BOOT CAMP 256 (17/12/02)




In the final instalment of our guide to recordable optical disc we leave behind the relative sanity and clarity of CD-R and CD-RW and enter the nightmare world of DVD…


It began innocently enough in the early 1990s when several major consumer electronic companies started work on optical video disc storage systems as an eventual replacement for VHS. At one point there were more than half a dozen rival formats but by 1994 two systems emerged as the front-runners, High Density CD (HDCD) from Sony and Philips and Super Density CD (SDCD) from Toshiba and Time Warner. In 1995 the two formats united to become the Digital Video Disc, though this was swiftly changed to Digital Versatile Disc following pressure from the computer industry, keen to exploit DVD’s potential for data storage and software distribution.


DVD Video has gone on to become a rip-roaring success as a carrier for movies, thanks to a combination of better picture quality, multi-channel surround sound, rapid scene access, interactive features and bonus material. Meanwhile development of a recordable version of DVD continued, and this is where anyone trying to get to grips with the technology usually starts to glaze over…


In 1997 the DVD Forum agreed the specification for DVD-R and DVD-RAM, the record once, and rewritable variants, which are broadly similar in the way they work to CD-R and CD-RW (data on DVD-RAM discs can selectively erased, so they work like gigantic floppies). However, early DVD-RAM discs were fragile and had to be contained within a protective ‘caddy’, which ruled against them being used in homedeck video players. 


The first computer DVD-RAM drives appeared in 1998, meanwhile several companies were working on ‘cross platform’ DVD formats suitable for both data storage and movies. The first to emerge was DVD-RW from Pioneer in 1999. This is an extension of DVD-R/RAM and has done reasonably well in the PC market but had limited success as a video recording format due to lack of industry support. Next came Philips/Sony with the maverick DVD+R/RW format in 2000; although not officially endorsed by the DVD Forum it has started to gain a foothold for video recording thanks to aggressive marketing by Philips. Late last year DVD-RAM resurfaced as a home video format using record-once DVD-R and more robust DVD-RAM discs that could be removed from their caddies and played on compatible homedeck video players, though to date only a very small handful of players have this facility. Panasonic and Hitachi are currently marketing a range of homedeck video recorders and DVD-R/RAM camcorders (the latter using miniature 8cm discs).


There are major compatibility problems with all three formats and there’s a very good chance that a disc created on one homedeck video recorder or PC will refuse to play in another. The whole thing is a complete mess but there is a gleam of hope in the shape of a new generation of universal DVD PC drives, video players and recorders, going under the banner ‘DVD-Multi’, that play all flavours of pre-recorded and recordable DVD media.


That brings us more or less up to date but next year a new even higher capacity optical disc format, called Blu-Ray, is due to be launched by a consortium of home entertainment and computer companies. Blue lasers have a much shorter wavelength than conventional CD/DVD lasers, which allows even more data to be crammed onto a disc, upwards of 27 gigabytes, compared with the 650Mb of CD and 4.37Gb of DVD. Now it appears there’s dissention amongst the Blu-Ray backers and a very good chance of a split with yet another format war in prospect.


So where does all that leave recordable DVD in the context of home computers? DVD-ROMs are still quite rare for commercial software, very few applications require that much space, but many new PCs are now fitted with DVD-ROM/CD-RW drives and with suitable software can play DVD videos and this is a popular option on laptop PCs.


DVD writers or ‘burners’ have recently begun to drop in price and the cheapest models now sell for less than £200. So far most are of the DVD-R/RW variety but Panasonic drives can also read and write DVD-RAM discs. The first DVD Multi drives have also begun to appear and prices do not appear to be significantly higher than existing DVD burners. Format issues aside the big advantage of recordable DVD over CD-R/RW is storage capacity, which makes it an attractive proposition for data backup and archiving and the programs bundled with DVD burners works in almost exactly the same way as CD-R/RW software. At the moment relatively few PCs have DVD-ROM drives so it is limited as means of transporting large volumes of data.


The biggest success story for recordable DVD though, is for ‘authoring’ DVD videos. With a fast enough PC and the right software packages it’s possible to create slick, professional looking productions from camcorder footage, with interactive menus and chapter selection screens. In theory discs should be playable on DVD homedecks but compatibility remains a problem. We’ll probably wonder what all the fuss was about in a few years but for the moment at least it’s best to regard recordable DVD as a work in progress and unless you have a very specific need for a DVD burner, that can’t be met by recordable CD, it may be wise to wait for the dust to settle.


Next week – Giving your PC a health check






Plastic case containing a recordable disc, protecting it from physical damage and surface contamination (greasy finger marks etc.)



Industry body responsible for developing and policing technical standards



Random Access Memory, the facility to read and write data rapidly from any part of a storage medium, whether it’s an optical or magnetic disc, or a solid-state memory device.



DVD-ROM drives and burners are almost identical in construction to their CD-ROM cousins and most drives will benefit from a regular run-through with a good quality CD/DVD cleaner kit. Once every two or three months is usually enough but it may be worth doing more often if the PC is kept in a dusty or smoky atmosphere. Recordable DVDs are also very similar to their CD counterparts and most rewritable types can endure a minimum of 1000 read/write cycles. They are also physically quite robust but you should avoid handling them as much as possible, and they should always be stored in their protective cases, away from extremes of heat and cold, humidity and very bright light.


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