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They're at it again!

It's not exactly BetaMAX vs. VHS, but consumers are once again supposed to absorb the headaches and hassles caused by greedy manufacturers who have created proprietary formats in the vain hope of locking in a captive audience of customers.  They never learn. From a technical standpoint it's a draw, they each have pros and cons.  From a data standpoint, they both produce big blobby MPEG files and a kludgey disk menu data table. They both also embrace every possible flavor of sucky copyright protection known to Hollywood, leaving commercial DVD pirates unscathed, but making it impossible for the rest of us to enjoy any measure of fair use. But that's another story.

It's not really necessary or even likely that, either the "Plus" format, supported by the DVD +RW Alliance1 , or the "Dash" format, promoted by the DVD Forum2 , will win the format wars.  Much more likely is that we'll have something denser, cheaper, more reliable and just all around mo betta than either Plus or Dash in another few years.  Blue lasers and double density disks are just over the horizon, and these formats will likely be able to read most of the DVDs created by today's models.

The nitty gritty  

DVD, originally meant Digital Video Disk, but was transformed into the Digital Versatile Disk, once manufacturers began to introduce versions of the format that could be recorded on a home PC or dedicated DVD recorder3.  

Commercial movies are delivered in the basic DVD-Video format.  All DVD players can play DVD-Video disks.  Beyond that things get sticky. 

DVD media comes in two basic varieties: write once disks, that cost a buck or two and can only be recorded once (R), and re-writable (RW) disks that cost about twice as much, and work like a hard disk that can be recorded, erased and re-recorded many times.  

DVD-ROM was the original DVD standard and is a read-only format. Compressed video files, or game code is burned onto the DVD disk once and the DVD will run only on DVD-ROM drives, usually installed in computers. DVD-ROM isn't seen much anymore and was primarily used as a data/application storage device.

DVD -R and DVD -RW (collectively known as "Dash") was first to market, and captured the hearts and minds of millions almost immediately through the simple wonder of simply working.  Cheap, recordable disks that hold almost five gigabytes of data, music, or compressed video are a wonderful thing.  From the day that Apple started offering DVD Dash drives in many of its models, desktop video entered a new era.  Complicating matters for the Dash format is the fact that  DVD-R discs come in two flavors: DVD-R/A, for "authoring" (i.e. mass replication), and DVD-R/G, for "general" usage. You cannot record R/A disks on a R/G drive or vice versa.  In addition to Apple, Pioneer, Toshiba and Panasonic are promoting the Dash format.

DVD +R  and DVD +RW (together, known as "Plus") is mainly backed by Philips, HP and Dell.  Plus came to the market a little later than Dash, but has already caught up in terms of estimated total users. Plus seems to be on the offensive with respect to new features, and general 'tude. Another important factor is the preliminary selection of Plus for built-in support in Microsoft Windows.  Dell and HP together sell more computers than anyone else, so Dell's recent announcement that it would begin supplying DVD Plus drives in its new systems could also be an important sign of the format's ascent.

DVD -RAM  is the odd duck out in the format wars.  It was originally intended, or at least marketed as a data-oriented format, sort of a zip drive on steroids.  With the common availability of DVD recorders, it appears that DVD-RAM has made the crossover to video and is provided as a re-writable format on Panasonic DVD recorders.

Compatibility tests performed by Digital Video Magazine and other independent labs seem to agree that both -R and +R disks will play on 90+% of all DVD players.  The +RW and -RW re-writable formats appear to be somewhat less compatible and will play on about 70% of the DVD players tested.

So, which should I choose? 

Exhausting this subject could burn up a few thousand syllables, and our patience at the same time.  Suffice it to say that as of today there isn't an obvious right answer, or a wrong answer either.  Both formats seem to work pretty well, and you can "Finalize" your disks with most systems so that they can be played on almost any modern DVD player.  So you can burn a disk for Mum and be pretty confident that she'll be able to play it.  If you can afford to wait awhile, multi-format compatible drives, such as the Pioneer DVR-A06, that can read and write DVD +/- formats.

So, if you net out all the conflicting trendlines, I think the conclusion is that either format will probably work for most folks. The only valid technical advantage that I found in Plus over Dash, was the annoying extra complexity of the "A/G" sub-format in Dash. On balance I think that DVD Plus has the current edge in both features and momentum.  That's what I bought, but primarily because that's what came on the Philips DVD recorder with all the other features I wanted.

Update May 2004 - Dual Layer Formats

As if to reinforce their distain for the consumer, both the Plus and the Dash camps are in the process of delivering yet another set of "standard" formats for us to struggle with.  Recordable dual layer (DL) technology is upon us and once again, caveat emptor. Like its pre-recorded counterpart, DVD-9, DL allows the recording of 8.5 gigabytes of storage on a standard 12cm disk, enough for up to four hours of high quality video The Plus team is first out of the dock with DVD+R DL products due to arrive in the next few months.  Dash supporters need not despair however, as DVD-R DL recorders and disks have been promised for early 2005.  To add icing to this confusing cake, rumors of rewritable versions of both DL flavors are already in the wind.

This development may be good news for a minority with highly specialized needs, but for most of us it just means more headaches.  At this point the likelihood of the DL formats catching on seems slim, since the disks are expected to initially cost about $10 (US) each and given the past history of DVD formats, compatibility problems in existing players can be expected.  

Recent customer surveys and tests by the DVD Forum and OSTA have shown that serious compatibility problems still exist the current DVD standards.  So one might reasonably ask, why the industry can't take a breather and consolidate rather than throwing yet another set of competing standards out into the world?   



