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In Medias Res
Posted Aug 8, 2003 Print Version     « previous Page 2of 3 next »

The Juggernauts
An Alliance and a Forum stand at odds in the format wars. While both organizations' respective missions focus on furthering recordable DVD technology, they don't agree on how to accomplish it.

Created in 2001, the DVD+RW Alliance ( supports the DVD+R and DVD+RW specifications. It represents an international cadre of companies known in many cases for their CD-R/ RW acumen, including Hewlett-Packard Company, MCC/Verbatim, Philips Electronics, Ricoh Company Ltd., Sony Corporation, Yamaha Corporation, Thomson multimedia, and Dell. The DVD Forum (, established in April 1997, has a member list about 230 strong, as well as over half of the Alliance's roster. The Forum has approved the DVD-R, DVD-RW, and DVD-RAM specifications, but not DVD+R/RW.

A major issue in the DVD format wars is that of compatibility: which drives will write to what discs, and which discs will play in which DVD-Video players, DVD-ROM drives, and DVD recording devices. Since DVD format specifications have been finalized at various times since the beginning of DVD recording and playback, manufacturers of drives, players, and writers have had trouble completely eliminating compatibility issues, especially with legacy drives and players. Testing and ensuring compatibility has proven a labor-intensive process, requiring testing of each media format and brand, as written in each brand of drive, with new playback devices. Combine that with the multitudes of drives and players being manufactured by many different companies, some of which support one format over the other, and problems inevitably arise. Which format truly is the most compatible with the largest number of drives and players already on the market?

Because of the process involved in recording data, write-once DVDs tend to prove compatible in a wider range of DVD playback devices than the rewritable formats. Phase-change technology simply cannot create the same level of reflectivity as the burning of dye. DVD-R and DVD+R reach a reflectivity of between 45 and 85 percent, while the rewritable formats write in the 18 to 30 percent region. A lower reflectivity means that drives must be that much more exact and compatible with the disc that they are trying to read.

In addition to its fast random access, which makes it well-suited to data storage and retrieval tasks, DVD-RAM has found more success in writing discs for storage than in distribution because of tremendous limitations on read-compatibility of DVD-RAM media. Robotic storage libraries offering terabyte-level capacity from Asaca, Plasmon, and PowerFile have all been well-served by DVD-RAM. But more distribution-oriented purposes have not. One of the early ironies of DVD-RAM was that even its prime movers—Panasonic, Toshiba, and Hitachi—couldn't afford to market DVD-RAM-compatible DVD-ROM drives or DVD players because of the complex optics required and manufacturing costs that would price their players out of the market.

Just because DVD-R and DVD+R have a higher reflectivity that makes them more compatible doesn't mean that they are universally compatible. To date, no comprehensive list of what reads what has been compiled. The DVD+RW Alliance claims that their format is compatible with most DVD players and drives, but hedges by stating on their Web site, "there are some DVD-Players and DVD-ROM drives in the market today, especially older units, that are not capable of reading DVD+RW discs." In an attempt to resolve some of these issues, the DVD Forum released a set of hardware specifications entitled DVD Multi. This standard is intended to solve many of the compatibility questions between DVD-R, DVD-RW, and DVD-RAM by making read drives visually identifiable by their adherence to a multiformat readability standard as MultiRead (denoting CD-R and CD-RW compatibility) did for CD formats. John Spofford, chairman of the DVD+RW Alliance and an HP vice president, points out that while the standard may resolve issues for newly purchased drives, "it doesn't preserve the investment that consumers have made in DVD drives that they bought before the spec came out."

Per-disc Cost
Go ahead, try to find a source of DVD media pricing that allows you to directly compare the different formats, and we'll guarantee you super-searcher status in the EContent magazine pantheon. (Based on our failure to do so, we've been denied again.) Some Web sites include some brands in one-packs and five-packs and spindles of 25 or 50. Some of the discs are inkjet-printable, others thermal, others aren't at all. Even the same media in the same package can be priced differently depending on the site. And when you step outside the realm of the most prominent brands, such as Pioneer, Verbatim, Mitsui, Maxell, TDK, and Memorex, where the prices drop through the floor and simply by inference take consumer confidence with them—as the poets say, forget about it.

A general, fairly identifiable trend between the sites is that DVD-R (General Use) media tends to be the least expensive, between $3-$5 per brand-name disc. The two plus formats, DVD+R and DVD+RW, each cost between $6-$8. Next comes DVD-RW at around $10, followed by DVD-RAM at $12 for a 4.7GB disc and $15 for 5.2GB. Authoring DVD-R media is the most expensive per disc, averaging about $15 per disc. These are not exact prices and do not reflect the myriad pricing options available on the Web, where readers will likely be doing most of their searching.

In 1997, Pioneer released the first specifications for the write-once DVD-R (3.95GB) and began selling both media and drives based on this standard. Pioneer furthered their development of DVD-R with the introduction of specifications for a 4.7GB version of the media, described in Book version 1.9. This standard brought into discussion issues of copyright protection eventually leading to the two breeds of DVD-R on the market today: General Use and Authoring. Both specifications were released in the first half of 2000, although the Authoring spec represented only a slight modification of the first 4.7GB DVD-Rs. The new Authoring discs added access to the Cutting Master format designed to make the discs usable as mastering sources for replication plants (previously, digital linear tape had been the universal mastering source of choice). The first General Use DVD-Rs hit the market in early 2001, simultaneously with the release of the drive built to write them, Pioneer's DVR-A03. The A03 (since succeeded by the A04), offered DVD recording at a significantly reduced price—debuting at $1000, it's now widely available at $500, considerably less than the $5000 Authoring drive—and also offered DVD-RW and CD-R/RW writing/rewriting.

