They're at it again!

It's not exactly BetaMAX vs. VHS, but consumers are once again supposed to absorb the headaches and hassles caused by greedy manufacturers who have created proprietary formats in the vain hope of locking in a captive audience of customers.  They never learn. From a technical standpoint it's a draw, they each have pros and cons.  From a data standpoint, they both produce big blobby MPEG files and a kludgey disk menu data table. They both also embrace every possible flavor of sucky copyright protection known to Hollywood, leaving commercial DVD pirates unscathed, but making it impossible for the rest of us to enjoy any measure of fair use. But that's another story.

It's not really necessary or even likely that, either the "Plus" format, supported by the DVD +RW Alliance1 , or the "Dash" format, promoted by the DVD Forum2 , will win the format wars.  Much more likely is that we'll have something denser, cheaper, more reliable and just all around mo betta than either Plus or Dash in another few years.  Blue lasers and double density disks are just over the horizon, and these formats will likely be able to read most of the DVDs created by today's models.

The nitty gritty  

DVD, originally meant Digital Video Disk, but was transformed into the Digital Versatile Disk, once manufacturers began to introduce versions of the format that could be recorded on a home PC or dedicated DVD recorder3.  

Commercial movies are delivered in the basic DVD-Video format.  All DVD players can play DVD-Video disks.  Beyond that things get sticky. 

DVD media comes in two basic varieties: write once disks, that cost a buck or two and can only be recorded once (R), and re-writable (RW) disks that cost about twice as much, and work like a hard disk that can be recorded, erased and re-recorded many times.  

DVD-ROM was the original DVD standard and is a read-only format. Compressed video files, or game code is burned onto the DVD disk once and the DVD will run only on DVD-ROM drives, usually installed in computers. DVD-ROM isn't seen much anymore and was primarily used as a data/application storage device.

DVD -R and DVD -RW (collectively known as "Dash") was first to market, and captured the hearts and minds of millions almost immediately through the simple wonder of simply working.  Cheap, recordable disks that hold almost five gigabytes of data, music, or compressed video are a wonderful thing.  From the day that Apple started offering DVD Dash drives in many of its models, desktop video entered a new era.  Complicating matters for the Dash format is the fact that  DVD-R discs come in two flavors: DVD-R/A, for "authoring" (i.e. mass replication), and DVD-R/G, for "general" usage. You cannot record R/A disks on a R/G drive or vice versa.  In addition to Apple, Pioneer, Toshiba and Panasonic are promoting the Dash format.

DVD +R  and DVD +RW (together, known as "Plus") is mainly backed by Philips, HP and Dell.  Plus came to the market a little later than Dash, but has already caught up in terms of estimated total users. Plus seems to be on the offensive with respect to new features, and general 'tude. Another important factor is the preliminary selection of Plus for built-in support in Microsoft Windows.  Dell and HP together sell more computers than anyone else, so Dell's recent announcement that it would begin supplying DVD Plus drives in its new systems could also be an important sign of the format's ascent.

DVD -RAM  is the odd duck out in the format wars.  It was originally intended, or at least marketed as a data-oriented format, sort of a zip drive on steroids.  With the common availability of DVD recorders, it appears that DVD-RAM has made the crossover to video and is provided as a re-writable format on Panasonic DVD recorders.

Compatibility tests performed by Digital Video Magazine and other independent labs seem to agree that both -R and +R disks will play on 90+% of all DVD players.  The +RW and -RW re-writable formats appear to be somewhat less compatible and will play on about 70% of the DVD players tested.

So, which should I choose? 

Exhausting this subject could burn up a few thousand syllables, and our patience at the same time.  Suffice it to say that as of today there isn't an obvious right answer, or a wrong answer either.  Both formats seem to work pretty well, and you can "Finalize" your disks with most systems so that they can be played on almost any modern DVD player.  So you can burn a disk for Mum and be pretty confident that she'll be able to play it.  If you can afford to wait awhile, multi-format compatible drives, such as the Pioneer DVR-A06, that can read and write DVD +/- formats.

So, if you net out all the conflicting trendlines, I think the conclusion is that either format will probably work for most folks. The only valid technical advantage that I found in Plus over Dash, was the annoying extra complexity of the "A/G" sub-format in Dash. On balance I think that DVD Plus has the current edge in both features and momentum.  That's what I bought, but primarily because that's what came on the Philips DVD recorder with all the other features I wanted.

Update May 2004 - Dual Layer Formats

As if to reinforce their distain for the consumer, both the Plus and the Dash camps are in the process of delivering yet another set of "standard" formats for us to struggle with.  Recordable dual layer (DL) technology is upon us and once again, caveat emptor. Like its pre-recorded counterpart, DVD-9, DL allows the recording of 8.5 gigabytes of storage on a standard 12cm disk, enough for up to four hours of high quality video The Plus team is first out of the dock with DVD+R DL products due to arrive in the next few months.  Dash supporters need not despair however, as DVD-R DL recorders and disks have been promised for early 2005.  To add icing to this confusing cake, rumors of rewritable versions of both DL flavors are already in the wind.

This development may be good news for a minority with highly specialized needs, but for most of us it just means more headaches.  At this point the likelihood of the DL formats catching on seems slim, since the disks are expected to initially cost about $10 (US) each and given the past history of DVD formats, compatibility problems in existing players can be expected.  

Recent customer surveys and tests by the DVD Forum and OSTA have shown that serious compatibility problems still exist the current DVD standards.  So one might reasonably ask, why the industry can't take a breather and consolidate rather than throwing yet another set of competing standards out into the world?   



1  DVD +RW Alliance website (Plus):
2  DVD Forum website (Dash):
3  General DVD Format Info: