Rewritable DVD: Ready for the Big Show

NEW YORK (06/29/2000) - DVD-RAM is now bigger than ever. With new drives capable of handling higher-capacity 4.7GB media being demonstrated by Hitachi Ltd., Panasonic, and Toshiba Corp. at this week's PC Expo in New York, this rewritable format is finally ready to stand up and be counted. Drives should be available this summer; Panasonic and Toshiba say they'll begin volume shipments in July. But you don't have wait--or head to PC Expo--to get a peek at this DVD breakthrough: We've taken a hands-on look at Panasonic's 4.7GB DVD-RAM drive already.

4.7GB: All About Video

Before you read about our tests of Panasonic's drive, you need to know a few more things about second-generation, 4.7GB DVD-RAM. The most important achievement of this rewritable DVD format is that it has broken the first-generation 2.6GB capacity barrier; now it can record a 2-hour high-quality MPEG-2 movie. And it's now fast enough to be able to write streaming video. Thanks to its improved media-defect management, you'll be able to record on bare discs as well as on those enclosed in protective cartridges--and the next generation of home DVD-Video players will be able to read them. The new DVD-RAM also offers a revised disc storage structure that's faster for audio/visual recording and supports copy protection to shield commercial content developers from piracy. And with all the focus on video capabilities, it's not surprising that home DVD-Video recorders and DVD-based camcorders are projected to be available in time for the holidays.

Panasonic's Really Big Show

In the days leading up to PC Expo, we got a look at Panasonic's LF-D211N, an internal IDE version of the company's 4.7GB DVD-RAM drive, which will have a list price of $549. (Panasonic will also have a similarly priced internal SCSI-2 version.) Installing this strongly constructed drive went as smoothly as installing an internal CD-Rewritable drive, and within 15 minutes we were ready to start our tests.

We ran our informal tests on the PCWorld.com test bed system used for our Top 5 CD-RW Drives reviews: a Micron Electronic Corp. Celeron-400 with 64MB of SDRAM and a 10GB UDMA 33 hard drive. We weren't disappointed. Performance with the denser 4.7GB-per-side (4.2GB after formatting) media was about twice what we saw from first-generation drives. With hardware write verification enabled--the default for critical storage applications--the drive averaged almost 730KB/second when writing to disc, about comparable to a 5X CD-Recordable or CD-RW write. Expect about twice that rate with the verification disabled for noncritical applications such as recording audio and video. The LF-D211N also read data considerably faster from DVD-RAM than did first-generation drives we've tested, offering approximately 1.4MB/second of throughput.

One underappreciated asset of DVD-RAM drives is their marvelous agility at reading other types of optical media. The LF-D211N garnered a 3.9X DVD-ROM read rating from Testa Labs' DVD Tach benchmarking software, and a very respectable 14.6X CD-ROM read rating from the same company's CD Tach.

The LF-D211N easily read every DVD movie, CD-R disc, and CD-RW disc we threw at it. As will other second-generation DVD-RAM drives, the Panasonic model will read and write 2.6GB DVD-RAM discs. Other media that we didn't have on hand to test, but that the new Panasonic drive should be able to read, are DVD-R, DVD-RW (a forthcoming sequential-write, 1000-rewrite solution), and DVD audio discs.

DVD Home Movies, Anyone?

Now that DVD-RAM's capacity has finally grown to nearly match DVD-ROM's, the rewritable format's mainstream impact could be huge. Since DVD-RAM media can be overwritten up to 100,000 times and stores data in nondegrading digital format, it's the perfect replacement for videotape. For perspective, if you play a prerecorded VHS videocassette 20 times its quality will start to degrade.

Compare that to DVD-RAM media that, manufacturers say, should maintain data integrity for at least 30 years. The aforementioned DVD-Video recorders will be appearing by early next year, along with an abundance of computer-based digital video recording solutions. Digital video cameras--expected by the holiday buying season--will use a more compact, 80mm version of DVD-RAM media that has a capacity of 1.4GB per side. (The 4.7GB media measures 120mm.) The smaller media will be able to store from 30 minutes to 1 hour of video per side, depending on the recording quality.

Panasonic's 4.7GB media for the LF-D211N will have a list price of $24.95. A double-sided 9.4GB disc cartridge with a projected list price of $34.95 will also be available soon. The double-sided media is intended mainly for data applications, and you will not be able to remove the media from the cartridge as you can with the 4.7GB cartridges. As the DVD-RAM technology takes off, you can expect the prices on drives and media to drop.

Granted, the stiff price of Panasonic's LF-D211N drive rules out impulse buying. But with its increased performance and capacity, it's a very attractive alternative to CD-RW--especially for those working with digital video or who need to archive large amounts of data.

DVD-RAM doesn't pose a threat to CD-R or CD-RW--yet. As long as CD audio remains popular, the older technologies should dominate. But once DVD audio joins DVD video, that picture should start to change. The market will accommodate both technologies for some time to come, but with this second generation, it looks like DVD-RAM's time is finally here.

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