The white flag has come down on the DVD burner market.
Industry executives say that the newest 16X DVD burners that will ship this fall will run into the same physical limits as CD-ROM drives, ending the "X race" of faster and faster speeds.
Manufacturers will still have some leeway to charge higher prices for dual-layer DVD burning capabilities, but for many, a DVD burner will become a commodity product later this fall. For the first time in more than a decade, moreover, the optical storage industry also wont have a clear-cut path leading toward a next-generation storage medium.
As always, a problem for drive makers is a boon for consumers. Take, for example, the fate of the CD writer: several years ago, the ability to burn a CD could command well over a hundred dollars. Today, a high-end internal CD burner can be purchased for as little as $40. The shift wont happen overnight, manufacturers said, but the writing is on the wall.
The problem, once again, is spindle speed. Six years ago, the CD-ROM drive began running into physical limitations at 32X speeds, and manufacturers said then that they were phasing out their products to jump to next-generation DVD-ROM drives. That transition actually occurred somewhat later, as "40X" and "52X" drives were developed, combining marketing hype with new motors that compensated for the wobble the high-speed discs produced. Rewritable CD media also prolonged the format, allowing consumers to burn their own discs for archiving. Meanwhile, the constant race to develop faster and faster speeds -- the "X race" -- brutalized profit margins, analysts said.
The 16X DVD+R specification was sent to manufacturers at the beginning of June, officials said Monday. When 16X DVD burners begin shipping, the DVD+R and DVD-R camps will have topped out on the obvious means to improve optical storage performance: CD and DVD read, write, and rewrite speeds.
"16X speeds are at pretty much the physical limit," said Greg Standiford, a product engineer within the optical devices division at Hewlett-Packard, who said a 16X disc will spin at about the same 10,000-RPM speed as a 52X CD-ROM. At that point, he said, the limiting factor is the polycarbonate material used to form the disc: spinning it faster may crack it, he said.
"My understanding is also that when 16X comes out in the future its as fast as we can go," added Scott LeFevre, product general manager for branded products at Iomega Corp.
Manufacturers may be able to tweak the rewrite speeds to improve them slightly and charge higher prices, LeFevre said. "But when 16X CD-RWs were announced a couple people announced 56X (CD-ROM read) speeds and the rest of us rolled our eyes and said Give us a break," LeFevre added.
According to HPs Standiford, the DVD+RW Alliance develops considers a 0.9 specification to be completed from a technical sense, and that specification was sent to manufacturers at the beginning of June. The 16X specification actually defines the media used by the drives, and the drive makers in turn tweak their components to meet the needs of the spec, he said. The DVD Forum controls the DVD-R and DVD-RW specifications, but they will be subject to the same physical limitations, Iomegas LeFevre said.
The additional speed will mean that consumers will be able to burn an entire DVD+R 16X disc in less than six minutes, a representative for the DVD+RW Alliance said Monday. The improvement is an abstract one, however, because 12X-capable media has not been released.
In the meantime, DVD burner developers have started shipping drives that can burn at advanced rates using slower media. For example, Sony recently said it had begun shipping the DRU-540A, a 12X DVD burner that can write 8X media at 12X speeds.
DVD+RW manufacturers tend to ship their products as early as ten weeks or so after the spec is delivered, Standiford said. Iomega plans to ship a 12X DVD burner as an interim product in July and August, and ship a 16X burner in September, LeFevre said.
Iomega will probably add 7-in-1 flash card readers to its drives to add value, LeFevre said, and the DVD burners will still command a premium as long as there are standalone CD burners. Other than that, there are "just a few tweaks that you can add," he said.
"DVD burners in the 12x recording speed range are state of the art," wrote Julia Bassett Schwerin, an analyst with Infotech Inc., in an email to ExtremeTech. "It is not for scientific reasons why speeds cannot be increased... They are some combination of financial (12x drives are over $600 and in the range of professional studio gear not consumer where the payoff is), engineering (speeding up the discs puts enormous strain on the diodes, shortening their life and reducing reliability), and practical (the window of opportunity for spending R&D budgets on DVD is closing due to the ramp up of the next generation)."
The bottom line? It might soon time to invest in a DVD burner.
"With the price of high-speed, multiformat, single layer burners dropping precipitously, now may be a good time to take the plunge," ExtremeTech reviewer Loyd Case wrote in a high-speed burner roundup last month. "If you either dont need dual layer burning, or dont want to pay the cost for new dual layer drives and media, then a low-cost, single layer burner may be just the ticket."
Dual-layer and HD DVD
The ability to burn a second layer on a DVD, essentially doubling the capacity, will allow drive makers to maintain their profit margins for a short time. However, burning the second layer on drives like Iomega Super DVD Writer 12x Dual-Format USB 2.0 Drive requires the drive to slow down to a effective speed of 2.4X, and so far no manufacturer has indicated if that speed can be increased. Although the dual-layer, 8.5-Gbyte media will be useful to store digital video, its unclear how many customers will adopt the technology. The DVD-RAM format, meanwhile, is popular in Japan, but it hasnt made much of a dent in other markets.
Meanwhile, the market has yet to decide on a competing next-generation DVD standard. Sony and Matsushita have said that they will begin commercializing Blu-Ray recorders capable of recording up to 50 Gbytes of digital video per disc before the end of the year. In May, however, Sony said an optical head capable of reading and writing DVDs, CD, and Blu-Ray discs was two years away.
Furthermore, although the competing HD-DVD specification was approved earlier this month, no manufacturer has stepped forward to announce drives based on the technology.
Thats not to say that there might be some additional innovation hidden in a research lab. "I have been in the business over 20 years, and I have seen a lot of hitting the wall announcements about technology development progress made irrelevant by breakthroughs," Schwerin said.
This story was updated on June 15 at 10:34 PDT to add comments from Infotechs Schwerin.