Amid the confusion that engulfs DVD formats, the dual drive is making headway. Will this put an end to DVD-induced brainache?

The days of worrying about whether you need DVD+R or DVD-R discs may soon be over. Eighteen months after Sony Electronics announced the first dual DVD+R/RW and DVD-R/RW drive that handles both formats, virtually every other optical-storage manufacturer is jumping onto the combo +/- (DVD±R/RW) bandwagon.

Even Toshiba and Hewlett-Packard, loyal advocates of the DVD-R/RW and +R/RW standards respectively, have recently announced combo +/- drives for the retail market. Toshiba's Storage Device Division makes drives for its own notebooks, other PC vendors, and for retail under its own brand name and others.

"Our customers started to ask us to support both," says Maciek Brzeski, vice president of marketing.
Dual-format drives are taking over the aftermarket for upgrade products. However, if you buy a Toshiba notebook you'll get only a single format, DVD-R/RW, and not a dual-format drive. The same goes for desktop PCs from big-name vendors like Dell and Hewlett-Packard. Those companies are offering only single-format DVD+R/RW drives with their systems. Some large PC makers, on the other hand, including EMachines, Gateway, and MPC Computers, as well as smaller vendors like ABS Computer Techologies and Polywell Computers, are responding to customer demand for dual-format burners, and are including them on their systems.

Toshiba's storage division does not yet make combo +/- drives, and so told PC World that the capability is not yet in Toshiba notebooks. However, some Toshiba notebooks use drives from other manufacturers that do support combo +/- drives, and so that capability is now appearing in some models.

A simpler world?

Before Sony introduced the first +/- combo drive in September 2002, users had to pick a writable DVD technology. Once you chose a DVD-R/RW or DVD+R/RW drive, you could make use of only that kind of disc. (DVD-RAM was another option, but few bought that very incompatible format.)

But with one of the new combo drives, the type of disc doesn't enter into the equation. You can simply go with the cheapest media or discs from the company with the best reputation.

Does one type of media have an advantage over the other? In the all-important area of compatibility with other DVD drives and players, the answer is... it depends on who you ask. According to Toshiba's Brzeski, "You can't guarantee that a + disc will always work on an older player."

On the other hand, "We've found that +R and +RW media is more compatible," says Maureen Weber, HP's general manager of optical storage solutions.

Pioneer, which has been shipping +/- drives longer than those two companies, is less inclined to pick one format over the other. "Compatibility is quite similar" between the two standards, says Andy Parsons, senior vice president.

For the moment, +R has a speed advantage - if you have the right drive. Plextor's PX-712A, due to ship in May, will be the first 12x DVD drive, but only for DVD+R. Plextor claims the drive will write to 8x media at 12x, a necessity since 12x media isn't on the horizon).

Dual-format drives cost about the same to manufacture as the single-format varieties. They cost more to licence, however, since the company must pay for more intellectual property. Brzeski says Toshiba is building only dual drives, and partially disabling some units that it then sells as single-format models.

On the upgrade path

The switch to +/- drives is entirely market-driven--or, to be more precise, aftermarket-driven. People buy these drives to upgrade.

"On the OEM side, there's still a lot of single-format drives," says Wolfgang Schlichting, an IDC analyst. "But in the aftermarket, they fly off the shelves. The end user would rather pay a little more and get a dual-format drive."

But you can still buy a single-format drive. In fact, they're cheap and getting cheaper - a sure sign that they're on the way out. Weber says that HP will now sell only +/- drives to the retail market, even while it sticks to DVD+R/RW in its own PCs and sells only +R/RW media. For now, Toshiba plans to sell both dual- and single-format drives to retailers. But "newer drives, looking forward, should all be dual format," Brzeski adds.

The big exception will continue to be drives that come built into computers. At least with the large PC companies, these are almost all single-format. It's a very big chunk - for example, 80 to 85 per cent of HP's drives, according to Weber.

Part of this is company image. If you've been publicly stating that +R/RW (or -R/RW) is the only way to go, you may be reluctant to officially change your mind.

Price is another. Those dual licensing fees look a lot larger in the high-volume/low-margin business of selling PCs. Writing to two DVD formats is, according to IDC's Schlichting, "low on the feature list" for people buying a PC. "Comparing dual and single [format support] is not important," Schlichting adds.

Vendors have cited tech support calls as another reason they've supported only one format. In the long run, dual-format DVD drives will probably take over this market, too. "It will be hard over time to find a single-format drive," says Pioneer's Parsons.