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Sorting out the DVD mess

Consumers are excited about the possibilities of re-recordable DVD technology because it could become a "digital VCR." Not so fast, say manufacturers.

LAS VEGAS--People attending Comdex here are getting excited about re-recordable DVD technology because of its potential to become the equivalent of a digital VCR, able to record information and video programming for high-quality playback.

They are drawn to displays of new products by Toshiba, Sony, Pioneer, and others showing video recording on a DVD drive. But don't get too excited yet: The new drives are still too expensive to find their way into mainstream markets, with pricing on recordable DVD drives ranging from $800 to upwards of $17,000 for professional systems.

"We're a long way from consumers doing MPEG-2 recording," says Tom Expected to settle on using a re-recordable technology called DVD-RAM by midsummer 1997, the industry has instead splintered into camps of incompatible formats. McGoldrick, manager of Applications Engineering with Toshiba, referring to the industry standard for compression of large amounts of video information into a manageable, high-quality format. "These drives will mostly be used to store information."

Aside from issues of price--which will inevitably drop as the technology develops--the industry is facing a bit of a public relations mess as confusion over DVD standards grows.

At one point, the industry expected to settle on using a re-recordable technology called DVD-RAM by mid-summer of this year, but it has instead splintered into camps of several incompatible formats, though the DVD-ROM standard has not been affected.

"Everyone is cooking up something different. There are a lot of people going off on their own tracks," said Sean Stead, a senior marketing manager for optical recording products with Toshiba. "It's unfortunate that it's a little confusing," he said, careful to stress that there is a stable standard for the basic technology.

The dispute appears to center around ways to make the recordable DVD drives compatible with the DVD-ROM drives, in terms of how the information is read and stored by the drives and how the discs themselves are used.

Toshiba's new SD-W1001 and W1002 DVD-RAM drives are being targeted at users who store and transport large amounts of data, such as software developers. But the discs, stored in cartridges (or "caddies") which look like a large floppy disk with a movable metal "door," are quite sensitive to contamination. Users can re-record after taking the disc out of the case, according to Stead, but all it takes is a fingerprint to prevent any more data from being recorded on the disc.

Those who have broken away from the DVD-RAM standard see that as a deterrent to widespread consumer adoption.

"DVD-RAM has to be in a cartridge to record. That's a problem in desktop applications that you have to have drives that can deal with that [cartridge]," according to Andy Parsons, vice president of product development with Pioneer New Media Technologies, a business unit within Pioneer.

For drive makers, the problem is that current DVD drives can't accept the cartridges, nor can they read the discs themselves, though manufacturers expect with the DVD-RAM standard settled, newer drives will not have this problem.

Pioneer says a new format it has proposed, called DVD-R/W, can be read by the older drives. "We're not trying to say DVD-RAM isn't good," Parsons cautioned. But clearly he thinks there's a better way to record information.

So do Sony, Philips, Hewlett-Packard, and others, all of which will demonstrate their technologies at a press conference today. Sony's recordable DVD drives can store up to 3.0GB of data per side, slightly higher than the 2.6GB-per-side capacity offered by DVD-RAM, while Pioneer says that its technology will store 3.95GB of data.

Sony, Philips, and HP were the first to DVD-ROM has a ways to go too. Games designed for DVD-ROM number less than five, and only a small number of CD-ROM gaming and other content titles have been re-released. break ranks on DVD-RAM, saying a non-compatible standard called Phase-Change ReWriteable, or DVD+RW, was a better way to go because consumers wouldn't need to fiddle with a caddy for recording.

But what Sony is showing at Comdex is a drive that uses a tray to hold the disc for recording, negating one of the supposed advantages of the drive.

According to Sony, the company is still debating whether to debut a "caddyless" drive. The first products, expected to be commercially available in the spring of next year, will likely use the caddy design while later versions will allow users to put a disc directly in a tray.

Re-recordable DVD is expected to find its earliest uses on the PC, but that could be some time. In the interim, even the more settled DVD-ROM has a ways to go. Non-movie DVD-ROM titles have been extremely slow in coming, for instance. Games designed for DVD-ROM number less than five, according to Dataquest, and only a small number of CD-ROM gaming and other content titles have been re-released on the more compact new discs.  

Go to: Comdex special report schedule