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The Write RAMifications: DVD Authoring and DVD-RAM

Philip De Lancie

April 2000 | When DVD first emerged, it was its versatility--physical and logical--that allowed disparate interests to come together behind a unified family of formats. But that same versatility has since encouraged the development of multiple variations on the DVD theme, often with less-than-perfect compatibility. Family unity has faced the greatest stress in the field of rewritable DVD, with at least three distinct approaches: DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM.

From the authoring standpoint, rewritable DVD formats are potentially very attractive for media-asset storage, prototyping, and short-run publishing. To meet these needs, the format should ideally be cheap, dependable, read-compatible, and removable. And it should offer advantages over DVD-R (recordable, but not rewritable), which currently offers broad compatibility (playable on DVD-ROM and most DVD-Video players), but is hampered by the high cost of media and drives.

So how do the rewritable contenders measure up to these authoring criteria? DVD+RW (never officially accepted by the DVD Forum) is out of the running for now, since it hasn't shipped and won't for quite some time. DVD-RW (Book F of the DVD specification) has also yet to ship, and judging from the January Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it is being repositioned by backer Pioneer as a home video recorder rather than a computer-hosted format appropriate for authoring applications.

That leaves DVD-RAM, the only rewritable DVD format that has actually made it to market. A random-write, phase-change format, DVD-RAM (Book E of the DVD specification) has been available since May 1998 in its Version 1 incarnation, which includes 2.6GB one-sided and 5.2GB two-sided discs. Priced below $700, DVD-RAM offers computer storage/backup at an attractive price-per-megabyte, but its interoperability with DVD-ROM drives and DVD-Video players has been hampered by compatibility issues, including the requirement that two-sided discs be enclosed in a protective cartridge.

Interest in DVD-RAM has lately been heightened by several promising developments, notably the release late last year of a single-sided 4.7GB Version 2, and the announcement that a double-sided 9.4GB version is in the works. Add to that the advent of new DVD-RAM-aware DVD-ROM drives, plus similarly versatile DVD-Video players on the horizon, and suddenly the format's proponents are able to make the case that limitations in both capacity and compatibility have been substantially addressed.

While significant limitations remain, Version 2 increases DVD-RAM's potential utility for both production and delivery applications. With that in mind, it's easy to see why several vendors of DVD-Video authoring packages have recently announced support (in concert with Panasonic, DVD-RAM's biggest backer) for writing to DVD-RAM with their tools.

Version 2 Emerges

DVD-RAM is largely the creature of three major electronics manufacturers: Panasonic (Matsushita), Hitachi, and Toshiba. According to Jeff Saake, General Manager of Panasonic Industrial Company in Milpitas, California, "The production of Version 1 drives this past year by all manufacturers was about 150,000 units worldwide, with Panasonic shipping about 60% of the units."

As of this writing, Version 2 has yet to have any impact in the market. "We are just in the ramp-up mode for Version 2 drives," Saake says. "Panasonic has been shipping only a few hundred since early or mid-December, and all of the initial production capacity is shipping to OEMs, as well as to integrators for their design-in activities. Single- and double-sided media is in production and being shipped to these organizations. Drive units will not appear in the end-user channels until late Q1 of this coming year."

While Version 2 will expand DVD-RAM's capacity, Panasonic and Hitachi are already attacking the issue of interoperability with new DVD-ROM drives that can read DVD-RAM media. In spite of the manufacturing cost of adding DVD-RAM support (which some have placed as high as $30 per drive), OEM and retail pricing for the new drives are roughly the same as the models they replace. (The companies may plan to recoup their costs later by dropping prices more slowly than usual.)

Wolfgang Schlichting, of International Data Corporation of Framingham, Massachusetts, places Panasonic and Hitachi's combined cut of DVD-ROM drives shipped in the first three quarters of 1999--both OEM and retail--at 49% (27 for Panasonic, 22 for Hitachi). So there's little question that the two companies are well positioned to impact the DVD-ROM drive market. But these figures don't yet reflect the installed base of the new RAM-capable drives, because those didn't ship until Q4 1999.

