By Don Labriola  |  Posted 2004-05-21 Print this article Print

Dual-Layer DVD Recording

They said it couldnt be done. But dual-layer DVD recording is at last a reality, and the first product to offer it is the ground-breaking Sony DRU-700A. A dual-layer drive can store an entire Hollywood DVD-Video title, including menus and special features, on a single dual-layer disc. This pioneering DVD rewriter can also burn 8X ±R and 4X ±RW media, includes what is arguably the most comprehensive DVD-drive software bundle weve seen, and produced superior results on most of our benchmark tests. Dual-layer recording still suffers from a few growing pains, but the DRU-700A is a landmark product and represents a significant step forward for the DVD industry.

Dual-layer discs recorded by the DRU-700A conform to the DVD+RW Alliances recently approved 2.4X DVD+R DL ("double layer") specification. The DVD Forum is about to finalize its own dual-layer DVD-R format. Although the DVD industry has consistently used the term "dual layer" to describe two-layer media—reserving "double-sided" for discs that can be flipped over like LPs—the Alliance has unilaterally defined the term "double layer" to describe its DVD+R DL format. DL media is expected to ship in quantity no earlier than the third quarter of 2004, and will initially sell for $10 to $14 per piece at retail. A DL disc can hold 8.5 billion bytes (or 7.95GB), nearly twice the capacity of single-layer media and an exact match for the replicated dual-layer discs used to distribute most commercial DVD-Video titles.

This last issue is crucial, since the killer application for DVD rewriters has been the ability to back up Hollywood movies. But most titles are too large to fit on a 4.37GB (4.7-billion-byte) single-layer platter, forcing larger backups to span two pieces of media. Aside from the inconvenience of recording and playing back two discs instead of one, splitting a DVD-Video title can disrupt its logic, preventing menus from locating assets and even preventing some movies from being duplicated at all.

The limited capacity of single-layer media also constrains DVD authors, who need to burn their works in progress to disc for debugging purposes, to give to clients for feedback, or for short-run distribution. In the past, the alternatives were to compress large projects to fit onto one disc or to split them between two pieces of media—both solutions that make it impossible to preview the content in its final, unadulterated form. All these problems are solved by recordable dual-layer media.

One of the first applications to offer DL-recording is Ahead Softwares flexible Nero digital-media suite, a version of which ships with the DRU-700A. Unlike Nero bundles that are packaged with other drives, Sonys version can be upgraded at no cost to add nearly all the capabilities of the full retail Nero 6.3 product. (The only omissions are 5.1-channel Dolby Digital encoding and unlimited MP3 ripping.) The result is one of the most comprehensive and easy-to-use disc-layout, copying, and authoring suites currently available to the consumer market. Strangely, Sonys documentation does not mention the availability of this free online upgrade.

During our hands-on evaluation, disc-ripping performance was unexceptional, but the drive earned high marks on our MPEG-encoding and CD-burning tests. It did well in our single-layer DVD-burning benchmark tests too, and recorded 7.75 GB of DVD-Video content to a double-layer disc in about 40 minutes. In subsequent tests, DL burning times were not affected by the amount of source material being recorded, because unlike single-layer media, every bit on both layers of a DL disc must be burned before the disc can be finalized.

Our test unit couldnt record at 8X on the Verbatim DVD+R media that we use as a standard, forcing us to use Sony discs for our DVD+R tests (a problem that Sony is currently investigating), but it had no problems burning any other single-layer DVD format or speed. DL discs ripped and burned with Neros Recode 2 module worked in all our test players, including even the most finicky notebook drives. But those containing content originally ripped by a third-party freeware application, such as SmartRipper or DVD43, played correctly in only about half of our players. We forwarded samples of these discs to the vendors for analysis and will keep you posted with any new information we uncover.

We were further dismayed to find that DL media cant be read by any DVD recorder that isnt also designed to burn Double-Layer discs. According to Sony, this anomaly is caused by the fact that pre-DL rewriters dont recognize the on-disc media codes that identify recordable DL media; its not a problem with read-only DVD-ROM drives or set-top players that lack recording capabilities. Manufacturers expect to release firmware upgrades that will resolve this problem eventually, but you may have to download and install them on affected single-layer recorders on a case-by-case basis.

The Sony DRU-700A is a solid product in a class with any rewriter weve tested, although its DL-recording capabilities may have arrived before the format itself is fully mature. Nonetheless, an impressive combination of functionality, performance, and pricing makes its double-layer support icing on what is already a tasty package.

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