|NEW YORK (AP) - By year's end, consumers will be able to record their own DVDs at home - reaping the benefits of vastly more capacity and improved quality in digital images, sounds and video.
Yet, typically, manufacturers have been unable to unite on a singe standard for discs and players, which could cause considerable head-scratching this holiday shopping season.
Which to buy: DVD-RAM, DVD-RW or DVD+RW?
Read-only DVDs, or digital versatile discs, broke through as a consumer product last holiday season and analysts say the rewritable kind could easily be one of this year's hot items.
With one important caveat:
"Things are extremely confused with all the standards that we have," said analyst Tom Edwards at research group NPD Intellect.
This week's PC Expo trade show was a battleground for competing groups of electronics manufacturers.
Hitachi, Toshiba and Panasonic said they would ship stand-alone recorders in a few months that use DVD-RAM. Such drives have been available for computers since early 1999, but the group is now trying to move it into the consumer electronics arena.
By the end of the year, the recorders will cost $500 to $600, said Panasonic spokesman Andy Marken. By contrast, regular DVD players are expected to cost $100 by Thanksgiving time, Edwards said.
The DVD-RAM standard has large manufacturers and software developers behind it and the advantage of being first to market.
However, the discs produced by a DVD-RAM recorder can't be played in the DVD players that have been sold so far. They require "RAM-capable" DVD players, which a Hitachi spokesman promised would be on sale shortly.
DVD+RW, a format backed by Hewlett-Packard, Ricoh, Philips and Yamaha, doesn't have the same problem. The discs can be played in existing DVD players.
But there's a drawback: the stand-alone recorders are likely to be a bit more expensive, and the computer drives won't be out until next year.
Research group IDC Corp. estimates that 70 million DVD players and drives will be sold by year's end.
"The key will be video compatibility and backwards compatibility," said John Spofford of Hewlett-Packard.
Philips is bringing out a stand-alone recorder by the end of the year for about $1,000.
Users will be able to connect it to a cable or antenna to record TV signals, or plug video cameras into it. At full DVD quality, each disc will hold about two hours of footage, or 4 hours at a quality setting closer to VHS.
For a third alternative, there's DVD-RW, derisively called "DVD minus RW" by DVD+RW backers. DVD-RW was created by Pioneer. The recorders are already on sale in Japan, and Pioneer hopes to start selling them in the United States by the fourth quarter.
Pioneer executives said the first recorders would be geared towards home theater enthusiasts and would cost about $3,000.
The DVD-RW discs will be playable in Pioneer DVD players and some players from other manufacturers. The recorders will also be able to use write-once DVDs, which could be played on any DVD player.
It is likely that DVD-RW and DVD-RAM will be compatible in some way, since both formats are sanctioned by the DVD Forum, a standards association of 230 companies.
The most acrimonious fight seems to be brewing between the DVD Forum supporters and the DVD+RW manufacturers.
"As far as who is going to win, I couldn't tell you," said Edwards.
It's not impossible that more than one standard will coexist, Edwards said.
However, it's just as possible that the fight will shape up to be like the showdown between Betamax and VHS over VCR video tapes.
Hitachi demonstrated a video camera that records on smaller DVD-RAMs which for now can't be played back on anything but DVD-RAM capable players.
"When it gets to that point, and the customer comes home and puts the disc in the DVD player, and it doesn't work, there's going to be a problem," said Edwards.