The new DVD-ROM mechanisms handle DVD-RAM discs without cartridges, which limits them to reading single-sided DVD-RAMs. Given the 4.7GB capacity of Version 2 discs, however, the availability of these drives means that DVD-RAM will soon offer an economical alternative DVD-R as a medium for testing DVD-ROM playback of DVD-5 discs before replication.

Adding to DVD-RAM's momentum is the fact that Panasonic is also about to bring DVD-RAM playback (single-sided 4.7GB Version 2 only) to set-top DVD-Video players. "Our next-generation DVD players will read the bare media," Saake says. At press time, the players were scheduled to ship by Q2 2000. The availability of a low-cost means to test title performance in a set-top player will no doubt be warmly welcomed in the authoring community, though the popularity of DVD-9s means that DVD-RAM--like DVD-R--will offer only a partial solution.

Technically, what makes the interchange of "bare media" feasible is not simply the common physical attributes of the DVD family, but also its shared logical foundation. "DVD-RAM uses the UDF file system," explains Mark Ely, Director of Marketing for Sonic Solutions in Novato, California. "This is the same file system that is used on DVD-ROMs. From the both the user's point of view and that of the file system, they are identical."

Since DVD-Video is built on the foundation of DVD-ROM, it follows that a DVD-Video disc image written to a single-sided DVD-RAM should be playable from a Panasonic/Hitachi DVD-ROM drive using the host computer's DVD Navigator software. But Mike Evangelist, Director of U.S. Operations for Astarte Software in Birchwood, Minnesota, cautions that "there is a caveat. In the case of the Apple DVD player, it does not recognize DVD-Video content on a DVD-RAM. We expect this to be addressed in a forthcoming update of their player software. But today, the only way to play back a DVD-Video title written to DVD-RAM is to use a decoder, such as Wired4DVD, that can open and play 'IFO' files from any media. The same problem occurs with some Windows DVD players."

Tools Support

Panasonic and other vendors no doubt hope to achieve mass consumer acceptance for DVD-RAM, but Saake says that the greatest interest in the format to date has actually been related to authoring. "Partners including Sigma Designs, Pinnacle Systems, Sonic Solutions, Vitec, and others have been instrumental in moving the product into the content development arena," he says. "From the feedback we get from our channel and OEM partners, we would estimate that perhaps as much as 60% of the initial shipments have been grabbed up by these people in education, business, entertainment, medical, and videophile areas."

Facilitating DVD-RAM support in DVD authoring tools does not appear to be a big challenge for tool developers; it's mostly in the hands of the DVD-RAM drive manufacturers. "It's not really an issue of the authoring tool," says Yoshi Kanagaki, Director of Multimedia Marketing at Intec America in Menlo Park, California. "An authoring tool like ours can create a UDF-format disc image. The issue is if the DVD-RAM drive manufacturers can provide UDF data writing as an application or driver."

As Panasonic has seen the potential for DVD-RAM in authoring, it has worked with several toolmakers to highlight DVD-RAM support. Kanagaki says that both Pro and Desktop versions of Intec's DVDAuthorQUICK allow the user to specify the destination of VIDEO_TS folder data such as VOB, .inf., and .bup files. "So far," he adds, "we confirmed with Panasonic that the muxed data created with DVDAuthorQUICK, the VIDEO_TS file written directly to the DVD-RAM drive, can be played back with the Sigma Designs Hollywood Plus DVD decoder card. In addition, we confirmed that DVD-RAM works with our muxed data, using menus, buttons, chapters, subtitles, and all the navigation that can be authored with DVDAuthorQUICK."

As for Sonic Solutions, Ely says all the company's authoring tools--DVD Creator, DVD Fusion and DVDit!--include support for DVD-RAM. "The driver technology that supports this is typically bundled with the DVD-RAM drive," he says. "This allows the Sonic authoring tools to access the DVD-RAM disc like any other volume. During DVD authoring, source data, multiplexed VOBs, or final disc images can be written to and stored on DVD-RAM. In the case of creating a DVD disc image, we can write a native UDF file system directly to the DVD-RAM device."

