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Making Sense of Optical Storage

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Computer manufacturers have always loved their acronyms, and this has never been so evident as in the world of computer optical storage. It’s an alphabet soup: DVD+R, DVD-R, DVD+RW, DVD-RW, DVD-RAM, DVD-ROM, CD-RW, CD-R, and CD-ROM. It sometimes makes you feel you need a Ph.D. to make sense of it all.

While computer hard and floppy drives and the disks they store data on are based on the physics of magnetism, optical drives and their disks are based on the physics of light, or optics. DVDs and their predecessors, CDs, use high-intensity lasers to read and write information on the disk surface.

The technology keeps beaming ahead, with the latest innovation being double-layer (also called dual-layer) DVD recorders, or “burners.” Sony (www.sonyburners.com), long an innovator in the optical disk market, recently introduced the first product of this type, the DRU-710A, an internal drive (for inside the computer). To install it, you typically remove your current optical drive and put the new drive in its place. Sony’s internal drive was followed by the DRX-710UL, an external version that’s easier to set up but that takes up more space.

Instead of 6,000 Floppies

The main benefit of the new technology: These drives have nearly double the capacity of single-layer 4.7-gigabyte DVD drives, letting you store a mind-boggling 8.5 gigabytes of content on a single featherweight disk you can slip in your coat pocket. That’s enough for 5,902 floppy disks worth of backup data, 17,000 high-quality JPEG photos, four hours of high-quality MPEG-2 video, or seven days of uninterrupted music.

As always, however, there’s a downside to cutting-edge technology. In this case, it’s cost and compatibility, said Jim Taylor, author of both the book DVD Demystified and the DVD FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) primer (www.dvddemystified.com/dvdfaq.html).

The drives cost only a bit more than previous ones, but double-layer recordable disks currently cost more than $10 compared with less than $2 for single-layer disks (prices are expected to drop over time). Also, you may run into problems trying to play double-layer disks in some DVD players. The Web site VideoHelp.com (www.dvdrhelp.com) has a compatibility list, with data supplied by users rather than manufacturers, that lets you check on whether a given player supports the new format.

A New Technology Timetable

So what’s a consumer to do? When does it make sense to go with the cutting (bleeding) edge? When is it preferable to stick with the tried and true?

To answer these questions it helps to know what other consumers are doing. I asked Stephen Baker, an analyst with the NPD Group, a market research firm in Port Washington, New York, about the current state of the optical market.

This past July, only 0.5 percent of desktop PCs in the United States sold through retail channels had just a CD-ROM drive, 9 percent had a CD burner, 45.1 percent had a CD burner and a DVD drive (either a combo drive or two drives), and 43.8 percent had a DVD burner (which incorporates the previous technologies). “The trend is toward DVD burners,” said Baker.

Burners let you easily share large amounts of content you create on your computer with others. If you’re just creating data and music, a CD burner is enough. If you’re also creating video or lots of photos, a DVD burner is better. If you spend a lot of time with digital video, creating educational videos at the office, for example, one of the new double-layer DVD burners might make sense.

Along with Sony, other manufacturers providing such technology include Pioneer Electronics (www.pioneerelectronics.com) and Hewlett-Packard (www.hp.com). Pioneer’s drive, the DVR-A08XL, is internal. As of this writing, HP’s drives, the DVD Writer dvd630e (external) and the DVD dvd630i (internal), had been announced but hadn’t yet begun shipping.

Of course, still newer and more capable technologies are on the horizon. There’s been much talk in the computer press about the next generation of DVD technology, called blue laser (current technology uses red lasers), whose high density will let you record around 25 gigabytes of data on a single disk.

Just don’t hold your breath. Taylor doesn’t expect blue laser technology to become mainstream until around 2008. In the meantime, any disks you create now will still be readable then. Just as today’s optical technology incorporates previous technology, so will tomorrow’s.

Another good site to learn more about DVD technology is Understanding Recordable and Rewritable DVD (www.osta.org/technology/dvdqa), an offering of the Optical Storage Technology Association.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or http://www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.

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