs. Apple and Compaq are the only major computer makers offering the drive so far.