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Recording, lower prices coming to DVD

Although the technological standards still aren't set, variations on the DVD player as well as lower prices are coming to market.

Although the technological standards still aren't set, variations on the DVD player as well as lower prices are coming to market.

Consumer electronics companies are working on delivering home players with the ability to record disks while also hashing out plans for new audio formats that incorporate multichannel surround sound for more lifelike music reproduction.

The availability of recordable DVD discs is seen as one of the keys to tapping into a potentially huge consumer DVD market, analysts say. An estimated 1.2 million DVD home players were sold worldwide in 1998, double the figure from the previous year, according to InfoTech Research. This is in addition to the hundreds of thousands of drives that have shipped with home PCs to date.

But judging by the prototype devices and statements of intention to build new devices at last week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, consumers are likely to wind up taking a gamble on which enhancements to DVD technology are going to win in the marketplace.

Competing DVD types
DVD type Rewritable? Capacity Industry support
DVD-RW Re-recordable 4.7GB Pioneer
DVD-RAM Re-recordable 2.6GB Hitachi, Toshiba, Matsushita
DVD+RW Re-recordable 3GB (4.7 by 2000) Sony, HP, Philips, Mitsubishi, Ricoh, Yamaha

Philips announced at CES that it intends to build by early 2000 a DVD player for consumers that can also record up to 4.7GB of data, enough to store a two-hour film, in a format known as DVD+RW. Pioneer Electronics demonstrated a prototype DVD player that could record up to 1.5 hours in a different format called DVD-RW.

Panasonic and Hitachi meanwhile, exhibited prototype DVD camcorders using the DVD-RAM recordable format.

Re-recordable DVD allows consumers to erase and re-record data, like people do with VCRs and tape decks but in a pristine, digital form. Unfortunately, none of the three standards touted above are compatible at the moment.

Not surprisingly, different formats could mean problems for consumers. Since the industry has yet to decide on a format, there could be players introduced into the market that couldn't read recordings produced by other manufacturers. Not only that, but these disks may not be readable by DVD players that are available today, thereby decreasing the usefulness of the devices.

Companies are working to fix these problems. Philips's technology, according to industry analysts, will let the deck produce disks that current-generation DVD players can read--something which has to date been difficult to accomplish with all re-recordable DVD formats.

Of equal importance is the fact that drives will get cheaper. Current DVD recordable products that can take MPEG 2 data and store it on disk are very pricey. Some in the $10,000 range. But Philips is hoping to sell its device for around $1,000.

"They are taking the bull by the horns," Richard Doherty, president of The Envisioneering Group, said of Philips' announcement. "If the company is first to market with a low enough price, "[DVD+RW] a force to be reckoned with."

Others are more cautious, noting that other technologies are more mature than Philips's DVD+RW, which is also supported by Sony and Hewlett-Packard. "Philips is making a preemptive technology announcement. If you look at the state of [the technology], DVD-RAM is ahead, so in order to get a product to market by the end of 2000, Philips has a lot of ground to make up," said Ted Pine, analyst with InfoTech Research.

Pine thinks DVD-RAM supporters such as Matsushita Electric--which markets products under the Panasonic brand name--are trying to boost the storage capacity of their drives to 4.7GB by the end of 1999 to beat Philips to the punch.

Indeed, companies continue to butt heads over differing standards, including next-generation audio formats. Even as Pioneer was demonstrating "DVD Audio" players, Sony, Philips and others were demonstrating a competing next-generation audio format called "Super Audio CD" (SACD). Both would allow for multichannel sound, although Sony and Philips (the originators of the original audio CD format) claim that SACD allows better sound quality.

What are consumers going to make of the growing list of alphabet soup format names? Tom O'Reilly, executive editor of the DVD Report, an industry trade report, said that the market's growth is ultimately contingent upon streamlining the numerous proprietary storage formats being shown at CES into one or two standard formats, at consumer price points.

O'Reilly is skeptical the format wars will be much of an issue until after 2000. "It always takes twice as long as people expect," he said, noting that DVD+RW has been talked about for well over a year and no products based on the technology are available yet, and that similar engineering and marketing issues delayed the rollout of DVD Video and DVD-ROM, the read-only version of DVD used by PCs.

In the meanwhile, an industry trade group called the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA) this week said it would work on a standard that would ensure CD and DVD drives can read all re-recordable disks in their various formats.

Envisioneering's Doherty thinks the market will eventually wind up deciding which format it prefers, regardless of industry efforts. Audio CDs weren't available in standards formats for five years, he said.