An Introduction To DVD Recordable

by Michael Demtschyna


    Do you remember the VHS vs Beta wars? Two competing videotape formats lead to mass consumer confusion, and woe to all those consumers that chose Beta and ended up with a nearly useless VCR (despite Beta being the technically better of the two formats). Well, it seems as if the lessons of history have not been learned as there are currently 4 DVD Recordable formats competing for your hard-earned dollar (6 if you want to be really pedantic). With prices for DVD Recordable devices starting at $2,000 and going up from there, you'd better hope you pick the right model.

    To rub salt into the wound, each competing format has a very similar acronym. We have; DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW and DVD-RAM, pretty much all of which have little to no cross-compatibility with each other. Plenty of early adopters have been burned by purchasing DVD+RW media and finding out that it doesn't work in their DVD-RW hardware, and who can blame them?

    Anyhow, on to the formats themselves;


    DVD-R is the easiest format for novices to understand. Fundamentally the same as CD-R except at a higher density, DVD-R is merely a writable version of DVD. There are a few limitations - many DVDs these days are dual-layered in order to store higher quality imagery. DVD-Rs are not dual-layered, so can only store 4.7Gb (or 3.9Gb) of data, which should be enough for around 1 - 2 hours of decent quality video. The majority of DVD players will read DVD-Rs, but not all of them will. Whether your player will or won't read DVD-R seems a bit of a lottery, as DVD-R compatibility seems somewhat hit and miss amongst manufacturers' ranges, but is getting better. DVD-R could be considered the "lowest common denominator" of the recordable DVD formats, but is limited by being writable only once and also by the cost of mistakes. Much like CD-R was in the early days, blank media are costly - at $20 per blank - and coasters are easy to produce.

    DVD-R recorders are rapidly coming down in price, and a PC-based one can be had for less than $1,000.


    Essentially an extension of DVD-R, DVD-RW (note the 'minus') is a format supported by Pioneer, amongst others. Essentially a rewritable form of DVD-R, DVD-RW is not quite as widely compatible as DVD-R, with around 1/2 of all standalone players being able to read DVD-RW discs. Some standalone players can be made DVD-RW compatible with a firmware upgrade.

    Pioneer and LG will probably have standalone players on the Australian market later this year and computer-based -R and -RW drives are currently available for under $1,000.


    DVD-RAM has been around for some considerable time in the writeable DVD arena. Supported by Panasonic, DVD-RAM has only limited backwards compatibility with existing DVD players. DVD-RAM discs come in a protective caddy and are recorded in a substantially different format to standard DVDs. On the plus side, DVD-RAM discs are very good at random access, and have found a niche as high capacity rewritable computer optical storage.

    Panasonic have a DVD-RAM recorder available for around $3,300 which will also write DVD-R discs and PC-based DVD-RAM drives are less than $1,000.


    DVD+RW (note the 'plus') is the newcomer on the DVD rewritable block, supported by a number of manufacturers (who aren't Pioneer) but the format is not officially sanctioned by the DVD Forum at this time. It has a similar level of compatibility to DVD-RW, but + and - blank media are not interchangeable despite the similarity in name.

    Philips have a DVD+RW standalone DVD recorder available for around $3,000.

Which One Is Best?

    This is a really hard call at the moment. No recorder currently available supports all the recordable DVD formats, although many of them support more than one format. The 'minus' formats (DVD-R/DVD-RW) have a considerable head start in this high-stakes race. DVD-RAM seems destined to remain a niche product. Whether or not the 'plus' formats (DVD+R/DVD+RW) will make an impact, given the significant number of manufacturers who support them, remains to be seen.

    As a consumer, the best advice I can give you is to ensure that whichever product you choose, make sure that it can write DVD-R discs, as these are the most compatible of the recordable formats for standalone DVD players. Otherwise, you are still somewhat on your own in this rapidly-evolving and highly complex area until the manufacturers can finally settle on a single across-the-board standard.

Michael Demtschyna (read my bio)
February 18, 2002