Recordable-DVD buyers cry foul

Hewlett-Packard backs down on its offer to upgrade its first-generation DVD+RW drive to be compatible with newer, less-expensive DVD+R discs.

Leo Lorenzetti is one of a number of customers unhappy with Hewlett-Packard and the DVD+RW Alliance, a group advocating the DVD-rewritable standard.

Four months ago, Lorenzetti, a vice president of engineering for Boonton, N.J.-based Mobile-Vision, purchased HP's first-generation DVD+RW drive with the impression that the drive, called the dvd writer dvd100i, could be upgraded to support DVD+R--a recording format that works with less-expensive discs.

DVD+RW Alliance members initially said that compatibility could be established through an upgrade but later backed off those claims before their products began shipping.

This week, alliance member HP acknowledged that it won't be providing an upgrade capability for earlier drives. The company also launched new drives that are compatible with DVD+RW and DVD+R. HP representatives said the company is looking into options for addressing the concerns of dvd100i owners. For now, though, early buyers are out of luck.

"I suppose most of us assumed the upgrade...was something other than buying a new drive," Lorenzetti said. "I bought this drive four months ago so that I could take advantage of DVD+R, and now they are telling me I can't."

While only a small number of consumers have complained to date, the finger-pointing and controversy won't win the DVD+RW camp any new friends in the ongoing, and increasingly heated, war over DVD standards.

Two groups, the DVD+RW Alliance and the DVD Forum, are trying to establish their technology as the de facto standard in the growing market for recordable and rewritable DVD. Whoever wins will likely have more control over the market's development, not to mention a head start in sales. And with word of mouth becoming an even more important marketing tool, DVD+RW Alliance members will likely have to endure ire from customers for a while.

HP sold the drive separately, but it also has sold the dvd100i drives in its Pavilion line of consumer desktop PCs.

In May 2001, the DVD+RW Alliance announced that products supporting DVD+RW would also support DVD+R. An HP representative said at the time that customers could upgrade with free firmware and software.

The DVD+R format had not yet been finalized, but companies anticipated that such an upgrade would be possible, enabling DVD+RW drives to write onto DVD+R discs. However, before the release of its first drive, the dvd100i, HP realized that an upgrade wouldn't work.

HP representatives said that at one point last year, the company mistakenly posted a message on its Web site saying that its dvd100i drives could be upgraded to support the DVD+R format. The company has since removed the notice from its site.

Revising products to support new formats enabling more capabilities and improved features is common practice in the innovation-focused technology industry. What irks buyers of HP's dvd100i drive is not only that they feel they were misled but also that new products supporting DVD+R were announced shortly after the old products began shipping.

HP's dvd100i began shipping in October. HP announced on Monday that its dvd200i is expected in stores by mid-April and its dvd200e is due in May. The dvd200i is an internal drive used with desktop PCs, and the dvd200e is an external drive that connects to PCs via an IEEE 1394 or USB 2.0 port. All of the drives, dvd100i, dvd200i and the dvd200e, cost more than $500.

"I and many others in the fall and winter of last year purchased the HP dvd100i, which at the time HP claimed would write DVD+R in the future with a simple firmware upgrade," one consumer, T.E. Cartwright, wrote in an e-mail message. "Many of us went out and bought it, with the anticipation of (an upgrade)...Since that time, HP has removed all reference to the firmware upgrade and has said the drive would not write DVD+R and that for us to get that capability we have to buy their second-generation drive."

DVD+R discs are compatible with more DVD-ROM drives than DVD+RW discs are, and at $6, they're less expensive than the $11 DVD+RW discs. However, DVD+R discs can only be written on once, while DVD+RW discs can be written on numerous times. Both can hold up to 4.7GB of data.

Drives from manufacturers other than HP are also not likely to be upgradable because the software and firmware to accomplish the task aren't around, sources said.

Sony announced on Thursday two new DVD+RW drives, the $500 DRU-120A and the $600 DRX-120L, which support DVD+RW and DVD+R. Sony marketing manager Bob DeMoulin said the consumer-electronics giant is looking into upgrade programs for owners of its DRU110A drives but does not yet have any formal plans.

DeMoulin added that there were some changes made to the DVD+R format before it was finalized by the DVD+RW Alliance in January.

"It's difficult to plan for an upgrade," DeMoulin said.