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DVD Formats: Consumer DVD-R  (5/2001)

    by Douglas Dixon

  Pioneer DVD-R / CD-RW Recorder
  Compaq MyMovieSTUDIO and Apple iDVD
  DVD Formats

DVD is not just for professional authoring anymore. With the announcement in January 2001 of systems from Apple and Compaq bundled with Pioneer's new DVR-103 recordable DVD/CD drive hardware and simple DVD authoring software, creating DVDs has become feasible and inexpensive enough for business and consumer use! This means that you can edit video on your PC, author it into a DVD production with menus and interactive features, burn it to a DVD-R disc costing around $10, and then play it on almost all existing set-top and PC DVD players. In Pioneer's view, video is the "killer app" for DVD, and this lower-cost DVD-R burner and media has the potential to drive the use of DVD like audio recording did with CD-R.

    Pioneer DVR-103 recordable DVD/CD drive                 Pioneer DVD-R 4.7 GB disc media

The DVD market is growing rapidly, according to a December 2000 report from the market research firm, Cahners In-Stat Group: Combination drives, those that can write CDs and read DVDs, experienced the highest annual growth rate in the optical drive market in 2000. CD-RW drive shipments continued their impressive growth in 2000, matching those of DVD-ROM drives. Rewritable DVD drive shipments will double next year as more PC OEMs offer the drives as options in their desktop models.

All this sounds great, but you have probably heard about all the confusion in the DVD market, with different competing formats, different technologies, changes in capacity, and problems with compatibility between different formats and with older players. While these issues certainly are still shaking out, recent announcements have brought some clarity to the DVD world. In this article, I'll try to help you make sense of all this from the end-user point of view, and describe the different DVD formats by comparison to the CD formats that we are now used to.

The Pioneer DVR-103 is the first combination recordable DVD/CD drive for consumer PC use. It is a big breakthrough in price: the current DVR-S201 external DVD-Recordable drive for authoring sells for $5,400, down from $17,000 when it was first introduced in 1997. The DVR-103 reads and writes four recordable formats including DVD-R (write once), DVD-RW (re-recordable), CD-R and CD-RW, and offers up to 4.7GB of storage capacity per DVD side. It records DVD-R discs at twice normal speed (2X). Pioneer plans to ship the DVR-103 as a retail product packaged as an internal IDE drive in Q2 2001 for a suggested price of $995.

For all the gory detail about the DVD format, technical details, and products, see the DVD FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions), by Jim Taylor, author of "DVD Demystified" (McGraw-Hill, December 2000) at

Desktop DVD - Compaq MyMovieSTUDIO and Apple iDVD

The new desktop systems from Apple and Compaq include not only the Pioneer DVD drive hardware, but also software authoring tools for creating DVD productions. Compaq is including the Pioneer DVR-103 drive with the Presario 7000 PC along with its MyMovieSTUDIO video editing software bundle. The software includes the Pinnacle Studio DV video editing software ( and the Sonic Solutions DVDit! authoring tool (

         Compaq Presario 7000 PC                                 Sonic Solutions DVDit! 

Apple is including the new Pioneer drive on new Power Mac G4 systems as the combination CD-RW/DVD-R SuperDrive. Apple also has developed two DVD authoring tools, iDVD and DVD Studio Pro. iDVD is preinstalled on the new Power Mac G4 with the SuperDrive, and DVD Studio Pro is available for $999 (

iDVD is a consumer-level application intended to compliment the Apple iMovie editor by shielding users from the complexity of DVD authoring. It provides drag-and-drop simplicity and professionally designed themes for creating menus, buttons and backgrounds to turn iMovies, QuickTime files and pictures into DVDs that can be played on consumer DVD players.

      Apple Power Mac G4 with DVD        Apple iDVD authoring tool

DVD Studio Pro is a full-featured DVD authoring tool, and is intended to compliment Apple's Final Cut Pro tool for video editing, effects and compositing. It provides professional encoding of video into MPEG-2 and audio into Dolby Digital formats, and supports up to 99 video tracks and multiple language tracks. You can include slide shows, still or motion menus from layered PhotoShop files or video clips, and interactive links directly to the Web, and then preview the finished project in real-time. DVD Studio Pro also can output to DLT tape for mass duplication or DVD-RAM to inexpensively test projects.