Pioneer continues to support the DVD-R format, introducing such adaptations as the double-sided 9.4GB DVD-R media. This media, while General Use in name, is designed for use in storage jukeboxes, such as Pioneer's DRM-7000. Apple has joined Pioneer in publicly supporting the DVD-R format. Their interest in the fate of the DVD format battle has risen since the introduction of the SuperDrive, a combination CD-RW/ DVD-R/RW available with high-end G4s since early 2001 and now in a range of models, including the latest iMac DVs and high-end PowerBooks. (Apple had previously shipped iMac DVs with DVD-RAM, but quickly abandoned the format after the A03 came out.) DVD-R recording is also widely available in drives based on Matsushita's LF-D311V (marketed by Panasonic as the "DVDburner"), which combines DVD-RAM and General Use DVD-R, but lacks the CD-R/RW writing capability of the A03.

Out of the five formats, DVD-R is the most inexpensive, with street prices as low as $2 per disc in quantity. Because of its cost-efficiency, 100-year data life, constant data stream, and broad compatibility, DVD-R offers users an effective solution to long-term data storage and the creation of digital media discs that can be viewed both in the office and on the couch. DVD-R discs are now widely available from such manufacturers as Pioneer, Mitsui, Maxell, Verbatim, Memorex, TDK, and Ritek.

Introduced in May 2001, which makes it the newest writable DVD format on the market, DVD+R adds write-once capabilities to the DVD+RW format. Verbatim became the first company to offer blank DVD+R media during the first quarter of 2002. Shortly after this, Hewlett-Packard Company, Philips Electronics, Mitsubishi Chemical/Verbatim, Ricoh, and Sony introduced a variety of new DVD+RW/+R writers and drives.

The DVD+R format, writable in second-generation DVD+RW drives from HP, Sony, Philips, Ricoh, and others, offers many of the same benefits and functionality as DVD-R. It's a write-once, widely compatible, 2.4X write speed, 100-year datalife method of archiving data and digital media. Included in the spec is the ability to store data in two different modes, CAV and CLV, although this feature has yet to be incorporated into an existing drive. The two methods allow DVD+R to act as a hard disk for data storage or provide the constant data stream necessary for high-quality streaming video. This dual function comes with a heftier price tag, averaging around $10 per disc. The format offers more versatility, but cannot match the cost-effectiveness of DVD-R in today's market. A broader installed base of DVD+R-capable writers, wider implementation of the format, more media manufacturers, and (most importantly) greater disc manufacturing volume should bring DVD+R media costs down in the future.

Pioneer developed and published version 1.0 of the DVD-RW specifications in November 1999, revising it with version 1.1 released in September 2000. A supplemental information addendum was added later that same year to create today's DVD-RW standard.

Along with Pioneer, companies such as Compaq, Sony, and JVC are at work to further the DVD-RW format. JVC announced that they were entering the DVD-RW market in the beginning of 2001. They have created a new "U-shaped groove" manufacturing process to create blank DVD-RW media, instead of using the typical "V"-shaped groove method. They claim that their manufacturing technique allows for superior data retention with low data errors.

Phase-change technology allows users to write data onto a DVD-RW disc up to 1,000 times. This rewritability, along with its constant datastream and 100-year datalife, make DVD-RW ideal for such applications as personal video recorders, videotape replacements, and other applications where digital video needs to be rewritten many times over. A particular advantage that it has over media, such as videotapes, is life expectancy; VHS tapes only last between 15 and 20 years. Pioneer expects this format to be particularly popular as used with their set-top DVD recorders, where aligning with the rewritable VHS paradigm is paramount. Before DVD-RW can truly replace analog tapes, its price, usually around $10 per disc, needs to drop. One disadvantage to this format is its write speed, 1X, the slowest of the formats.

June 2000 witnessed the birth of the DVD+RW format as introduced by the founding members of the DVD+RW Alliance. Prototype drives were demonstrated during that fall at COMDEX. HP released the first consumer DVD+RW drive in October 2001, and in the last year, a number of companies have added their support to the DVD+RW Alliance, including Fujifilm, Hitachi Maxell, TDK Corporation, Ritek Corporation, CMC Magnetics Corporation, and SANYO Electric Co., Ltd. Semiconductor Company. A boost came to the format in the form of Microsoft's intention to incorporate DVD+RW directly into the Windows OS. This announcement doesn't guarantee a victory for the DVD+RW camp; Microsoft threw its support behind DVD-RAM early on to no avail. But it does add to consumer confidence and assures a high level of compatibility with the Windows OS.

During the first quarter of 2002, the DVD+RW Alliance announced the availability of the final Mount Rainier specification for writable DVD media. Building on the successful implementation in CD-RW systems, the specification is ready for incorporation into DVD+R/+RW drives and the PC operating system. The specification is designed to increase compatibility and interchangeability by providing familiar "drag-and-drop" functionality.

DVD+RW allows users the option of having a rewritable storage medium that can act as either a hard drive or provide streaming digital video, depending on their needs. In a practical sense, it combines the abilities of DVD-RW (1,000 rewrites) and DVD+R (CAV or CLV). Price again plays a part in this format, with discs running between $6 to $8 per unit. DVD+RW write speeds match that of DVD+R, 2.4X, more than doubling the speed of DVD-RW.

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