1  DVD +RW Alliance website (Plus): http://www.dvdrw.com/
2  DVD Forum website (Dash): www.dvdforum.org
3  General DVD Format Info: http://www.dvdirect.com/TSS/charts/DVDFormats.htm

There’s a lot of confusion about current DVD recording formats as well as what the next-generation DVD format will be. Understanding what’s going on will make it easier for you to decide which system to use today as well as what to look forward to in the future.

The DVD has replaced the VCR as the mainstay of the home theater, a device which is rapidly in the process of joining the 8-track tape deck and the Polyester leisure suit in the garages, attics, and basements of history. Originally, there were two different formats proposed for the traditional DVD, but the hue and cry from the press and public brought the industry to its senses and a compromise was made creating a single DVD standard.

Unfortunately, the lessons taught from the VHS vs. Betamax wars didn’t penetrate very far. Three different types of recordable DVD exist, and there is a storm brewing over the choice of the next-generation DVD format, a fight that has also broken down into two groups, each supporting their own system. It is almost certain that both formats will wind up on the shelves eventually.

Important note: This w/u does not deal with the intentional built-in incompatibility issue of regional DVD codes. The reason that the DVD you bought here and sent to your friend in another country doesn’t work in their player is because the system was set up to prevent people from shipping discs from one market to another (all complaints should be sent to the MPAA.)

Recordable DVD formats
While a pre-recorded DVD will play on every kind of DVD player, the discs coming out of some DVD recorders will not play back on every machine. The important thing to remember is that as long as you are making discs for yourself only, compatibility is not a factor since every machine can of course play discs it creates.

If you are making DVDs of your favorite TV shows so you can watch them with your Grandmother (fair use under copyright law), or are sending DVD copies of your home movies to family and friends, then your major concern is with the age of the machine they have. Older DVD players have a problem with recordable DVDs in general as the discs are not as reflective as pre-recorded DVDs, giving older machines that were not designed with the new formats in mind a harder time of it.

There are three main camps in the recordable DVD industry, and the two consumer-oriented systems have both a write-once and a re-writable version, each able to carry 4.7 gigabytes of data. Here is a breakdown:

  • DVD-R and DVD-RW: These are the write-once (DVD-R) and rewritable (DVD-RW) discs from what is referred to as the “Dash-R” group. (“Dash”, not “minus”.) The technology uses chemistry similar to that of CD-R, and once created, is playable in most new DVD players. DVD-R and DVD-RW discs must be prepared for playback in regular DVD players in a process called “finalizing”, which adds the proper header tags and file info so that a player can “see” the information recorded on the disc.
  • DVD+R and DVD+RW: These are also write-once (DVD+R) and rewritable (DVD+RW) discs, but they come from the “Plus-R” group. DVD+R discs use a dye technology similar to that of DVD-R, and can also be played back in most players. DVD+RW discs are based upon CD-RW technology, and have the same playback problems on older machines that DVD-RW does. These discs must also be “finalized” before they can be played in another machine.
  • DVD-RAM: Just stay away from this one completely, unless you are looking for a computer-oriented backup format, which is what this type of DVD was designed for. It has clocking, defect-management, and rapid-access features useful for data applications, but these features also make it incompatible with most non-computer DVD players.

Again, the important thing to remember is that there is no significant performance difference between the two major consumer formats of “Dash” and “Plus”. Both formats will play back in most DVD players, so you can burn a disc and send it to someone for playback without a worry. The biggest problem you will have with recordable DVD is remembering whether you need “Dash” or “Plus” blank discs when you are standing in front of the shelf in the store about to buy some, as you can only use the blank media designed for each format.

Next-Generation DVD
Sadly, the format wars aren’t going to end anytime soon, although more and more multi-format DVD players are becoming available. There is also a brouhaha brewing over the technology that will replace DVD in the next few years. The important thing to remember here is that whatever system comes out on top, it will be able to play your current DVD collection (go ahead and exhale, your movie library is safe.)

The two new formats both use new blue-laser technology (even though only one format has it in its name), but the difference lies in the degree that the different formats use it. A blue laser emits a shorter wavelength of light than the red laser currently used, so the pits in the disc can be made smaller and placed closer together, resulting in a significantly higher data density.

Here is how they differ:

  • Blu-ray technology squeezes all the potential currently available out of blue-laser technology, to the point where they had to create a new type of 0.1-mm thick protective layer, as the current layer was so thick (even thought it was still thinner than a millimeter) that it caused read errors. The new coating is not only thinner, it is also more scratch-resistant than current coatings. Blu-ray discs can hold up to 23 gigabytes of data on a single layer.
  • HD-DVD uses a blue laser, but relies more on data compression than Blu-ray. The pits on an HD-DVD are smaller and closer together than on a current DVD, but not so small that you can’t use current DVD manufacturing technology to make them, which is why the format is popular among some members of the industry. However, this transition ease for the manufacturer comes at a reduction in capacity – an HD DVD can “only” hold 15 gigabytes on a single-layer disc.

The sad fact is that the only reason HD-DVD has a following is because it is cheaper for a company to adopt. This is also the reason that VHS beat out Betamax, BTW. JVC (the inventor of VHS) almost gave away VHS licenses while Sony wanted a hefty fee, so everyone jumped on the VHS bandwagon.

Again, the important thing to remember is that whichever system you buy (they will almost certainly be sold side-by-side when they become commercially available), the new system will play your “old” DVDs. The biggest advantage to next-generation DVD will be in the amount of video that you can put on them, not the improvement in image quality (although there will be some) over what is currently available on DVD.

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