What to Look for in a DVD Writer

By Wayne Kawamoto | Posted March 18, 2004

Mention "DVDs" and most people immediately think of their movie collections. But beyond movies and videos, DVD technology offers reams of data storage for PCs — a solid method to archive, back up and share data. Even if you have no plans to work with video, there may be a place for a DVD burner in your office.

At their core, DVD discs are great for distributing and playing movies. They serve high-quality video and good sound on multiple tracks and display menus that let users access the features that they want. A DVD disc is based on technology that's similar to that in CDs, but can hold far more data.

DVD Flavors
You would probably expect DVD formats to be complicated. After all, the technology supports video and data. At the most basic level, a DVD-ROM disc holds up to 4.7 GB of data and may be read by DVD-ROM drives in PCs. DVD-ROM discs are commonly used to distribute games, software, encyclopedias and other references and data, and almost all DVD-ROM drives can play DVD movies. These days, many DVD movies come with extras that may be accessed only on a PC's DVD-ROM drive.

DVD-RAM, the least compatible and least popular of the DVD formats, works like a large floppy disc to read and write data. DVD-RAM is useful for businesses that want to use DVD discs to back up data or as a way to take a presentation on the road without over burdening a hard drive (DVD-RAM discs have capacities of between 2.6GB and 9.4GB). On the down side, DVD-RAM discs require specific and proprietary DVD-RAM drives, are not compatible with DVD-ROM players, can't handle DVD video and can't write to CD-R or CD-RW discs.

The Format Wars
Other popular DVD formats support computer data and burn video onto DVD discs that may be played on home DVD players. The competing formats are mostly a result of battles between different companies and their technologies. The two main formats are DVD-R/RW — "minus" read and read-write — and DVD+R/RW —: "plus" read and read-write — each of which supports its own version of write-once ("R") and rewriteable ("RW") discs. The two formats are incompatible with each other.

A DVD-R/RW disc holds up to 4.7 GB of data, may be read by a DVD-ROM drive, and may be played on a DVD player. Data may be written to discs in multiple sessions. However, once an RW disc is finalized — a process during which a disc is prepared to be used by read-only devices — it cannot be written again until it's reformatted, which erases the data. For this reason, DVD-RW may be less suitable for data applications than DVD+RW. DVD-R/RW discs are supported in drives manufactured by Pioneer, Toshiba and Panasonic.

DVD-R/RW makers include Pioneer, Toshiba and Panasonic. DVD+R/RW makers include Sony, Philips, HP and Ricoh.A DVD+R/RW disc also has a capacity of 4.7 GB and may be read by DVD-ROM drives and home DVD players. DVD+RW discs don't require finalization to be read by other DVD drives, which makes them good for data storage and retrieval. DVD+RW features background formatting, which saves time by formatting a disc when a drive is doing nothing. DVD+R/RW is supported in drives made by Sony, Philips, Hewlett-Packard and Ricoh.

Is either format better suited for use in PCs and home DVD players? In my research, I found no studies to indicate that one format is being used more than the other, or has stronger compatibility with DVD-ROM drives or home DVD players. According to TDK, DVD-R/RW media is compatible with approximately 90 percent of today's DVD-ROM and DVD video players. DVD+R/RW media is compatible with approximately 70 percent of today's DVD-ROM drives and DVD video players.

In general, the newer the DVD player and DVD-ROM drive, the more likely it is that it can read a DVD disc burned in either format. Also, the R versions of both technologies usually offer more compatibility with stand-alone DVD players than the RW versions. In my experience with various drives and players, I found DVD-R and DVD+R discs to have an equal acceptance rate (my observations are based on a very limited sample set). The acceptance rate you experience will depend on the hardware that you use. To help, some manufacturers list players with which their drives are compatible.

When DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW discs became available a couple of years ago, DVD-R discs cost less than DVD+R discs. These days, however, there is little difference in price. In my online research, I found disc prices to be comparable, although you can purchase slower-speed DVD (1X, 2X and 2.4X) media at lower prices.

Shopping For That DVD Burner
While early buyers of DVD writers had to choose between DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW, dual-format DVD recorders are now available from manufacturers such as Sony, TDK, I/O Magic and many more. For all of you who were waiting for the standards to settle, you can now purchase a drive that supports both, and use the media format that best supports your needs or hardware. With a dual drive, you won't be left holding the bag should one standard eventually fade from the market.

Currently, the fastest DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW drives are 8X drives, which are faster than earlier 2X DVD-R and 2.4X DVD+R drives. DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW drives can also write to CD formats, including CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW and CD-Audio at speeds of 8-40X, slower than the fastest (52X) CD burners.

When buying a DVD drive, you'll have to choose between an internal and external drive. Internal drives are less expensive. On the plus side, external drives do not require you to open your computer to install them. You connect them with a cable to a PC's USB 2.0 (define) or Firewire port (define), plug the drive into power, install the drivers, and you're usually read to go.

Finally, all DVD recorders come with basic video DVD-authoring and video-capture and editing software, and some feature software that helps to automate the task of backing up data files. Definitely look for accompanying software that best supports your needs.

Future DVD standards promise higher capacities, and yes, more proprietary and incompatible formats. But still, with dual DVD-R/RW/DVD+R/RW drives on the market, it's a good time to get into DVD.

Over the last ten years, Wayne Kawamoto has written over 800 articles, columns, and reviews about computers, new technologies, the Internet, and small businesses. Wayne has alos published three books about upgrading PCs, building office networks, and effectively using and troubleshooting notebook computers. He may be contacted through his Web site at www.waynewrite.com.

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