It recently occurred to me that there are people who didn't directly experience the VHS/Betamax format wars of the early 1980s, and that these people are now old enough to drive.
That's too bad; if nothing else, they were instructive lessons in the power of marketing, the triumph of convenience over quality, and the potential dangers of closed (or at least restrictive) standards.
I imagine the people at what became the DVD Forum standards body were keeping that in mind when they were hammering out the specs for DVDs eight years ago. Back in 1993, there were actually two standards being proposed for the next generation of optical media: a Sony and Philips consortium had the Multimedia CD (MMCD) and Toshiba and Warner led the Super Density (SD) disc consortium. I couldn't pretend to know the details, but I'd like to think that Sony, still smarting from the whole Beta/VHS thing (Sony announced that the Betamax model released that year would be their last) provided living proof of the perils of letting the market decide between two incompatible formats.
The end result of the alliance was that when the DVD spec was finally hammered out and discs and players started coming out in late 1996, people didn't have to worry about compatibility. Sales of DVDs, players, and DVD-ROMs since have been spectacular.
So it's perplexing to me that a new standards war seems to be shaping up, despite apparent lessons learned. There are currently four recordable DVD formats out there: DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM. As can be expected, DVD-R is a write-once standard; the other three are rewriteable. Maddeningly, there are compatibility issues between the different formats and some existing hardware (mostly, it seems, those over three years old); furthermore, two of the rewriteable formats (DVD-RW and DVD-RAM) are approved by the DVD Forum, which seems to be a curious form of internal inconsistency on their part. But wait, there's more: unlike Beta and VHS, DVD-whatever discs all conform to the same form factor, which can easily confuse people not up on the latest initials--compounded by similarly-named formats like DVD-RW and DVD+RW (it gets worse: DVD+R is right around the corner).
This is why my recent experiences with the Panasonic LF-D321 DVD Burner and Hewlett-Packard DVD-writer dvd100i--which support three recordable DVD formats between the two of them--felt a little more frustrating than they should have.
The first drive I tried was the DVD Burner, which is physically installed like any internal ATAPI device: set the jumper, slide it in the bay, turn the computer on. The driver installation is just as painless. The DVD Burner handles both DVD-R and DVD-RAM media, with the driver software automatically assigning two drive letters to Windows (in my case, F: for DVD-RAM discs and G: for anything else) and installing a "DVD-RAM Watch" icon in the system tray. The slight inconvenience of remembering which drive letter to use depending on media is mirrored in the drive tray's physical design: when switching between cartridge DVD-RAMs and other discs, three pieces of plastic have to be moved in order to accommodate the different form factors. (Some but not all DVD-RAM discs come in cartridges reminiscent of those old CD caddies.)
Technically, there's little to complain about. The DVD Burner reads DVD-ROM and DVD-RAM discs at 2.5–6X and 2X respectively, and writes DVD-R (without verify) and DVD-RAM (with verify) at 1X. CD and CD-RW discs are read at a respectable 24X and 12X. (Bear in mind that 1X on a DVD is a little over 9X on a CD.) In my tests, a 3.85 GB collection of files took 53 minutes to burn to a DVD-R; copying a 1.21 GB folder back to the hard disk took 8 minutes. The DVD-RAM took slightly longer, writing the files in 62 minutes and reading the folder in 10.
The drive is a mess of contradictions in other ways. The product literature positions the drive as an offline or near-line storage device, touting the 4.7 GB storage capacity (though it can also write to 9.4 GB DVD-RAM cartridges) and making references to archiving and data. In contrast, the pre-production manual I received leaned heavily toward creating DVD movies and slideshows. So did the software: four of the included programs--DVD-MovieAlbum SE, WinDVD 2000, DVDit! LE, and Motion DV Studio--focused on capturing and burning images and video; only two, FileSafe and MediaSafe, were for backups. I was astonished to discover there was no included software for burning a data DVD-R (for my tests I used Stomp, Inc.'s RecordNow Max).