So, why do we need DVD anyway? After all, CD is great: 650 MB (million bytes) of storage, accepted, reliable, and ubiquitous, so you can feel confident that if you burn a CD it can be played on anyone's CD audio player or PC CD-ROM drive. You can fit a whole music album on a CD, 74 minutes of uncompressed stereo audio. And, if you compress your music files to MP3 format at around 3 MB for a three-minute song, you can store a couple hundred songs on a single CD.

But DVD is driven by the demands of video. For example, full-resolution compressed video from a DV camcorder is 25 Mb (million bits) or 3.1 MB per second, or 187 MB per minute -- that's more than a full CD for just one minute of video!

The DVD format was designed to be able to fit an entire Hollywood movie, with high--quality video and audio, into the same size disc as a CD. Most DVD formats now hold 4.7 GB per disc, which is enough to store a two-hour movie through the magic of MPEG video compression. Instead of the fixed compression rate of DV, MPEG allows movies to be compressed at different rates in order to compress more efficiently and squeeze each movie as needed to fit on a DVD.

For the record, disc storage capacity numbers are measured sloppily in the industry. Capacity for hard disks are specified as binary powers: kilobytes (KB, 1024), megabytes (MB, 1024 x 1204), and gigabytes (GB, 2 to the 30th power), which is actually 1,073,741,824. Capacity for optical discs like CD and DVD are specified in decimal powers: thousands, millions, and billions of bytes (BB, or 1,000,000,000). Even so, you see DVD capacity specified as 4.7 GB, when it is actually BB. This seems like nit-picking with numbers this big, but the first time you cannot fit your production on DVD because it is 73 million bytes too big, you will remember that I warned you!

The DVD family also provides additional configurations and sizes. Discs can be double-sided, so you can flip them over to double the capacity to 9.4 GB. They also can be double-layer, where the laser can be re-focused to read a second layer of data on each side, increasing the capacity to 8.5 GB. And by combining both these techniques, a single 4.7 GB disc can hold 17 GB of material.

Both these techniques are currently used for movies on DVD. Double-sided discs are often used to provide two versions of a movie, full-screen (cropped) and wide-screen, or sometimes to provide additional material about the movie on the second side. The disadvantage of double-sided discs is that there is nowhere to print a label, so the disc information is printed in tiny print on the inner rings. Double-layer discs are sometimes used to squeeze a long movie or additional material onto one side of a disc. You then do not need to flip over the disc, although there is a slight glitch when the laser transitions between layers that must be planned for when authoring the disc.

DVD Format Wars

While the idea of DVD makes sense, the development of DVD, and the different formats, has been long, clumsy, and confused. The base DVD formats for video were defined by the DVD Forum, an industry coalition of companies that have worked together to define technical formats and their uses ( The DVD Forum includes over 200 members, including the major DVD manufacturers, software developers and media producers around the world.

The formats defined by the DVD Forum include prerecorded DVD-Video for movies, DVD-Audio for music, DVD-ROM for prerecorded data, DVD-R for recording, DVD-RW for re-recordable / rewritable media, and DVD-RAM for rewritable data storage. Some of these are physical formats with different disc materials, like prerecorded DVD-ROM, recordable DVD-R, and rewritable DVD-RW, while others are application formats that define the layout of the data on disc, like DVD-Video and DVD-Audio.

As the technology and market has matured, the DVD Forum has fleshed out the different format definitions and increased the disc capacities to reach a somewhat stable set of formats. The idea is that this set of formats are close enough technically that they can all be supported cost-effectively in a single drive, along with the corresponding CD formats, providing compatibility and interchangeability across formats.

Meanwhile, another industry coalition has developed a competing re-writable format called DVD+RW. By early 2001, however, the industry seems to have settled on a 4.7 GB disc format, and is paying attention to the need to provide compatibility across all the different formats and players, from PCs to consumer electronics devices.

CD-Audio / DVD-Video

The most widely used DVD format is the DVD-Video format used to distribute movies on DVD for set-top DVD players. DVD-Video is strictly not a different physical disc format, it is instead a specification for the layout and format of video, audio, and ancillary material on the disc. Like the CD-Audio for music, DVD-Video was designed for distributing professionally produced material (movies and albums) so they could be manufactured in mass quantity for retail sale. This material was intended to be authored at studios with high-end tools to compress video at high quality and take advantage of the DVD-Video features for additional information and interactivity.

