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Bounty of DVD-recording PCs hit market

A year ago, no computer maker offered drives for recording home DVDs. Now there are plenty of options, although not all consumer DVD players can read the discs.

Amateur moviemakers are suddenly faced with too much of a good thing.

A year ago, no computer manufacturer offered drives for recording home DVDs. Now there are plenty of DVD-recording PCs to choose from--though many use formats that are incompatible with one another.

But unlike the Beta and VHS tape wars of the 1970s and 1980s, when choosing the wrong recording format seemed likely to mean owning a collection of useless cartridges, consumers can safely buy whichever DVD recording drive or PC they find most appealing, analysts say. The drives produce discs that can be played in the majority--but not all--of consumer DVD players on the market, regardless of recording format.

Holiday shoppers heading to stores this year will find DVD-recording PCs from Apple Computer, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and Sony. In Europe, Packard Bell-NEC also sells similarly equipped systems.

Their interest has the technology poised to take off as quickly as CD-rewritable, and DVD players are already rivaling VCRs in popularity.

"I haven't bought a drive yet," said Zareh Gorjian, an animator who is considering a DVD-recording purchase. But he and many others, he said, "have footage on analog media--VHS, SVHS, BetaCam, Hi8--that they would like to transfer to DVD."

Apple and Compaq--the early leaders in the field--and Sony use DVD-R/RW drives in their computers. HP offers DVD+RW drives, and Dell Computer plans to do the same.

The incompatible recording formats are likely to vie for market dominance in the next year or so. DVD-R/RW is the early leader, but the rival format's backing by big peripherals makers, such as HP and Sony, could quickly level the playing field. Sony is using the DVD-R/RW format in its PCs but is also manufacturing DVD+RW drives.

Picking the eventual standard bearer for formats could be difficult, said Gartner Dataquest analyst Mary Craig.

"All the companies involved are all very, very good and solid companies," she said. "It's just too early to pick a winner."

And as if the choice between the two formats weren't already confusing, consumers shopping for only external drives to add to their PCs will be confronted with a third option, DVD-RAM/DVD-R.

Would-be Spielbergs
Manufacturers are already engaging in a price war to get their standard adopted over the others. Pioneer Electronics, for example, introduced its DVR-A03 drive in February at about $1,000 but slashed that DVD-R/RW device to a street price of $649 as soon as drives in competing formats reached stores.

HP's 100i and Sony's DRU110A/C1, both DVD+RW drives, cost about $599. The Panasonic, LaCie and QPS DVD-RAM/DVD-R models also cost about the same.

Gartner Dataquest predicts that manufacturers will ship 594,000 DVD-recording drives this year and that shipments will nearly triple next year. By 2005, the figure could swell to 14.2 million, the market researcher predicts.

By way of comparison, manufacturers sold 650,000 CD-rewritable drives in 1997, that technology's first year on the market, according to Gartner Dataquest. The number swelled to 12.5 million in 1999 and is expected to reach 39 million this year.

PCs for DVDs
Here are several entry-level PCs with DVD-recording capabilities.

Computer: Apple Power Mac G4
Specs: 867MHz PowerPC chip, DVD-R/RW drive, 128MB RAM, 60GB hard drive, Nvidia GeForce2 MX graphics card, 10/100/1000 networking
Price: $2,499

Computer: Compaq Presario 5000T
Specs: 1.5GHz Intel Pentium 4, DVD-R/RW drive, 256MB RAM, 40GB hard drive, Nvidia GeForce2 MX, 10/100 networking
Price: $1,377

Computer: HP Pavilion 9995
Specs: 2GHz Pentium 4, DVD+RW drive, 512MB RAM, 80GB hard drive, Nvidia GeForce2 MX400, 10/100 networking
Price: $2,000

Computer: Sony Vaio PCV-RX580
Specs: 1.8GHz Pentium 4, DVD-R/RW drive, 512MB RAM, 80GB hard drive. Nvidia TNT M64, 10/100 networking
Price: $1,500

Manufacturers started shipping DVD-RAM drives in 1998, but the market was mostly for specialists until 2001. "I would consider this the first year for DVD recording," because earlier, "it couldn't really be used by consumers" to author discs that would work in DVD players, Craig said.

"The adoption of this stuff is going to exactly parallel CDs and CD recording--but accelerated about three or four times," said Mike Evangelist, Apple's director of product marketing for professional applications. "I think it's going to be a relatively short time before this technology is on every computer."

Whether standalone or built into PCs, the drives produce standard capacity 4.7GB DVDs, which typically can be used for showing home videos accessed through stylized menus similar to those on Hollywood movie DVDs. Still, for technology- and encryption-related reasons, most consumers will find they cannot copy a Hollywood DVD movie to one of their own discs.

One of the most popular PC applications is amateur moviemaking, with many computer makers adding IEEE 1394, or FireWire, ports for transferring video from digital camcorders. Apple sees home video-making as such a big potential market that the company ships its iMovie 2 software with all computers. By contrast, PC makers typically bundle video-editing software only with FireWire-equipped models.

"DVD recording offers a customer a way to share that video," said Christine Roby, Hewlett-Packard's product manager for the technology. "As DVD players and DVD-ROM drives grow more popular, people will want to share their video."

