Bye-Bye, VCR: New DVD-RAM Format Challenges Tape

SAN FRANCISCO (07/26/2000) - Get ready to say farewell to good old VHS videotape. A new generation of 4.7GB DVD-RAM products--offering nearly twice the capacity of older 2.6GB DVD-RAM--can hold a 2-hour movie, store it in nondegrading digital format, and overwrite it up to 100,000 times without loss of quality. That makes them perfect new-millennium replacements for your VCR.

But there are catches: Introductory prices will be high, and players that can show the movies you tape on DVD-RAM are still several months away--most current DVD players won't do the job.

Despite that, the next year could see the coming of age of DVD-RAM-based products for the mainstream consumer market. InfoTech of Norwich, Vermont, expects vendors to sell roughly 25 million DVD video recorders (which can replace VCRs) by 2005. Panasonic Corp. has plans to ship its first DVD-RAM recorder this fall; initial prices should be about US$3000. By year's end a digital video camera from Hitachi Ltd. using new 80mm DVD-RAM discs (1.4GB per side) should be available; cameras will retail for about $2000.

Don't expect prices on these video products to drop quickly--by Christmas 2001, DVD recorders should cost less than $1000, but they're unlikely to drop below $500 until 2002. Stand-alone DVD players compatible with the new DVD-RAM discs should appear on store shelves soon--and with a more reasonable price tag. Look for the DVD Multi tag on compatible units.

Rival digital media standards such as DVD+RW are vying with DVD-RAM for a spot in your living room and PC. But no competing products have made it to market.

The coming wave of new products, along with the DVD-RAM's higher capacity and performance, should help solidify the format's role as a backup and storage medium. Drives priced at under $600 should be available by the time you read this. We tested one of the first, a production-level Panasonic model.

Going For A Spin

We took the Panasonic LF-D211N, a $549 internal IDE model, for a spin, employing the same Celeron-400 PC we use in's Top 5 CD-RW Drives reviews. The higher-density 4.7GB-per-side (4.2GB after formatting) media performed at about twice the speed we saw from first-generation drives. With hardware write verification enabled--the default for critical storage apps--the drive averaged almost 730 KBps in writing to disc. That's comparable to writing to CD-Recordable or CD-RW discs at 5X.

Judging from our earlier experience with first-generation drives, you can probably double that rate for noncritical apps such as recording audio and video, after disabling verification. Unfortunately, there was no way to turn off the LF-D211N's write verification; Panasonic assured us that by the time the drives reach market, doing so will be possible via software. The LF-D211N also reads data from DVD-RAM considerably faster than first-generation drives we've seen, delivering roughly 1.4 MBps of throughput on tests.

One underappreciated asset of DVD-RAM drives is their marvelous agility at reading other optical media. The LF-D211N garnered a 3.9X DVD-ROM read rating from Testa Labs' DVD Tach benchmarking software, and a respectable 16.2X CD-ROM read rating from the same company's CD Tach. The LF-D211N easily read every DVD movie, CD-R, and CD-RW disc we threw at it. And like other second-generation DVD-RAM drives, the Panasonic can read and write to older 2.6GB DVD-RAM discs.

According to their specifications, the new drives can also read DVD-R, DVD-RW (a forthcoming rewritable disc that's optimized for video), and DVD-Audio discs.

Panasonic's 4.7GB media for the LF-D211N will have a list price of $25. That's about $6 per gigabyte on the formatted disc compared with about $1.15 per GB for bulk 12X CD-Rs (about 650MB per disc), and about $5 per GB for 10X CD-RWs (about 500MB per formatted disc) in small quantities. A double-sided 9.4GB disc cartridge, intended mainly for data applications, will be available soon at a projected list price of $35 ($4.17 per GB, formatted). For some users, the reduction in disc clutter alone will justify the premium price DVD-RAM media currently command.

Today And Tomorrow

As DVD-RAM technology takes off, prices on drives and media should drop and DVD-RAM should reach the mainstream. In preparation, the movie industry, concerned about rampant piracy at DVD's high copy quality, has implemented safeguards to prevent direct copying of DVD movies onto DVD-RAM discs and competing media. Copy protection schemes will likely be added to cable and satellite services, too, to prevent production of multiple copies of movies recorded off these services, while allowing at least one copy for personal use--much like what we have now.

Today you can buy a DVD-RAM drive for your PC and use it for backup, archiving or to transfer content from old videotapes or TV. To do the latter, you'll need video editing software and a video capture card, which should also allow you to hook up to a TV feed. It's workable, but not yet an elegant solution. With this second generation, however, it looks like DVD-RAM's time is about to arrive.

--Jon L. Jacobi and Anush Yegyazarian

Fast Facts About Formats

*CD-R and CD-RW: Standards for optical writable drives and media. CD-R discs are write-once; CD-RW discs allow rewrites. CD-R discs are available in 650MB and 700MB capacities and are used primarily for storing audio, applications, and data. CD-RW discs have a 650MB capacity and are used mostly for backup and archiving.

*DVD-R and DVD-RW: DVD-R discs, a write-once version of DVD, are used primarily to create masters of DVD movies or data discs; top capacity is 4.7GB. DVD-RW is an upcoming 1000-rewrite standard, supported by the DVD Forum, that will be optimized for video.

*DVD-RAM: Recordable and rewritable DVD standard supported by the DVD Forum.

First-generation DVD-RAM discs held up to 2.6GB of data per side; new 120mm discs raise the bar to 4.7GB per side. The new discs also come in an 80mm size (1.4GB per side); these will be used primarily in portable products such as digital camcorders.

*DVD-ROM: Standard for optical drives and media that support read-only, double-sided discs used in the distribution of digital data. Capacity per side is either 4.7GB or 8.5GB.

*DVD+RW (aka +RW): Rewritable DVD standard promoted by HP, Sony, Philips, and others that competes with DVD-RAM. 3GB drives were promised in 1998, 4.7GB drives are now promised by mid-2001.

*DVD-Video: Read-only DVD discs used in digital entertainment distribution, notably commercial movies. Current capacity is 4.7GB per side (about 2 hours and 20 minutes of video encoded in MPEG-2 format). The spec also supports a density of 9.4GB per side.

Panasonic LF-D211N

List price: $549; 800/742-8086;

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