For Astarte, meanwhile, the key step toward DVD-RAM support in DVDirector, DVDelight, and DVDExport was actually taken by Adaptec. "It was simply a matter of ToastDVD adding support for writing directly to the DVD-RAM drive," Evangelist says. "Our authoring application creates a complete, playable VIDEO_TS directory on the hard disk, containing the DVD-Video structure. We then use ToastDVD to write that data to either a DVD-R, DLT, or DVD-RAM."

DVD-RAM IN TITLE Development

Intec's Kanagaki sees general potential for DVD-RAM in "corporate training, corporate presentation, advertisement, education, and data-archiving, including motion picture and audio asset files, as well as personal records of family events such as home movies." But from the DVD authoring point of view, DVD-RAM uses fall primarily into two main categories: exporting images during the production process and recording for end-user delivery.

"DVD-RAM is inexpensive, flexible storage," Sonic's Ely says, "that can be used in the authoring process for source data, DVD volumes, and disc image files. It can also be used for proofing and playback of DVD titles by a DVD-RAM-equipped PC. In the case of proofing, it can provide an inexpensive alternative to DVD-R for PC-based testing."

Astarte's Evangelist also cites testing as one of DVD-RAM's most attractive applications. "It allows authors to write test discs that they can play in their computers before writing to DVD-R or sending the project out for replication," he says. "It's totally driven by compatibility. If the discs are playable in the players our customers want to use, they may use DVD-RAM. But without such compatibility, the use will be limited to transporting the data and perhaps to testing finished projects on the authoring computer before committing them to a more-expensive DVD-R."

"DVD-R media costs at least $30 per disc at present," Kanagaki adds. "And DVD-R drives are $5,000. If a user makes a mistake, or a project doesn't turn out as expected, it's an expensive coaster. DVD-RAM would help those users avoid costly errors." Kanagaki also points to DVD-RAM's sustained data transfer rate, which is 1.385MB/sec for DVD-RAM media (ROM discs are read twice as fast)--plenty fast for DVD-Video playback. "So," he concludes, "DVD-RAM is an ideal removable, rewritable media for DVD-Video and ROM content."

Not surprisingly, Saake is also bullish on DVD-RAM's attributes for authoring. "In the development and tweaking process," he says, "the random-access performance of the media allows the developer to go in and make edits and refinements quickly and randomly rather than sequentially. In addition, the edits can be made as many times as necessary until the developers are satisfied with their 'gold disc.' Then it can be sent to the replication facility for mass production."

Even for Version 1 DVD-RAM, Saake does not see capacity as much of a limitation. "Ninety percent of the content that is developed is not over an hour in length," he says, "which means that single-sided media provides plenty of capacity for the content developer. But if the content exceeds one hour with Version 1.0 drives and media, the replication plant can easily flip the disc and download the data onto their mastering hard drives, which it will do regardless of the media that is sent. So DVD-RAM gives the content developer a development palette that holds more than two hours of data."

Despite Saake's upbeat analysis, the tool vendors don't currently see DVD-RAM as a viable alternative to DLT for master delivery. "From a data-storage perspective, the DVD-RAM device may be more robust," Ely says. "But it's the plant that determines what is acceptable as a delivery format."

"To my current knowledge, I don't know any DVD replicators who accept DVD-RAM for premastering data," Kanagaki says. Evangelist concurs: "Most plants insist on DLT. In fact, most will not even accept DVD-R as masters. I know of none that take DVD-RAM, though this may change with the advent of the higher-capacity Version 2 media."