In September, for the second month in a row, DVD players outsold VCRs--1.5 million units vs. 1.2 million, respectively, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Compatibility counts
Consumers looking to take the plunge into DVD recording can expect to make some hard choices. If compatibility is the major criterion, DVD-R/RW leads the pack.

Craig estimates that at least "80 percent of all DVD players can read DVD-R discs."

Andy Parsons, Pioneer's vice president of product development, adds that DVD-R disc compatibility is 90 percent to 95 percent among newer DVD players. DVD-RW disc compatibility is in the range of 70 percent, he added.

Meanwhile, DVD+RW discs can be played in about "65 percent to 70 percent of the installed base of DVD players and DVD-ROM drives that are out there today," Roby said. "So we're not compatible with all of them. But with more recent products we're seeing a higher compatibility rate of around 80 percent."

DVD-R/RW's current advantage over DVD+RW is its capability to produce either write-once DVD-R discs or rewritable DVDs.

Although HP's drive produces only DVD+RW discs, Roby said that DVD+R capability "may be part of our spring line."

Older DVD players or low-cost models are the ones most likely to have problems reading any DVD recording disc, regardless of format.

DVD-R/RW also has the advantage of lower media cost. While Pioneer lists DVD-R media for around $10 each, Apple sells the discs for about $6 each in five-packs, and some Web sites sell no-brand blanks for about $3 each.

DVD-RW and DVD+RW media sell for around $16 each. For consumers looking to burn a DVD for grandma, $6 might be a lot easier to justify than $16. On the other hand, the DVD+RW media can be recorded over repeatedly.

DVD-RAM, the oldest DVD recording format, offers the least compatibility with DVD drives and players. The format also is best suited for industrial-strength video recording or data storage. However, Craig said, a combo DVD-RAM/DVD-R drive can address the needs of owners of existing DVD-RAM drives while offering the more consumer-oriented, widely compatible DVD-R format.

"If you're just interested in doing video editing, the Pioneer (DVD-R/RW) drive is a good solution," Craig said. "The compatibility is less of an issue when you're just working with DVD-R (and) just working with video."

DVD+RW offers compelling features, too. For one, HP's drive records at 2.4X vs. the 2X for Pioneer's external drive DVR-A03 and its similar DVR-103 model found in PCs. At the same time, DVD+RW is better suited for archiving data and recording video than are its rivals. Consumers can drag files to DVD+RW discs the same way they can with a hard drive, so they don't need to erase the entire disc to add more data or video; DVD-RAM works similarly.

"If you're looking for backup data storage, the DVD-RAM/DVD-R and DVD+RW are good because of the way they handle data," Craig said.

Gala, Granny Smith or Macintosh?
Pioneer makes the drives found in Apple, Compaq, Packard Bell-NEC and Sony computers, while HP provides the DVD+RW drives found in its own Pavilion PCs.

On the Windows PC side, most manufacturers have cobbled together an assortment of video-editing and DVD-authoring software that does not work fluidly together because it comes from different developers.

Windows-based PC makers typically bundle software from Sonic Solutions for authoring DVDs--DVDit 2.3 with Sony's Vaio or Compaq's Presario, and MyDVD 3.0 with HP's Pavilion.

All three PC makers also provide software from Veritas for copying data to DVDs. For video editing, consumers can use Microsoft Windows XP's Movie Maker software or competing products from MGI, Pinnacle Systems and Ulead, among others. The Pinnacle software comes bundled with many DVD-recording PCs.

Apple has offered DVD recording longer than any other computer manufacturer--first with DVD-RAM and later with DVD-R/RW--supporting the feature directly from the operating system. Consumers can literally burn DVDs from the Mac OS file menu, a feature lacking in Windows XP. This seamlessness contrasts sharply with recording from Windows PCs.

"What's different about Apple is we make everything from start to finish--the operating system, the DVD software, even the drivers," Evangelist said. "We have so much more control that we can remove all the uncertainties from the process. That's the difference from the other offerings out there."

Apple's iDVD 2 software also maximizes many Mac OS X 10.1.1 features, which, for example, let MPEG encoding take place in the background while the user designs the menus for his or her DVD. Apple's iDVD 2 software also offers full-motion--rather than static--menus, similar to those available on Hollywood movie DVDs.

But compared with Windows PCs, Apple's two DVD-recording products--the Power Mac G4 876 and Dual 800--are pricey. Apple's machines sell for $2,499 and $3,499, respectively.

Compaq's Presario 5000T, by contrast, starts around $1,380, or $1,835 for the entry-level 8000T. Sony's Vaio PCV-RX580G starts at $1,500, or $2,500 for the midtier RX590G. The Vaio MX series, which also packs DVD-R/RW drives, ranges from $2,800 to $3,270. The HP Pavilion 9995 sells for $2,000. None of these prices includes a monitor.

Despite the bounty of DVD-recording PCs, there is at least one other issue out there: DVD-making technology still needs to be refined.

Stan Turkel, an electrical engineer and marketing manager in Pikeville, Md., recently bought a DVD-recording PC from Sony with a Pioneer drive.

"I have been working on transferring 20 years' (worth) of home movies to DVD, but the quality is lacking," he said. Even when making movies from a "Sony DVD 8mm camcorder and captured though the FireWire port...I say there is at least 30 percent quality lost."