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Author: D. Scott Salveson
Published: 20/12/01

Competing Formats Threaten Our Sanity

Author’s note: This is a significantly revised version of an article posted on Dec. 22, 2001.

With DVD recorder prices dipping below the $500 mark and expected to decrease steadily in the coming year, DVD is finally a viable option for convenient storage of up to 9.4 Gigs of data on a single (double-sided) disc.

This makes DVD storage attractive for a variety of tasks, from storing video to making convenient backups of entire partitions. You know you want one. But – which one? Differences between individual drives from competing manufacturers notwithstanding, there are currently four different types of drives available, offering differing degrees of compatibility and features. And if that’s not confusing enough, there are even more different types of DVD discs.

Which Format Suits Your Needs?

The four different types of DVD recordable drives for the PC fall into three major categories: DVD-RAM, DVD-R/-RW, and DVD+RW. Note that all are competing formats promoted by competing groups of manufacturers, not entirely unlike the Beta vs. VHS competition of the 1980s. All things considered, the major point of contention is whether you are willing to give up speed and some other significant features for the ability to play the discs you create in a wider range of drives and set-top video DVD players. And with multi-format (DVD-RAM/DVD-R) drives beginning to appear, it seems that no such compromise may be necessary – you will simply have to decide which if this combination of formats meets your needs better than the competing +RW format. Or perhaps more accurately, which format will not be abandoned in favor of another in the future.

 A Note on Standalone Video DVD-R Components

Many people interested in recordable DVD for their PCs will be wondering about compatibility with DVD hardware found in home entertainment systems. Successful playback of DVD-R discs is quite likely, with DVD-RW and DVD+RW discs following second and third. DVD-RAM video playback on a standalone DVD machine is possible on a limited selection of DVD video units (both players and standalone video recorders) manufactured by supporters of the DVD-RAM format on the PC.

But what about the other way around? Can you edit a disc made on a standalone DVD video recorder using your PCs DVD-RW drive? That’s a good question, as these same formats are duking it out in the home entertainment market, with different pieces of hardware offering broader support coming out constantly.

The only useful rules of thumb I was able to uncover in this area:

  1. If you want to produce discs with video content intended for playback in the broadest possible range of DVD players (both DVD Video and PC drives) -- choose a drive that will record to DVD-R write once media.
    This includes DVD-RW and some DVD-RAM drives, as well as the DVD-R only units. Drives supporting the “old” 3.95 Gigabyte DVD-R discs will produce the most compatible discs possible. Expect 90-95% of existing DVD video players and drives to read these discs successfully, with the older, first generation units dropping out when 4.7 Gig discs are used. Experience says don’t assume anything  – the Toshiba DVD player in my home theater system won’t even play a CD-R.
  1. If you are not planning to use the drive for video – just computer file storage – put DVD-R/-RW at the bottom of your list

Plus… Minus… Dash? RAM?

Industry spokesmen are quick to point out that while people pronounce D-V-D plus R-W out loud, DVD-RW is not to be pronounced D-V-D minus R-W. That’s a clever bit of marketing, I assume, by the DVD+RW Alliance, spinning an innocently silent hyphen into a potentially interpreted negative. Should you think that’s just a bit of coincidence, look at their site’s URL: www.dvdrw.com. Note the conspicuous absence of the word “plus.” (The “+” symbol is an illegal character in a URL. www.DVDplusRW.com (and .org) is an unofficial DVD+RW resource site.)

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