End-User Delivery

Even if plants won't take them, can DVD-RAMs be used for delivering authored DVD-Video content to small quantities of end-users? "Distribution is best served by a media type that is highly compatible," Ely says. "In this case, DVD-R is better for distributing content because any DVD set-top, DVD-ROM, or DVD-RAM device can play it. There are far fewer DVD-RAM readers than DVD-ROM and set-top DVD-Video players, so DVD-RAM is best applied in data storage and manipulation. It doesn't work for distribution unless the end-user is expecting DVD-RAM."

Based on Ely's observation, the wisdom of delivering on DVD-RAM depends on whether the end-user's playback setting is known in advance to support the format. The Panasonic/Hitachi DVD-ROM drives and the forthcoming Panasonic set-top broaden the options, but taken together with DVD-RAM drives, they will still represent a small segment of the overall DVD installed base. However, this by no means eliminates DVD-RAM from contention in controlled settings such as in-house corporate presentations or DVD-based kiosks, particularly if Panasonic offers industrial versions of the RAM-capable player.

"Of course, the content developer has to make certain the recipients either have a DVD-RAM drive or one of the newest DVD-ROM drives that will read DVD-RAM media," Saake says. "But these drives have been shipping from Panasonic, Hitachi, and Creative Labs for the past three months. They are also standard in iMac DV systems."

As one example of the applications he has in mind, Saake tells of a college in South Florida that videotapes classes for remote learning at 15 facilities outside the state. "They bought a bank of five DVD-RAM drives," he says, "and they stream the video directly to the computer, and ship out copies on DVD-RAM. To ensure readability, they purchased inexpensive RAM-reading DVD-ROM drives for the other facilities. In both the short- and long-term, this is far less expensive than installing two or three DVD-R drives for the distribution. And the random-access nature of the media, plus the DMA error correction, ensures each disc is good when shipped. Similar requirements exist in thousands of businesses around the globe that use video content for localized video-on-demand staff education, training, service and support, and upgrading skills."

Saake isn't alone in feeling that DVD-RAM may enjoy advantages in some areas when compared to DVD-R. "The S101 and S201 DVD-R drives that are currently available from Pioneer," Kanagaki says, "are sensitive in terms of the voltage level of electric power and the stability of the environment. If the physical location of the burner is unstable, data-write errors occur, creating a shiny, expensive, useless coaster. Also, DVD-R data-writing speed is slower than DVD-RAM. And DVD-R drives are expensive in comparison to DVD-RAM, making it significantly more costly to connect multiple DVD-R drives to one PC to duplicate multiple discs at a time. So I believe that small-volume duplication of DVD-RAM content could be cost-effective. It all depends on the application, where the distribution takes place, and the playback capability of the viewer."

It would be nice, of course, if assessments of DVD-RAM's utility to DVD authors could be less qualified: if the single-sided capacity was sufficient for DVD-9, and if support had been built into DVD set-tops and drives from the start rather than as an afterthought. The compatibility issue is particularly vexing for potential users, not only because it limits the ways DVD-RAM can be used, but because DVD+RW claims greater cross-compatibility than DVD-RAM.

The reality is, however, that each of DVD-RAM's rewritable rivals involves its own compromises, such as higher costs and necessary modifications to existing DVD-ROM drives to ensure compatibility. Perhaps most importantly, DVD-RAM is here today, while the other rewritable contenders are years behind their original schedules. As a sub-$1,000 investment that offers DVD authoring facilities some handy capabilities in a rewritable DVD-Book disc, DVD-RAM Version 2 isn't just a good bet--it's currently the only game in town.

So how do the rewritable contenders measure up to these authoring criteria? DVD+RW (never officially accepted by the DVD Forum) is out of the running for now, since it hasn't shipped and won't for quite some time. DVD-RW (Book F of the DVD specification) has also yet to ship, and judging from the January Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it is being repositioned by backer Pioneer as a home video recorder rather than a computer-hosted format appropriate for authoring applications.

