DVD Flavors

Good-bye, stretched tapes and dropouts hello, pristine digital images, generation after generation. With the right hardware and software you can simply burn an edited project to DVD with the click of a mouse. Sound like a dream? It’s not. The first affordable DVD recording devices are already in stores, in mail-order catalogs and on the Net. While first generation units were in the $5,000 range, today’s recorders list for under $1,000, with street prices below $800.

Unfortunately, there is more to DVD than meets the eye. When DVD manufacturers told us that the initials "DVD" stood for "digital versatile disc," they weren’t kidding. The recordable standards vying for your dollars are DVD-RAM, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R and DVD+RW. The good news is these are all very exciting technologies, some excelling at high capacity data storage and some offering convenient distribution. The bad news is they aren’t all compatible with each other, and most won’t play in the DVD player you have in your living room. Before you commit to a DVD format, you’d better know the difference. To help you understand these emerging formats, we’ve developed this handy guide to bring you up to speed on all of the issues.

DVD-Video

The standard that started it all was DVD-Video (and DVD-Audio, too), those discs you pop in your DVD Player to watch feature films and interactive productions. The standard supports a capacity extension up to 8.5GB per side, but this is not available at this time. DVD-Video is a playback-only format.

DVD standards (including DVD-Video) have been developed over the years by the DVD Forum (dvdforum.org), which is composed of over 220 companies including Hitachi, JVC, Matsushita, Mitsubishi, Philips, Pioneer, Sony, Thomson, Time Warner, IBM, Intel, NEC, Samsung, Sharp and Toshiba, among others. It’s a veritable who’s who of consumer electronics. When it came to DVD-Video, this broad consortium spoke with one voice, and an industry standard was born.

Somehow, that group unity on the playback-only standard fractured when the recordable DVD standards were finally developed.

DVD-RAM

DVD-RAM is a recordable and rewritable standard that the DVD Forum supports. The current second-generation discs store 4.7GB per side (for a total of 9.4GB), and cost as low as $20, although other sizes and capacities are available. DVD-RAM discs come in a plastic cartridge or housing that makes them physically incompatible with non-DVD-RAM drives and therefore can only be played back in DVD-RAM drives.

An interesting variation on DVD-RAM is the small 80mm (8-centimeter) disc. Those little discs hold 1.46GB per side and are used in the new MPEG-2 digital camcorders, such as the ones from Hitachi, and in some digital still cameras from Sony. With this feature, you can shoot and edit without the tedious step of capturing; assuming you had a DVD-RAM drive or hybrid DVD drive on your computer. (However, see the MPEG-2 Cams – Not the Ultimate sidebar for an important caveat.)

DVD-R and DVD-RW

DVD-R is a write-once format, fully supported by the DVD Forum. It is single-sided, has a top capacity of 4.7GB and is rapidly extending into the emerging DVD-RW format. Like DVD-R, DVD-RW (the format formerly known as DVD-R/W) is optimized for video, but can be written to numerous times. Clearly, this format is very significant to videographers. These formats strive to be analogous to the now standard CD-R and CD-RW formats. DVD-R discs are rapidly falling in price, approaching the $6 per disc range, while DVD-RW disc prices are also falling, but remain more expensive at about $16 per disc. The first DVD-R/DVD-RW drive, the Pioneer DVR-A03, is very reasonably priced. Expect to see a number of competitors and a corresponding drop in price soon. DVD-R and DVD-RW discs are designed to work with DVD-ROM drives as well as standalone DVD players, provided the disc is correctly formatted. There are, however, occasional compatibility problems mostly associated with older devices. These issues will disappear as the format matures. The DVD-R and DVD-RW format is good for creating standard DVD-Video formatted discs as well as long format data such as video files.

