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DVD-RAM for the Rest of Us.

These drives are affordable, multifaceted, and have very large capacity

It's always a sign of maturity and market viability when a storage device becomes part of a computer's standard configuration. And if that model comes from a big-name manufacturer, all the better. So when I first spotted an advertisement for the newest member of the Apple Power Macintosh family, I knew it was time to write about DVD-RAM drives again. The Power Mac G4/450 comes out of the box with a Panasonic DVD-RAM drive. But if you can't afford a G4, the new second-generation DVD-RAM drives from well-known manufacturers are now available for as low as $260.

The Promise

At first, most of us were very happy being able to record 100 MB on a single medium--that was the first-generation Zip drive. The subsequent 200-MB SyQuest cartridges, the 250-MB Zip cartridges, and the 650-MB CD-R discs were but stops on the route to storage heaven. CD-RW cartridges, which after formatting chopped off an unusually large portion of the 650-MB gross capacity, compensated for this brutal loss by offering rewrite capability. The single-sided, 2.6-GB DVD-RAM cartridges promised a very big leap in capacity, only to be overshadowed by their dual-sided brethren. I was and still am baffled by the DVD-RAM's use of "RAM"--the acronym for "random access memory," which has always been used exclusively for the volatile main memory of computers. But the DVD-RAM specifications were promising, and I knew that so many DVD gurus couldn't be wrong.

The promise of DVD-RAM was made more feasible when the major manufacturers in the DVD Forum agreed on a standardized format before it was actually manufactured. Although some members of the original DVD Forum couldn't resist deviating, luckily it wasn't a major roadblock. First Hewlett-Packard, Philips, Sony, and Yamaha decided to abandon their commitment to the DVD-RAM format in favor of the 3-GB DVD+RW format. Pioneer decided to pursue its own DVD-RW format, while NEC went alone with its own MMVF (MultiMedia Video File) specification.

Don't even bother with the various other acronyms, they may not be worth remembering. Why? Because Hewlett-Packard announced at the end of last year that it had suspended its DVD+RW developments until the market is more favorable. Sony is of a similar opinion, so Philips may not be lagging far behind with shelving its DVD+ RW development. Pioneer may still be working on its DVD-RW drive but we've yet to see it, nor has NEC shown its MMVF format. This left the door wide open for Panasonic, Toshiba, and Hitachi to release their second-generation DVD-RAM drives. Ricoh also jumped on the DVD-RAM bandwagon, having abandoned the DVD-RW clique.

The Reality

The beauty of the DVD-RAM drives--beyond their great capacity--is their ability to read CD-Audio, CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, and DVD-ROM discs. They can also handle the increasingly popular DVD-Video discs, assuming that you have a software or hardware decoder for the MPEG-2 video format. If you have a software decoder (which costs around $50) for your DVD-RAM drive, you should have at least a 300-MHz processor-but even that may not do justice to the DVD movie you just rented.

Needless to say, the DVD-RAM drive is extremely convenient as a single device because it takes on the roles of the other drives, thereby decreasing the clutter in your office. However, I'd still keep my CDRW drive for two reasons. One is that it can read all the formats listed above that start with "CD." The other reason is that CDRW drives can also use the least-expensive CD-R media, if that's all you need.

Unfortunately, DVD-RAM drives write only to the more expensive DVD-RAM cartridges. And with a few exceptions, DVD-RAM media can only be read on DVD-RAM drives. This is changing however as the DVD-RAM manufacturers--especially Panasonic--have already begun using a new microchip in the latest models of their DVD-ROM drives, making them able to read DVD-ROM discs created on a DVD-RAM drive. The growing popularity of DVD-ROM, as well as new consumers, will ensure that DVD-RAM is not just a passing fad.

The Price

This is the best news. We're now in the second generation of DVD-RAM drives; when the first generation debuted, the price was $700-$800. For example, the Panasonic LF-D101 was listed at $799. The new and faster LF-D103U lists for $699. True, this is an internal drive--which always costs $80-$100 less than the external drives--but the typical price you'll find on the Web is below $500. This is still not cheap enough to be an impulse buy, but there are high-quality drives based on the Panasonic model available for under $300, such as the PC DVD-RAM model from my perennial favorite, Creative Labs. The Toshiba SD-Will drive is also available from a few vendors for less than $300.

As always, you must know what is included in the package. If it's not already bundled, you must buy a SCSI card that all these drives use. The SCSI card alone may set you back $60-$80--the formatting software an additional $50. Some vendors also include a single cartridge, others may include two, or one double-sided cartridge, and these can add up, so shop around and buy smartly. Some vendors may charge above the list price, like Shopping Planet, which charges over $600 for the Creative Labs model (with SCSI card) that is available for around $270 (without the SCSI card) at a few reputable dealers.

There are now several DVD-RAM drive models readily available on the market. Panasonic seems to be the leader as its drives are the basis for the La Cie, Hi-Val, and Creative Lab models. Hi-Val also makes models based on the Toshiba drive. Pinnacle Micro's Pinnacle Flex and QPS' Que! models are built with the Hitachi drive. This might change overnight, so it's smart to look for current reviews and find out exactly which brand and model is behind the label of a third party's drive (although vendors are often reluctant to dispense this information).

As for the DVD-RAM cartridges, the list price may seem to be a little steep at $25 for the 2.6-GB cartridge, and about $40 for the double-sided 5.2-GB cartridge. The good news is that I saw prices for the single- and double-sided cartridges for as low as $15 (the Maxell brand at IC Direct) and less than $30 (the TDK brand in many shops), respectively.

Prices may get even lower in the next few months, as the third-generation models are being readied. These will feature 4.7-MB capacity on a single-sided cartridge. Yes, that's exactly the DVD-ROM capacity, so if you have the video-recording hardware and software you may be able to make a DVD-Video just like the studios (at least in terms of run time). If you don't have Hollywood aspirations, the DVD-RAM drives will still represent an excellent alternative for very-large-capacity storage at affordable prices.

Peter Jacso is associate professor of library and information science at the University of Hawaii's Department of Information and Computer Sciences, and a columnist for Information Today.
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Author:Jacso, Peter
Publication:Information Today
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2000
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