That leaves DVD-RAM, the only rewritable DVD format that has actually made it to market. A random-write, phase-change format, DVD-RAM (Book E of the DVD specification) has been available since May 1998 in its Version 1 incarnation, which includes 2.6GB one-sided and 5.2GB two-sided discs. Priced below $700, DVD-RAM offers computer storage/backup at an attractive price-per-megabyte, but its interoperability with DVD-ROM drives and DVD-Video players has been hampered by compatibility issues, including the requirement that two-sided discs be enclosed in a protective cartridge.

Interest in DVD-RAM has lately been heightened by several promising developments, notably the release late last year of a single-sided 4.7GB Version 2, and the announcement that a double-sided 9.4GB version is in the works. Add to that the advent of new DVD-RAM-aware DVD-ROM drives, plus similarly versatile DVD-Video players on the horizon, and suddenly the format's proponents are able to make the case that limitations in both capacity and compatibility have been substantially addressed.

While significant limitations remain, Version 2 increases DVD-RAM's potential utility for both production and delivery applications. With that in mind, it's easy to see why several vendors of DVD-Video authoring packages have recently announced support (in concert with Panasonic, DVD-RAM's biggest backer) for writing to DVD-RAM with their tools.

VERSION 2 EMERGES

DVD-RAM is largely the creature of three major electronics manufacturers: Panasonic (Matsushita), Hitachi, and Toshiba. According to Jeff Saake, General Manager of Panasonic Industrial Company in Milpitas, California, "The production of Version 1 drives this past year by all manufacturers was about 150,000 units worldwide, with Panasonic shipping about 60% of the units."

As of this writing, Version 2 has yet to have any impact in the market. "We are just in the ramp-up mode for Version 2 drives," Saake says. "Panasonic has been shipping only a few hundred since early or mid-December, and all of the initial production capacity is shipping to OEMs, as well as to integrators for their design-in activities. Single- and double-sided media is in production and being shipped to these organizations. Drive units will not appear in the end-user channels until late Q1 of this coming year."

While Version 2 will expand DVD-RAM's capacity, Panasonic and Hitachi are already attacking the issue of interoperability with new DVD-ROM drives that can read DVD-RAM media. In spite of the manufacturing cost of adding DVD-RAM support (which some have placed as high as $30 per drive), OEM and retail pricing for the new drives are roughly the same as the models they replace. (The companies may plan to recoup their costs later by dropping prices more slowly than usual.)

Wolfgang Schlichting, of International Data Corporation of Framingham, Massachusetts, places Panasonic and Hitachi's combined cut of DVD-ROM drives shipped in the first three quarters of 1999--both OEM and retail--at 49% (27 for Panasonic, 22 for Hitachi). So there's little question that the two companies are well positioned to impact the DVD-ROM drive market. But these figures don't yet reflect the installed base of the new RAM-capable drives, because those didn't ship until Q4 1999.

The new DVD-ROM mechanisms handle DVD-RAM discs without cartridges, which limits them to reading single-sided DVD-RAMs. Given the 4.7GB capacity of Version 2 discs, however, the availability of these drives means that DVD-RAM will soon offer an economical alternative DVD-R as a medium for testing DVD-ROM playback of DVD-5 discs before replication.

Adding to DVD-RAM's momentum is the fact that Panasonic is also about to bring DVD-RAM playback (single-sided 4.7GB Version 2 only) to set-top DVD-Video players. "Our next-generation DVD players will read the bare media," Saake says. At press time, the players were scheduled to ship by Q2 2000. The availability of a low-cost means to test title performance in a set-top player will no doubt be warmly welcomed in the authoring community, though the popularity of DVD-9s means that DVD-RAM--like DVD-R--will offer only a partial solution.

Technically, what makes the interchange of "bare media" feasible is not simply the common physical attributes of the DVD family, but also its shared logical foundation. "DVD-RAM uses the UDF file system," explains Mark Ely, Director of Marketing for Sonic Solutions in Novato, California. "This is the same file system that is used on DVD-ROMs. From the both the user's point of view and that of the file system, they are identical."

