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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

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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.

News.context

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.

HD DVD supporters include Memory-Tech, NEC, Sanyo Electric and Toshiba. According to an NEC representative, HD DVD doesn't call for a protective layer and will be as durable as current DVDs.

Still, analysts and industry executives said they believe TDK's protective coating will prove to be a major boost for Blu-ray.

"This (TDK's coating) could make for a great marketing opportunity, helping to differentiate Blu-ray from HD DVD," said Shyam Nagrani, an analyst with research firm iSuppli.

Andy Parsons, senior vice president of advanced product development at Pioneer Electronics, said that removing the cartridge requirement will make Blu-ray that much more appealing, given its higher storage capacity.

"Going without a cartridge takes a significant amount out of costs and, history tells us, makes the discs more convenient from a consumer standpoint," Parsons said.

Getting the right mix
In order to meet Blu-ray's specifications, TDK's coating had to be less than 0.1 mm thick, be hard enough to take a beating and be transparent enough to be easily read.

"We could have developed a metal alloy that would have met the protection requirements, but then it would have been opaque and impossible to read," said Bruce Youmans, vice president of marketing at TDK. "We've come up with the right polymer mix and production method to balance all three conditions."

According to a filing with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in September, the process essentially spin-coats two layers onto discs. One is for protection against scratches and the other protects against stains and oils.

Youmans said that the protective layer on the currently available DVD-R discs represents the first generation of the coating and that the company has been refining the technology to better suit Blu-ray Discs. Although it might seem possible to adapt the polymer to other uses in LCD, CRT and plasma screens, TDK plans to target the DVD market for now, Youmans said.

One big market for TDK could be DVD rental services. Scratches are so frequent on DVDs that they last about 12 to 13 rentals on average, said Bill Fischer, vice president of corporate development at San Francisco-based DVD Station, a start-up that sets up DVD rental kiosks for retailers such as those in Sony's Metreon center.

While Netflix executives and many parents might consider scratch-proof DVDs a godsend, TDK for now is positioning its technology for the arrival of Blu-ray.

"There's an outcry for extra protection in the DVD market where scratches on rented DVDs is a fairly common occurrence," Youmans said. "But the bigger opportunity may be Blu-ray Discs...We're poised for that market."

CNET News.com's Evan Hansen contributed to this report.

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