The Coming Age of DVD Burners

Prices are falling, options are exploding, and the format wars may soon be a thing of the past

Drives that can "write" as well as read CDs have become commonplace on desktop computers and even on many laptops. In a year or so, DVD burners could become nearly as widespread. And with software getting better, creating a video disk to show in your living room DVD player could be almost as easy as burning an audio CD for your Discman.

One issue that has stood in the way of wider adoption of recordable DVDs has been a format war, between the "plus" and "minus" camps. One group, led by Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) and Philips (PHG ), promotes DVD+RW (erasable) and DVD+R (write once) technologies. Toshiba (TOSBF ), Panasonic, and Pioneer support the rival DVD-RW and DVD-R standards. While there are technical differences, the real issue is: Which group of companies collects royalties on which patents? The fight has confused consumers, but the fog is lifting. And with falling prices and the availability of better software to create video DVDs, the popularity of DVD burners is rising fast.

All the disks hold 4.7 gigabytes of data, or about two hours of DVD-quality video. And all the DVD burners can create audio or data CDs. DVD+RW disks have the advantage of behaving more like hard drives: You can make changes on one without rewriting the entire disk, an advantage when using the disk to store data. But the DVD-Rs are far more likely to be compatible with existing home DVD players.

The good news is that developments in media and drive technology may resolve the format fight. Media prices are crashing, and, in a pattern similar to what took place in CDs, the erasable versions may become largely irrelevant. With blank DVD-Rs and DVD+Rs available for about $3 each when bought in 10 packs--and likely to fall below $1 next year--why reuse a disk? This argues for the DVD-R, with its superior compatibility, being the winner. Apple (AAPL ), which really got consumer DVD burning going, installs only DVD-R drives in Macs.

In addition, most new consumer DVD players and many PC DVD drives can read multiple formats. Sony's (SNE ) $350 DRU500A drive cuts the Gordian knot by adapting itself to whatever recordable media you put in its tray: +, -, R, or RW.

No matter which format you choose, you will need "authoring" software to create video DVDs. Most drives come with this type of program--with Sonic's MyDVD being the most popular. Other simple programs include Roxio Movie Creator and Ulead Movie Factory. All DVD-equipped Macs come with Apple's iDVD. In general, these programs allow you to create the opening menu page that appears when a DVD is popped into a player. Most also let you transfer video directly from a camcorder to a DVD and create a slide show of still photos on DVD. (Unlike audio CDs, you cannot make copies of commercial DVDs, at least not easily or legally.)

All of these programs are adequate for most consumers who just want to be able to watch home videos in their DVD players and perhaps send a copy to grandma. But more ambitious hobbyists or people working on more complex projects for business can choose from a variety of advanced tools that offer more options. These include more animated menus, alternate soundtracks in multiple languages, and subtitles. The choices, most of which come in "standard" and "pro" flavors, include Pinnacle Systems (PCLE ) Impression DVD ($199-$399), Ulead DVD Workshop ($275), and Sonic DVDit ($250-$550). Ambitious Mac users can go for Apple's DVD Studio Pro ($999), which can even produce encrypted, copy-protected DVDs.

When starting to create DVDs, allow yourself plenty of time. For one thing, preparing an hour of video for transfer to a DVD, a job usually done by your video-editing software, can be an overnight job even on a fast PC, especially if you have a lot of titles and effects. Creating menus and dividing your video into the right chapters isn't especially difficult, but it takes a while to do it right, especially at first. The result can be a professional-looking project that will let you show off your video to good advantage on a big TV connected to a DVD player.

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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