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The DVD+RW Drive Has Arrived but not without lots of squabbling among industry competitors.

Peter Jacso is associate professor of library and information science at the Department of information and Computer Sciences at the University of Hawaii. He won the 1998 Louis Shores--Oryx Press Award from ALA's Reference and User Services Association for his discerning database reviews. His e-mail address is

The latest episode of the DVD soap opera played out in early June when Hewlett-Packard and Sony announced that they had started shipping their version of a rewritable DVD device: the DVD+RW drive. You may recall that the DVD Forum agreed upon the DVD-RAM format in 1997.

As I previously reported in this column (Information Today, October 1998), I always felt that, among the alphabet soup of CD and DVD products, "RAM" was a particularly ill-chosen moniker that confused many. RAM has always been used to describe the volatile main memory that loses its content when you turn off your computer. And, until recently, it has never referred to the devices that can store data and programs permanently (like CD-ROM and DVD-ROM devices) or until you overwrite them, as with floppy and hard disks or the CD-ReWritable drive. Indeed, the much better name DVD-RW has been in existence for a few years, but I saw it only in print and on digital brochures, not as a label on existing drives.

The Honeymoon Period

Given the bickering about the DVD-Video and DVD-ROM standards--including the choice of its name--a few years ago between the Sony/Philips and Toshiba/Matsushita/Pioneer sides of the DVD Forum, it is not surprising that the DVD-RAM honeymoon was short-lived.

Panasonic, Hitachi, and third parties under their own labels--such as Creative Labs--came out with the 2.6-GB DVD-RAM drives last fall at a reasonable average street price of just below $500. Then they unveiled drives that handled the double-sided 5.2-GB capacity discs. Both the 2.6-GB and 5.2-GB models wrote DVD discs by the book that standardized the format.

The consumer market, for whom purchasing a rewritable drive is not an impulse buy, still held its collective breath--and its checkbook--after Sony/Philip's cliffhanger announcement late last year that they intended to develop their own DVD+RW format capable of storing 3 GB per side. Of course, the companies would also manufacture drives on which to play the new format. This announcement ended the honeymoon period and triggered the creation of the DVD+RW splinter group. Other members of the DVD Forum--Hewlett-Packard, Ricoh, Verbatim, and Yamaha--joined the DVD+RW group.

As in any good soap opera, this straying from the relationship was not watched passively by the jilted partner. DVD-RAM advocates tried to prevent the DVD+RW members from using "DVD" in naming their products; the carping started soon thereafter. Panasonic spread the word that RW technology has the tendency to accidentally erase data due to track jumping while writing. Meanwhile, DVD+RW proponents emphasized the higher capacity of their drives and the fact that, unlike other rewritable drives, DVD+RW drives don't require protective cartridges. The DVD-RAM group had the big advantage of being the first out of the gate, but the market was still somewhat timid. According to the Freeman Reports, less than 150,000 DVD-RAM units were sold in 1998, instead of the half million predicted earlier. Of course, this low sales volume also had a lot to do with the family feud that delayed every step in the process of bringing DVD-RAM to the market.

Meet the New Bride, er, Drive

Hewlett-Packard was the first to release a DVD+RW drive: the HP DYD Writer 3l00i internal drive. This is not surprising after HP's very successful entry into the optical drive market with the excellent CD Writer 7100 series, which came bundled with top-notch software packages at a very competitive price. It is not surprising either that HP again chose a name that promises less than it actually delivers: The DVD Writer 3100i not only writes but rewrites data. The DVD+RW, which holds 3 GB of data, can store 100 minutes of high-quality digital video and about 5 hours of CD-quality audio recording. Its data-transfer rate for writing is 1.7 MB/sec--about the equivalent of an 11x CD-ROM drive. It is faster than the current DVD-RAM drives, which have about 1.35 MB/sec transfer rates--roughly equivalent to a 9x CD-ROM drive. This speed difference is attributed to the fact that the HP drive uses Constant Angular Velocity (CAV) technology, as opposed to the Constant Linear Velocity (CLV) technology of the DVD-RAM driv es. Only comparative tests will tell if the CLV technology is less reliable than the CLV technology.

HP's DVD Writer 3100i will come bundled with Adaptec's Direct DVD at an estimated street price of $699; its media will cost around $30. This is significantly higher than the going price of the DVDRAM drives, including the ones handling double-sided 5.2-GB media. Creative Labs' PC-DYD RAM, for example, is available for $499. I think the decisive factor may be which one will better read other media, such as CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, CD Audio, DVD-ROM, and DVD-Video. For $699, Creative Labs bundles its Dxr3 decoder card and a five-pack of 5.2-GB capacity DVD-RAM media. That's a lot of bang for the buck. Sony will first launch its DVD+RW drive in Japan. Although its price is not yet set, the fight will certainly be on.

Irreconcilable Differences?

In the meantime, the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA) is working on ironing out seemingly irreconcilable differences between the rivals. Its aim is to ensure that discs created on DYD-RAM drives can be read on DVD+RW drives. Toshiba--a member of the DVD-RAM clique--does not plan to attend, but the other major DVD-RAM disciples and infidels will. OSTA could hammer out compromises earlier, such as the MultiRead standard, so it's quite possible that it will succeed this time for the benefit of all concerned. There are also plans for compliance tests, test discs, and software tools to let OEM manufacturers, resellers, and even end users try before they buy.

Incompatibilities and finger pointing quickly erode customers' confidence. DVD technology has been delayed by at least 2 years, partly due to the enormous confusion created by the rival groups. The DVD-Video market is getting onto its feet, but there is still a dearth of DVD-ROM products.

Hopefully, the next generation of DVDROM drives will also be able to read discs that are produced on either DVD-RAM or DVD+RW drives to ease the confusion. And what about Philips, Sony's original breakaway partner? In a move that may even have surprised Sony, the Dutch company announced plans to launch a stand-alone DVD recorder based on DVD+RW technology that not only can read existing DVD-Video discs, but also produce 4.7-GB discs that can be read on standard DVD-Video players sans PC. Such one-button real-time recording--as on a VCR--has been the Holy Grail in the DVD industry. The DVD Forum also has a workgroup for the real-time video recording format, which is based on DYDRAM technology. The script for the next episode is written, I fear.
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Author:Jacso, Peter
Publication:Information Today
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 1999
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