DVD+RW and DVD+R

DVD+RW is the rewritable standard that Sony, Philips and Hewlett-Packard originally developed to compete with DVD-RAM (confusingly, not with DVD-RW, although it is now a competitor of that format as well). Note the use of the plus sign (+) instead of the hyphen (-). Philips and Sony (both members of the DVD Forum) argue that their non-DVD Forum-sanctioned DVD+RW format is more compatible than DVD-RAM, largely because DVD+RW discs do not use a physically incompatible cartridge. They are right, but the compatibility argument was largely rendered mute by the DVD-RW format, which also uses no cartridge. At press time, we couldn’t find any DVD+RW discs for sale, but we expect the price to be competitive with DVD-RW. DVD+RW is designed for greater compatibility with existing stand-alone DVD-Video players, but this claim is impossible to test at this time.

The DVD+RW camp has also announced, a bit backwards chronologically perhaps, that it will support a DVD+R format that will allow write-once capabilities. The DVD+R and DVD+RW formats are theoretically good for creating standard DVD-Video formatted discs (although, at press time, there were no DVD+RW units on the market to be tested) as well as long format data such as video files.

RAM vs. RW

The RAM in DVD-RAM stands for random access memory. DVD-RAM discs read and write much the same way as your hard disks. This is an important aspect of this format and differs from the other read/write DVD formats (-RW and +RW), which are optimized for sequential recording. In other words, DVD-RAM is a data storage format that is perfectly happy scattering thousands of tiny files (and parts of files) here and there across the entire disc. This allows for faster access times and yields a more robust rewriting and erasing format. DVD-RW and DVD+RW, in contrast, do not offer random access in the same way, are not as robust as rewriters and are not designed to act like a hard disk. They are, however, optimized for long, sequential reads/writes and occasional rewrites of large chunks of data, which is exactly what videographers need.

Standards Shmandards

Do multiple standards guarantee trouble? Not really. The DVD Forum came up with a plan to prevent conflicts among DVD formats and assure compatibility between DVD products. They call it DVD Multi, a set of hardware specifications that enables disc and manufacturer compatibility for virtually all DVD Forum consumer electronics and personal computers formats. Look for a logo identifying DVD Multi products. The specification covers many formats including DVD-Video, DVD-ROM, DVD-Audio, DVD-RAM, DVD-R and DVD-RW.

You can measure these discs’ capacities in two ways. First, for finished productions, MPEG-2 DVD-Video can have a duration as long as two hours. MPEG-2 video is compressed, often resulting in compression artifacts, which can range from unnoticeable to debilitating, depending on the quality of the encoding. Compressed video is not suitable for editing, mastering or storage purposes. Second, capacity can be measured in terms of data storage and expressed in gigabytes. At S-VHS quality, each minute of video data might occupy 120MB of storage (although it could be much more). So, 4.7GB works out to almost 40 minutes of recording capacity, per side. DV data occupies roughly 216MB of space for a minute of video, or approximately 22 minutes per side, per DVD disc.

New hardware devices are hitting the market almost every day. The first DVD-R, DVD-RW drives, such as the Pioneer DVR-A03 or the Panasonic LF-D311, are widely available at less than $500. Also, watch for hybrid DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD-RAM combo drives (called DVD Multi) that can read and write the three DVD Forum formats. One model from Panasonic (LF-D311) sells for just under $500. This drive allows you to avoid much of the format war controversy, writing and rewriting to DVD-RAM for your personal use and writing DVD-R discs to play on your television. We are extremely excited about this technology and hope that is does not suffer from the compatibility problems that plagued the first CD-R drives.

The DVD+RW camp, on the other hand, is aggressively marketing recordable and rewritable DVD+RW drives. Other computer manufacturers, like Apple and Compaq, are shipping boxes with DVD-R drives built-in.

Early Adopters Only?

Is it time to move to DVD optical recording? For data purposes, permanently saving your video projects, media and all, has become a distinct possibility for the first time. And burning your productions to DVD for playback on standalone DVD players gives you a very high quality way to conveniently distribute your work. At $500 for a recorder and $6 per disc, DVD recording is at a very tempting price point for the home video enthusiast, although we certainly expect prices to fall over the next year. With the right purchase, you can enjoy recordable DVD products that will play on all your gear.

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