Recordable DVD Formats: Bad Alphabet Soup

With thousands of DVD recorders and DVD recordable computer drives set to be given as gifts this holiday season, one of the most confusing things has to be the multiple formats under which these devices operate. The five current major ones, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD-RAM, DVD+R and DVD+RW, may provide consumers greater choice but may also provide some confusion as well.

Designtechnica recently conducted an interview with Tony Jasionowski, a Panasonic executive who is involved in that company?s recordable DVD strategies. He also is involved in two industry wide organizations ? the Recordable DVD Council and RAM Promotion Group.

Jasionowski, while definitely in favor of promoting Panasonic?s viewpoints on the DVD recorder market, had quite a few interesting things to say about the current choices and issues facing consumers.

Panasonic, according to Jasionowski, was one of the founding members of the DVD Forum. This industry trade group established the original technical details behind the DVD format and helped to set the standards which are followed today.

When it came time for the DVD recordable standards to be set, things in the DVD Forum took a slightly different turn. DVD-R (write to once), DVD-RW (write to up to 1,000 times) and DVD-RAM (write to up to 100,000 times) were the initial formats the group came up with as a way to bridge the gap between computers and consumer electronics.

Philips, said Jasionowski, developed their own slightly different formats, which today are known as DVD+R and DVD+RW. They submitted them to the Forum for industry wide approval but were rejected. The rational was that with three formats already in place there was no need for any more so as to avoid marketplace confusion.

DVD+RW LogoThis rejection, and a Philips decision to form a rival trade group (DVD+RW Alliance) to promote their + formats, began the DVD recorder format wars.

?When products first came out,? said Jasionowski, ?they were for the most part single format. People quickly realized multi format is a requirement.?

The first to realize multi format needed to be the way were computer manufacturers. While initial drives supported either the three formats from the DVD Forum, the two formats from Philips or some combination, a growing number today support all five.

DVD RAM 120 Min

?In fact,? said Jasionowski, ?market research from companies like IDC predicts that dual drives will change to super multi (all five formats). We don?t want consumers to be confused?they shouldn?t have to be worried about which media to put into products.?

Unfortunately, he added, such is not the case in the current consumer DVD recorder market. Because of technical limitations in this category of device (like support of the different logical requirements of each recordable format) and lines drawn in the sand over which format(s) is best, no major brand set top DVD recorder or player currently exists which supports all five.

This begs the question then: which recordable DVD is the best for your needs?

DVD-R 120 Minute

It depends, said Jasionowski. DVD-R provides maximum compatibility across both set top units and computers. It is the oldest established format, with an estimated high 90s percentile of readability on any DVD player.

For maximum features and performance, Jasionowski recommends DVD-RAM, which is his company?s preferred format.

?It offers features like simultaneous recorded playback,? said Jasionowski. ?This is much like a hard drive used in a personal video recorder (Tivo). Maybe you recorded a television program earlier which you want to watch, but still want to record one playing now. You can do both at same time.?

Another feature he promoted on DVD-RAM was something called ?chasing playback?. In the example Jasionowski provided, you set your timer to record a hockey game which starts at 9:00. When you walk through door at 9:10 and want to watch the game from beginning, you can press the play button and the game will immediately start playing without interfering with the current recording.

DVD RAM 60 Minute

Also on the format advice block is how many times a DVD can be recorded to. ?/+R can only be written to once (which might actually be useful if you have something you wouldn?t ever want to accidentally erase), -/+RW can be written to an estimated 1,000 times and ?RAM can be written to 100,000.

Specific format advice aside, it all really boils down to these things: what the recordable DVD will most likely be used for and what types of devices you plan to play back your video on.

A survey the Panasonic executive shared revealed that regardless of the device platform, consumers looked to DVD recorders mainly as a way to archive their old video tapes which contained footage of things like a wedding.

Panasonic DMR-E100HS Progressive-Scan DVD Video Recorder with Built-in 120 GB Hard Disk and SD & PC Card Slots records to DVD-RAM and DVD-R discs
DMR-E100HS Progressive-Scan DVD Video Recorder with Built-in 120 GB Hard Disk and SD & PC Card Slots records to DVD-RAM and DVD-R discs

Playback wise, it is safe to assume most consumers will probably playback their recorded DVDs on the device they recorded them on. While this will save confusion initially, when it comes time to move the disc to another DVD playback device trouble may ensue.

As mentioned before, an increasing number of computers today are coming equipped with DVD drives which support all five formats. Stand alone DVD players, on the other hand, tend to follow the lines of the manufacturer?s industry alliances. Since this type of device is the one more likely to end up being the one you watch your wedding video on at a friend?s house, you may be out of luck unless you are using something like the widely supported DVD-R or DVD?RW formats.

The most likely choice then would be to have a recorder which can copy to, at a minimum, DVD-R or DVD-RW. While DVD+R and DVD+RW could effectively do the same things with slightly more efficiency and DVD-RAM is more superior on a technological level it again all boils down to playback support.

Jasionowski predicts eventually DVD recorders will usurp stand alone DVD players as the price point for the former continues to come down. As this happens, and provided manufacturers find a way to bridge their differences, recordable DVD format confusion will hopefully become a thing of the past.

Specific recordable DVD format notes (research based upon checks of current DVD player and recorder set top models from Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Samsung, Toshiba, Philips and Pioneer):

DVD-RAM: Most times to be rewritten to (approximately 100,000 times), supports extra Tivo like features, somewhat supported on stand alone recorders, not widely supported for playback on stand alone DVD players so difficult to share.

DVD-R: Most widely supported on all DVD playback and recordable stand alone devices, write to once (plus for permanent archiving, minus for not being reusable if permanent archiving is not needed).

DVD-RW: Second most widely supported on DVD playback and recordable stand alone devices, write to approximately 1,000 times, not easy to edit material copied to DVD.

DVD+R: Write to once (plus for permanent archiving, minus for not being reusable if permanent archiving is not needed), somewhat supported on non computer DVD playback and recordable stand alone devices.

DVD+RW: Write to approximately 1,000 times, somewhat supported on non computer DVD playback and recordable stand alone devices, editing of recorded material slightly easier then ?RW.

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