Since DVD-Video is built on the foundation of DVD-ROM, it follows that a DVD-Video disc image written to a single-sided DVD-RAM should be playable from a Panasonic/Hitachi DVD-ROM drive using the host computer's DVD Navigator software. But Mike Evangelist, Director of U.S. Operations for Astarte Software in Birchwood, Minnesota, cautions that "there is a caveat. In the case of the Apple DVD player, it does not recognize DVD-Video content on a DVD-RAM. We expect this to be addressed in a forthcoming update of their player software. But today, the only way to play back a DVD-Video title written to DVD-RAM is to use a decoder, such as Wired4DVD, that can open and play 'IFO' files from any media. The same problem occurs with some Windows DVD players."

TOOLS SUPPORT

Panasonic and other vendors no doubt hope to achieve mass consumer acceptance for DVD-RAM, but Saake says that the greatest interest in the format to date has actually been related to authoring. "Partners including Sigma Designs, Pinnacle Systems, Sonic Solutions, Vitec, and others have been instrumental in moving the product into the content development arena," he says. "From the feedback we get from our channel and OEM partners, we would estimate that perhaps as much as 60% of the initial shipments have been grabbed up by these people in education, business, entertainment, medical, and videophile areas."

Facilitating DVD-RAM support in DVD authoring tools does not appear to be a big challenge for tool developers; it's mostly in the hands of the DVD-RAM drive manufacturers. "It's not really an issue of the authoring tool," says Yoshi Kanagaki, Director of Multimedia Marketing at Intec America in Menlo Park, California. "An authoring tool like ours can create a UDF-format disc image. The issue is if the DVD-RAM drive manufacturers can provide UDF data writing as an application or driver."

As Panasonic has seen the potential for DVD-RAM in authoring, it has worked with several toolmakers to highlight DVD-RAM support. Kanagaki says that both Pro and Desktop versions of Intec's DVDAuthorQUICK allow the user to specify the destination of VIDEO_TS folder data such as VOB, .inf., and .bup files. "So far," he adds, "we confirmed with Panasonic that the muxed data created with DVDAuthorQUICK, the VIDEO_TS file written directly to the DVD-RAM drive, can be played back with the Sigma Designs Hollywood Plus DVD decoder card. In addition, we confirmed that DVD-RAM works with our muxed data, using menus, buttons, chapters, subtitles, and all the navigation that can be authored with DVDAuthorQUICK."

As for Sonic Solutions, Ely says all the company's authoring tools--DVD Creator, DVD Fusion and DVDit!--include support for DVD-RAM. "The driver technology that supports this is typically bundled with the DVD-RAM drive," he says. "This allows the Sonic authoring tools to access the DVD-RAM disc like any other volume. During DVD authoring, source data, multiplexed VOBs, or final disc images can be written to and stored on DVD-RAM. In the case of creating a DVD disc image, we can write a native UDF file system directly to the DVD-RAM device."

For Astarte, meanwhile, the key step toward DVD-RAM support in DVDirector, DVDelight, and DVDExport was actually taken by Adaptec. "It was simply a matter of ToastDVD adding support for writing directly to the DVD-RAM drive," Evangelist says. "Our authoring application creates a complete, playable VIDEO_TS directory on the hard disk, containing the DVD-Video structure. We then use ToastDVD to write that data to either a DVD-R, DLT, or DVD-RAM."

DVD-RAM IN TITLE DEVELOPMENT

Intec's Kanagaki sees general potential for DVD-RAM in "corporate training, corporate presentation, advertisement, education, and data-archiving, including motion picture and audio asset files, as well as personal records of family events such as home movies." But from the DVD authoring point of view, DVD-RAM uses fall primarily into two main categories: exporting images during the production process and recording for end-user delivery.

"DVD-RAM is inexpensive, flexible storage," Sonic's Ely says, "that can be used in the authoring process for source data, DVD volumes, and disc image files. It can also be used for proofing and playback of DVD titles by a DVD-RAM-equipped PC. In the case of proofing, it can provide an inexpensive alternative to DVD-R for PC-based testing."