The DVD-Video format supports widescreen, letterbox and pan-and-scan video formats, and up to 9 user-selected camera angles. For audio, it supports CD-quality surround sound, up to 8 audio tracks for multiple languages or commentary, and up to 32 subtitle/karaoke tracks. It also provides for extensive user interaction and even limited programmability with menus and navigation features. And for the movie studios, it provides copy protection and region coding to prevent discs sold in one part of the world from being played in another.

Just as CD-Audio discs can be played on both consumer audio players and computers with CD-ROM drives, DVD-Video movies can also be played on both set-top DVD players and computer DVD-ROM drives. More accurately, DVD-ROM drives can read the DVD-Video discs, but you also need DVD player software to interact with the DVD menus and decompress and play the video and audio content.

DVD Audio

A separate DVD Audio format has recently been formalized to provide higher-quality audio than available from current CDs. DVD-Audio offers higher quality like DVD audio, including Dolby Digital AC-3 and surround sound, and a wide range of options for coding audio at high fidelity, with 24 bits per sample and 96 KHz sampling frequency and beyond.

DVD-Audio also additional features such as still pictures, text information, menus and navigation, and even video sequences. The format provides for longer playing times; the capacity of a dual-layer DVD-Audio will be up to at least 2 hours of full surround sound audio. For the recording industry, DVD-Audio also includes copy protection and anti-piracy measures. All this is great for audiophiles, but DVD-Audio will not displace the mass market for CD-Audio in the near future.


While CD-Audio and DVD-Video are designed primarily for playing music and movies on consumer players, a second use of CD and DVD is as a big data store for computers. The CD-ROM and DVD-ROM (Read-Only Memory) formats provide a cost-effective format for manufacturing a disc full of data that is designed to be read (but not written) by almost any computer.

The CD-ROM has replaced the floppy disk as the medium for retail sales of software applications; in fact the cost of manufacturing has dropped so low that companies like AOL can afford to give them away. And now the DVD-ROM format provides an even larger disc format, particularly for distributing large data collections such as multimedia encyclopedias.


Once you have access to a large data storage format like CD-ROM on your computer, however, you would also like to have the ability to write data to those discs yourself. The two CD formats for writing to CD discs are CD-R (Recordable) and CD-RW (ReWritable), where recordable discs can be written once, and rewritable or re-recordable discs can written, and then re-used by erasing and writing again.

Actually, while CD-R Recordable discs are write-once, you can write to different areas on the disc at different times, so you can write a portion of the disc, and then later append more data to the disc. In CD terminology, this is described as keeping the disc open, then writing multiple sessions, and then closing the disc when you are done with it. These days, you do not need to use a special application to write data to a CD, but instead can install an operating system extension that lets you drag and drop to copy individual files to the disc.

But CD-R discs are not just for data; you can also burn music files to CD-R discs in CD-Audio format that can be played on CD audio players. To do this, you use a audio authoring tool to prepare the songs you want to record in the audio data proper format, and then burn the disc in one operation with the song data and other control information required for CD-Audio playback.

Now that lingering compatibility problems with early generation CD drives have been overcome, you can expect to be able to read and play any retail CD audio disc on any PC CD-ROM drive, and also be able to take CD-R discs that you burned on a PC and play them on a CD audio player. Compatibility has been more of a problem with CD-RW discs, but they should work fine with recent players.

DVD-R is designed to fill much the same role with DVDs as CD-R does with CDs. In particular, it is the only way to burn DVD video discs that can play back in set-top DVD players. In addition, at these prices, DVD-R can also be used as an inexpensive data store for archives and sharing data.

Originally, however, the DVD-R format was only available for professional authoring, requiring expensive and complex authoring tools, expensive burners, and expensive media (around $50 per disc). All that has changed with the availability of inexpensive DVD authoring tools like Sonic DVDit!, the new Pioneer DVR-103 drive, and much lower media costs. The new $10 DVD-R media is actually a different format, it is "General" media priced for much higher volumes, compared to the older "Authoring" professional media, which can be used to create and copy encrypted movie productions.


Recordable write-once disc formats are great for permanent archives and for sharing data with others, but are also useful to be able to write discs with temporary data. The CD-RW (re-recordable or rewritable) format lets you burn backup or test discs and then reuse them later. Of course, now that prices of CD-R media have dropped under $1, it is often easier to just use CD-R discs for everything instead of stocking and re-formatting CD-RW discs.

