Don't Be Stumped By DVD Standards
It all comes down to application formats, writable formats and DVD drives
DVD is the hottest thing to hit consumers,
well, ever. Consumers are snatching up DVD movies like Shrek in
record numbers, and even moribund TV series like "Twin Peaks"
and "M*A*S*H" are finding new life as DVDs. Home DVD players are
selling at a faster rate than the radio, Internet or even
television was adopted. Virtually all new computers come with a
DVD drive allowing tens of millions of consumers the ability to
play DVDs on a computer. But the biggest change is yet to come.
2002 is the year a number of manufacturers have released, or
will release, DVD burners, allowing consumers the ability to
make their own DVDs with a computer for the first time ever.
However, intrepid DVD creators should proceed with caution. DVD
is a new technology and not all devices support the same
standard. In fact, there are a number of competing formats for
creating your own DVDs, making it possible that the DVD you
create on your computer may not play in your living room. This
article will arm you with the information you need to know to
keep that from happening. But pay close attention, in a moment
the acronyms are going to start flying around like a box of
nails caught in a tornado.
The easiest way to understand the subtleties of DVD technology
is to divide the discussion into three parts: application
formats, writable formats and DVD drives.
Let's begin with application formats. The good news is that
every DVD movie that you buy or rent is in a single application
format called DVD-Video. All DVD players and DVD drives can play
DVD-Video. Now the bad news: You might create your own DVD-Video
movie and it might not play in your DVD player. Sounds odd,
doesn't it? Let's move on to writable formats. Although DVD
disks look like CDs, they are not the same thing. The biggest
difference is that a DVD can hold much more information than a
CD. Most CDs hold 650 or 700 megabytes of data, movies or music.
Most DVDs hold 4.7 gigabytes, or about seven times more
information than a CD. This extra capacity allows entire
Hollywood movies to fit on a single disk. If you want to create
your own DVD movie, you will need to get a writable version of
one of these DVD disks. This is where it starts to get
Imagine if there were five different kinds of VHS tapes and they
all looked identical but were not -- that is basically where the
DVD standards world is right now. There are essentially five
versions of writable DVD that you need to understand. They are:
DVD-R, DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, DVD+RW and DVD+R. The distinctions are
actually based on how the data is written to and read from the
disk, and this differentiation is difficult to translate to the
physical world, however one example might be language.
Imagine if the entire world agreed on a single language for all
written documents, say English. In the United States we would
continue to create English documents and books in which one
reads left to right. But another country might prefer to write
and read English right to left. And yet another, top to bottom,
and so on until the effect became that although all documents
were created in a single language, it would be very difficult
for a person from one country to read a document from another
country. DVD recording is in a similar state of confusion. DVD
is such a nascent technology that these issues have yet to work
themselves out, so you have no choice other than understanding
them all. One easy way to think about the formats is as five
completely different kinds of DVD disks.
First, let's divide the formats up. The first thing to note is
that DVD-R and DVD+R disks can only be recorded once. You only
get one chance to record your DVD movie to this kind of disk
It's like pouring cement, once it is done you'll need to destroy
it to change it. Further, DVD-R discs come in two types: DVD-R(A),
for "authoring," and DVD-R(G), for "general." Both DVD-R and
DVD+R discs will play in most DVD players, even older ones. So
if you put your movie on this kind of disk there is a high
probability that it will play in your living room. However, DVD-R(A)
drives can not record to DVD-R(G) disks, and vice versa.
There are also DVD formats that can be recorded more than once.
DVD+RW, DVD-RW and DVD-RAM disks can all be recorded thousands
of times. If you don' t like how your DVD movie turns out, you
can record a new version right on the same disk. These disks are
more like painting a wall -- if you don't like the color you
just put on a new coat. Each of these rewritable formats are a
little different. DVD-RAM, for instance, was created for storage
of computer data -- like backing up your hard drive. If you want
to get a DVD writer to back up computer data, DVD-RAM is a solid
option. However, if you plan to make your own DVD movies, one of
the other formats may be better suited for that activity. Most
DVD players can't play DVD-RAM disks.
The DVD-RW and DVD+RW formats are both good for making DVD
movies but are essentially engaged in a Beta versus VHS-type
battle. The consumer market will ultimately determine which
format wins or if they end up combining into a single standard,
but it is important to understand that neither is yet a
universal standard. Another thing to note is that many DVD
players won't play any kind of rewritable disk. Most of the
newer players will play these kinds of disks, but if you have an
older DVD player it may not. In general, the newer your DVD
player, the more likely it is to play all the recordable
formats. There are web sites like Apple.com, HomeMovie.com and
DVDplusRW.org that list compatible players and formats, but
these are not unabridged resources either. Use them as a general
That covers the basic DVD writable formats. The last point of
concern is the DVD drive itself. This is the part of your
computer that will actually record your data or movie onto the
DVD disc. Thankfully, if you have made it this far you are
almost home. The different types of DVD drives basically break
down into the same formats as the DVD writable formats.
Therefore, there are DVD-RAM drives, DVD-R drives, etc. on down
the line. It is also increasingly likely that DVD burners will
come with the ability to record to more than one format, for
example a manufacturer may offer a DVD+R/RW drive, meaning that
it can record both DVD+R and DVD+RW discs. When considering DVD
media (the actual silver discs) and DVD burners, make sure that
both the discs and drive are the same format.
That is about as simple as it gets, at least for now. You'll
probably want to print out this article and consult it when you
buy your DVD burner, but let's review.
Step one: Decide what you want to use your DVD burner for. If
you want to back up computer data a DVD-RAM burner is a good
choice. If you want to record movies and music choose another
kind of burner.
Step 2: Decide where you will be watching your DVDs. If you plan
to send your homemade DVD movies to friends and relatives with
older DVD players, you will want to make sure you get a DVD-R or
DVD+R burner. If you plan to watch your DVD movies on a computer
or a newer DVD player any format will likely do. Again, these
are general guidelines and there are lots of exceptions. Check
the web and do your homework.
Step 3: Match 'em up. Remember the children's clothing brand
Garanimals? If a shirt had a lion on it, you had to find a pair
of shorts with a lion on it. If you got a Garanimal shirt with a
lion on it and shorts with a fox then they would be different
sizes and would not match. DVD is the same way. You need to make
sure that your DVD media and DVD drive are the same.
All of these DVD acronyms can be pretty intimidating, but now
you know better and as G.I. Joe used to say, "Knowing is half
the battle." Not to mention this is only going to get easier and
easier as the standards work themselves out.
The last point is this: it is worth it. The learning curve pays
off the first time you sit down on your couch with your remote
control and popcorn to watch a DVD that you (or your kids) made,
and the alphabet soup of DVD will give way to the warm glow of a
job well-done. Have fun.
Honda Shing is Chief Technology Officer for
InterVideo, the company that makes
WinDVD, the popular software DVD player. InterVideo also
makes other audio and video software and will soon release
WinProducer 2 DVD, a program to edit and burn your own DVDs.