Astarte's Evangelist also cites testing as one of DVD-RAM's most attractive applications. "It allows authors to write test discs that they can play in their computers before writing to DVD-R or sending the project out for replication," he says. "It's totally driven by compatibility. If the discs are playable in the players our customers want to use, they may use DVD-RAM. But without such compatibility, the use will be limited to transporting the data and perhaps to testing finished projects on the authoring computer before committing them to a more-expensive DVD-R."

"DVD-R media costs at least $30 per disc at present," Kanagaki adds. "And DVD-R drives are $5,000. If a user makes a mistake, or a project doesn't turn out as expected, it's an expensive coaster. DVD-RAM would help those users avoid costly errors." Kanagaki also points to DVD-RAM's sustained data transfer rate, which is 1.385MB/sec for DVD-RAM media (ROM discs are read twice as fast)--plenty fast for DVD-Video playback. "So," he concludes, "DVD-RAM is an ideal removable, rewritable media for DVD-Video and ROM content."

Not surprisingly, Saake is also bullish on DVD-RAM's attributes for authoring. "In the development and tweaking process," he says, "the random-access performance of the media allows the developer to go in and make edits and refinements quickly and randomly rather than sequentially. In addition, the edits can be made as many times as necessary until the developers are satisfied with their 'gold disc.' Then it can be sent to the replication facility for mass production."

Even for Version 1 DVD-RAM, Saake does not see capacity as much of a limitation. "Ninety percent of the content that is developed is not over an hour in length," he says, "which means that single-sided media provides plenty of capacity for the content developer. But if the content exceeds one hour with Version 1.0 drives and media, the replication plant can easily flip the disc and download the data onto their mastering hard drives, which it will do regardless of the media that is sent. So DVD-RAM gives the content developer a development palette that holds more than two hours of data."

Despite Saake's upbeat analysis, the tool vendors don't currently see DVD-RAM as a viable alternative to DLT for master delivery. "From a data-storage perspective, the DVD-RAM device may be more robust," Ely says. "But it's the plant that determines what is acceptable as a delivery format."

"To my current knowledge, I don't know any DVD replicators who accept DVD-RAM for premastering data," Kanagaki says. Evangelist concurs: "Most plants insist on DLT. In fact, most will not even accept DVD-R as masters. I know of none that take DVD-RAM, though this may change with the advent of the higher-capacity Version 2 media."

END-USER DELIVERY

Even if plants won't take them, can DVD-RAMs be used for delivering authored DVD-Video content to small quantities of end-users? "Distribution is best served by a media type that is highly compatible," Ely says. "In this case, DVD-R is better for distributing content because any DVD set-top, DVD-ROM, or DVD-RAM device can play it. There are far fewer DVD-RAM readers than DVD-ROM and set-top DVD-Video players, so DVD-RAM is best applied in data storage and manipulation. It doesn't work for distribution unless the end-user is expecting DVD-RAM."

Based on Ely's observation, the wisdom of delivering on DVD-RAM depends on whether the end-user's playback setting is known in advance to support the format. The Panasonic/Hitachi DVD-ROM drives and the forthcoming Panasonic set-top broaden the options, but taken together with DVD-RAM drives, they will still represent a small segment of the overall DVD installed base. However, this by no means eliminates DVD-RAM from contention in controlled settings such as in-house corporate presentations or DVD-based kiosks, particularly if Panasonic offers industrial versions of the RAM-capable player.

"Of course, the content developer has to make certain the recipients either have a DVD-RAM drive or one of the newest DVD-ROM drives that will read DVD-RAM media," Saake says. "But these drives have been shipping from Panasonic, Hitachi, and Creative Labs for the past three months. They are also standard in iMac DV systems."

