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Rewritable DVDs, old drives don't always play nice

In what will likely be a headache for consumers, the latest higher-speed rewritable discs aren't built to record data in older drives.

Faster rewritable DVDs for a major format are about to hit the market, but they are not designed to record material in earlier drives.

In a development that will likely cause headaches for some consumers, new DVD-RW discs that record up to four times (4X) the normal playback speed do not support recording on drives with a top speed of 1X or twice that speed (2X). Rewritable discs allow people to record material and then record over that old information with new data.

The problem is limited to the "dash" format, which is a DVD recording technology adopted by the DVD Forum, a standards body backed by companies such as Pioneer Electronics. Backers of the rival "plus" format, such as Philips Electronics and Hewlett-Packard, say their higher-speed rewritable discs work fine in early-model DVD+RW writers.

The DVD Forum has suggested that media makers put a warning label on higher-speed discs to alert consumers of the incompatibility problem. According to the forum, trying to record on the new 4X discs with older writers may result in ejection of the disc from the hardware or damage to the data on the disc.

The disc incompatibility stems from the need to make rewritable media that is more sensitive to laser light for higher-speed recording, according to Andy Parsons, vice president of advanced product development for Pioneer Electronics USA. Parsons said earlier writers will not write data reliably at slower speeds, due to the new formulation.

The 4X speed is "where we've made the break," Parsons said. "I'm hoping that this is the only time we'll have to do it."

There's a dispute between the rival DVD groups over whether the media compatibility issue extends to write-once media. Frank Simonis, commercial director within Philips' optical storage unit, said he has seen evidence that higher-speed "-R" media will also suffer a compatibility issue with older drives.

Parsons, however, said "there shouldn't be any problem" with higher-speed write-once discs.

Stephen Baker, an analyst at research firm NPD Group, suggested that people with early dash rewritable drives may need to upgrade to later machines, because slower rewritable dash media is likely to become scarce over time. But, he said, the rewritable compatibility glitch won't affect the majority of people doing DVD burning. "Most people use write-once discs. If there's an issue with the rewritable discs, that doesn't pose as big an issue."

The DVD Forum upgraded a rewritable disc standard that allows for 4X speed in November. Rewritable discs supporting 4X speed should enter the market soon, Parsons said. Drives that support 4X rewritable technology are already for sale.

Pioneer drives are affected by the media incompatibility. The company sells a product called the DVR-A06 that will not support the new 4X media.

Sony also has drives that will not be able to record on the new media, including its DRU-510A and DRX-510UL products. Sony intends to put a notice on its Web site about the compatibility issue, said Robert DeMoulin, marketing manager for Sony's optical storage products. But DeMoulin said few customers are likely to experience problems. Dash-rewritable discs are "not that popular," he said. "We just don't think it will be that big an issue."

Battle of the recording technologies
The disc compatibility issues are the latest skirmish in a long-running battle over DVD recording technologies. Companies have been racing to come out with the first double-layer DVD recording products for cramming more video or data onto DVDs, which traditionally have held 4.7GB. Sony on Wednesday introduced double-layer DVD burners that use the plus format to store up to 8.5GB on one disc.

A number of industry observers suggest that the format tussle is not likely to produce a clear winner. Some makers of DVD burners, including Sony and Pioneer, are building both plus and dash capabilities into their drives, a move that eases consumer worries about what type of media to buy.

A separate contest is under way for the successor to today's DVDs; next-generation optical disc technology is expected to store data-intensive high-definition TV programs.

The plus format has not had a perfect record with consumers. Some buyers of first-generation DVD+RW drives were under the impression that the products could be upgraded to support DVD+R write-once recording, when that wasn't the case.

Still, the backers of the plus format have called attention to disc incompatibility on the dash side and to the troubles it may cause consumers. Philips' Simonis suggested that the compatibility break relates to the dash camp's initial concentration on video. Whereas, the plus group planned for both computer and consumer electronics uses. "We believe that building the (plus) format from the beginning with both PC and CE (consumer electronics) environments in mind was...critical and that this oversight contributes to the problems dash is experiencing," Simonis said.

Parsons denied that the media compatibility issue had anything to do with the dash format's original focus on video recording. He also said Philips experienced a similar media compatibility issue related to rewritable CD technology and had to take the same sort of action the dash camp is taking.

In this light, Philips' focus on the "-RW" media incompatibility topic is "kind of a cheap shot," Parsons said. He also said it's possible that the plus side could face similar trouble in making higher-speed rewritable discs record in older drives.

Plus backers don't expect such a problem. Part of the reason, Simonis suggested, is having lived through CD-RW incompatibility. "One of the lessons Philips learned from our experience in CD was that consumers did not appreciate the confusion caused by the break," he said. "As a result, when we (began) developing DVD+, avoiding such issues and saving consumers from the frustration associated with them was a priority for us. We've succeeded in that effort."

A lesson from the latest compatibility trouble is that those eager to try out new technologies frequently pay a price, Baker said. "If you're an early adopter, often you're a guinea pig to the marketplace," he said.