Like CD-RW, the DVD rewritable formats are designed to record and reuse. In particular, when you are working on a DVD video project and want to preview your production, it makes sense to use rewritable DVD to burn test discs, with current DVD-R media costing around $10 and rewritable media projected to cost around $20 to $25.

Unfortunately, here we get into the confusion about DVD standards. While the DVD Forum has specified a rewritable DVD format called DVD-RW, an alternative rewritable format called DVD+RW has been defined by a group including HP, Mitsubishi Chemical / Verbatim, Philips, Ricoh, Sony and Yamaha (

The DVD-RW format was designed especially to support recording of streaming media. It is already in use in Japan in consumer video recorder devices, is supported by the new Pioneer DVR-103 recorder, and will be shipped this spring in consumer video recorders in the United States now that copy protection issues have been resolved.

DVD-RW should be reusable over 1000 times, with a lifetime of 30 to 50 years. It is somewhat less compatible than DVD-R with DVD players, although Pioneer says that this is not due to deep technical incompatibilities, but mostly because the players have not been designed to recognize and use the format. For example, all Pioneer players should play DVD video burned on DVD-RW.

DVD+RW was designed for real-time video recording and random data recording, and should allow random access and editing of video. The format has been through several redesigns before reaching a 4.7 GB format that should ship in 2001. It is also designed to be compatible with existing DVD video players.

There is yet some hope that these competing formats can be reconciled. In January 2001, Sony, a supporter of the DVD+RW format, announced it would produce a dual-compatible deck in 2001 that supported both DVD-RW and DVD+RW.


The final DVD format is DVD-RAM (Random Access Memory), a rewritable format that does not have a comparable CD format. DVD-RAM is defined by the DVD Forum, and most actively supported by Hatachi, Toshiba, and Panasonic. It is designed for use as a reliable and high-capacity storage solution for multimedia and the enterprise. The DVD-RAM format has a 30-year data life, can be written over 100,000 times, and incorporates error correction and defect management technology. To achieve this reliability, the media is often enclosed in a cartridge sleeve.

DVD purists would argue that the DVD-RAM format is not part of the DVD family technically; instead it is just another optical disc format that was designed to fit in the DVD form factor. As a result, DVD-RAM compatibility requires adding additional electronics to drives to support the DVD family and DVD-RAM. The DVD Forum has developed a "DVD Multi" logo for products that support the full range of DVD formats, including DVD-RAM.

However, DVD-RAM does have its place as a highly reliable and reusable format, for example as part of an enterprise backup system. It has been shipping in quantity for several years as PC data storage format, with one million units sold in 1998/99 and nearly 3.5 million projected to be sold in 2000. DVD-RAM drives cost around $700, and 4.7 GB DVD-RAM media costs around $30. A smaller 80 mm disc size has also been defined for use in consumer electronic devices, to hold 1.4 GB on one side, or 2.8 GB on a double-sided disc.

Time for DVD

The new Pioneer DVD-R / CD-RW drive opens the door for mass-market use of DVD on the desktop. As DVD-R media prices drop below $10, DVD becomes a great data storage and interchange format (with over seven times the capacity of CD). Even better, along with new lower-cost DVD authoring tools, it permits us to create DVD productions that can be played on any set-top DVD player and PC DVD drive.

This is great news for consumers concerned about the DVD format wars and compatibility issues. If you working on a PC and want a disc that can be read on almost all players and PC's, just use DVD-R. It's shipping, it's been in use for several years, it works, and it should last around 100 years.

Meanwhile, the other DVD formats are available for other more controlled applications. You can use rewritable formats for making test discs or temporary copies to use and share among known equipment in your office. You can also use DVD-RAM as an extra reliable data store for PC data, again to be shared among machines with compatible equipment.

On the consumer electronics front, you may need to be more wary as competing formats and even media sizes battle for dominance in applications such as camcorders and video recorders. You cannot yet expect that any of these new formats and media will survive as a long-term format into the future.


Pioneer New Media Technologies - DVR-103 recordable DVD/CD drive

Apple DVD

Sonic Solutions - DVDit!

Pinnacle Systems - Studio video editor

DVD Forum

DVD+RW Organization

DVD FAQ - Jim Taylor, DVD Demystified