As one example of the applications he has in mind, Saake tells of a college in South Florida that videotapes classes for remote learning at 15 facilities outside the state. "They bought a bank of five DVD-RAM drives," he says, "and they stream the video directly to the computer, and ship out copies on DVD-RAM. To ensure readability, they purchased inexpensive RAM-reading DVD-ROM drives for the other facilities. In both the short- and long-term, this is far less expensive than installing two or three DVD-R drives for the distribution. And the random-access nature of the media, plus the DMA error correction, ensures each disc is good when shipped. Similar requirements exist in thousands of businesses around the globe that use video content for localized video-on-demand staff education, training, service and support, and upgrading skills."

Saake isn't alone in feeling that DVD-RAM may enjoy advantages in some areas when compared to DVD-R. "The S101 and S201 DVD-R drives that are currently available from Pioneer," Kanagaki says, "are sensitive in terms of the voltage level of electric power and the stability of the environment. If the physical location of the burner is unstable, data-write errors occur, creating a shiny, expensive, useless coaster. Also, DVD-R data-writing speed is slower than DVD-RAM. And DVD-R drives are expensive in comparison to DVD-RAM, making it significantly more costly to connect multiple DVD-R drives to one PC to duplicate multiple discs at a time. So I believe that small-volume duplication of DVD-RAM content could be cost-effective. It all depends on the application, where the distribution takes place, and the playback capability of the viewer."

It would be nice, of course, if assessments of DVD-RAM's utility to DVD authors could be less qualified: if the single-sided capacity was sufficient for DVD-9, and if support had been built into DVD set-tops and drives from the start rather than as an afterthought. The compatibility issue is particularly vexing for potential users, not only because it limits the ways DVD-RAM can be used, but because DVD+RW claims greater cross-compatibility than DVD-RAM.

The reality is, however, that each of DVD-RAM's rewritable rivals involves its own compromises, such as higher costs and necessary modifications to existing DVD-ROM drives to ensure compatibility. Perhaps most importantly, DVD-RAM is here today, while the other rewritable contenders are years behind their original schedules. As a sub-$1,000 investment that offers DVD authoring facilities some handy capabilities in a rewritable DVD-Book disc, DVD-RAM Version 2 isn't just a good bet--it's currently the only game in town.


Companies Mentioned in This Article

Astarte USA
364 Wildwood Avenue, Birchwood, MN 55110; 651/653-6247; Fax 651/653-6495; info@astarteusa.com; http://www.astarte.de/dvd

Creative Labs, Inc.
1901 McCarthy Boulevard, Milpitas, CA 95035; 408/428-6600; Fax 408/432-6706; http://www.creative.com

Hitachi America, Ltd.
2000 Sierra Point Parkway, Brisbane, CA 94005-1835; 650/589-8300; Fax 650/244-7647; http://www.hitachi.com

Intec America, Inc.
1010 El Camino Real, Suite 370, Menlo Park, CA 94025; 650/327-9402; Fax 650/328-4183; dvd@inteca.com; http://www.inteca.com

International Data Corporation
5 Speen Street, Framingham, MA 01701; 508/872-8200; Fax 508/935-4015; idcinfo@idc.com; http://www.idc.com

Panasonic Industrial Company
Computer Components Group, 1600 McCandless Drive, Milpitas, CA 95035; 408/945-5600; Fax 408/262-4214; consumerproducts@panasonic.com; http://www.panasonic.com

Pioneer New Media Technologies, Inc.
2265 East 220th Street, Long Beach, CA 90810; 310/952-2111; Fax 310/952-2990; http://www.pioneerusa.com

Sigma Designs, Inc.
355 Fairview Way, Milpitas, CA 95035-3024; 408/262-9003; Fax 408/957-9740; sales@sdesigns.com; http://www.sigmadesigns.com

Sonic Solutions
101 Rowland Way, Suite 101, Novato, CA 94945; 415/893-8000; Fax 415/893-8008; info@sonic.com; http://www.sonic.com

Toshiba America Electronic Components
9775 Toledo Way, Irvine, CA 92618; 949/455-2000; Fax 949/859-3963; http://www.toshiba.com/taec


Philip De Lancie (pdel@compuserve.com) is a freelance writer covering media production and distribution technology based in Berkeley, California.

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