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DVD Format War
By John C. Dvorak - Forbes

Anarchy has reigned over DVD optical storage. Battling formats and technologies are confusing the marketplace. Recently a witches' brew of a specification called DVD Multi has emerged as a way to end the feuding and halt customer confusion. Let's hope it works.

Why is this important now? As anyone with a computer knows, the floppy disk has been supplanted by the CD-ROM as the way to load programs. To save large amounts of data most people now use CD-R, the drive that allows you to write--or "burn"--your own CD.

The drawback to CD-R is that it cannot be erased like a hard disk or floppy. The newer CD-RW changes that. Now everyone can have an optical drive in the form of a CD-RW for less than $200. Too bad this took so long, since the CD-ROM, no matter how fast or fancy, holds only 650 to 700 megabytes in an era when a desktop computer can often have a 30-gigabyte hard disk.

We all have more stuff to save than the 650 megabyte drive can handle. Enter the DVD and its offspring, the DVD-RAM, the DVD-R/W and the DVD-R. These and other DVD formats should have supplanted the CD-ROM by now, but have failed due to simple incompatibility.

Here is the current breakdown of DVD technologies:

DVD Video: Used for movies. Total capacity is 17 gigabytes if two layers on both sides of the disk are utilized, but typically only one layer of one side is used, which amounts to 4.7 gigabytes, or about one movie.

DVD-ROM: The same basic technology as DVD Video, with computer-friendly file formats. Used to store data. Should supplant CD-ROM soon.

DVD-R: Developed separately by Panasonic, Hitachi, Pioneer and Philips, this technology has standardized at 4.7 gigabytes. Fully compatible drives should ship by year-end at around $1,500 to $2,000 each. As with CD-R, the user can write only once to the disc. This is the format that was expected to be used to copy movies from DVD to DVD.

DVD-RAM: Developed by Hitachi, Toshiba and Panasonic, this makes a DVD act like a hard disk with a random read-write access. Aopen (Acer), JVC, LG, Samsung and Teac have joined this team. Products should be out by year-end. No prices have been announced. This was initially a 2.6-gigabyte drive but it, too, became a 4.7-gigabyte-per-side disc. DVD-RW: Similar to DVD-RAM except that the technology mimics CD-RW and uses a sequential read-write access more like a phonograph than a hard disk. Developed by Pioneer. Ricoh and, possibly, Sony are expected to join forces. Has a read-write capacity of 4.7 gigabytes per side.

DVD+RW: A technology developed by Philips and Sony, initially designed to deliver 3 gigabytes per side, is expected to increase to 4.7 gigabytes. Sony seems to have lost interest in it while Philips announced plans to ship the device someday. No one else is taking it seriously.

DVD Audio: New audio format introduced by Panasonic that arguably doubles the fidelity of a standard CD. Should eventually replace the CD recording. Sony has gone its own way with SuperCD.

HDVD: Developed by Sony and others to present high-definition TV signals from a special DVD. Nobody expects to see this for at least two years. It won't be included in any DVD Multi specification.

The DVD Forum, a consortium of DVD technology companies, recognizes that the format chaos is costing them a bundle. Consumers are not going to invest time and money on a medium that risks being orphaned a year later. And so DVD Multi aims to deliver a truce that will draw consumers back to the retail counter.

While DVD Multi doesn't make everyone adopt the same standard, it does intend for a DVD multiplayer/recorder to be able to read and write mu ltiple formats. This kind of thinking years ago would have resulted in a VCR that played both VHS and Beta. It's a fine idea that should make everyone happy--at a price. A multiplayer will require more components and redundant mechanisms such as multiple heads.

Computer and consumer (as in home theater) DVD drives using the trademarked DVD Multi logo will be required to read DVD-Video, -ROM, -Audio, -RAM, -RW and -R discs as well as standard CD-ROM and CD audio discs. In addition, the computer drive must be able to write on DVD-RAM, DVD-RW and DVD-R discs. If this device comes to market at a reasonable price, it's what you should buy.




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