Dual-Layer Recordable DVD Discs to Raise Capacity

Both DVD-R and DVD+R formats will gain a dual-layer disc. Backwards compatibility remains an open issue.

Manufacturers of DVD media this week announced details of forthcoming dual-layer recordable discs that will expand capacity to 8.5GB. However, compatibility with older drives may be an issue.

Supporters of the DVD-R/RW format, lead by Pioneer Corp. this week announced a 8.5GB disc at the CEATEC Japan 2003 expo in Makuhari Messe, Japan. Likewise, the DVD+RW Alliance, made up of seven companies including Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Corp., Royal Philips Electronics and Sony Corp., also demonstrated its dual-layer format, which is expected in end-user products sometime in 2004.

Compatibility with current DVD products could be an issue, however. The DVD+RW Alliance said it was a "priority" to make their format backwards compatible with existing products. The drives will be backwards-compatible with existing DVD-R and DVD-ROM players and drives, the group said in a statement.

However, it was not certain whether the new DVD-R format developed by Pioneer will maintain backwards-compatibility with existing drives. In a statement issued from Pioneers Tokyo headquarters, the company said that the drive was designed with almost the same jitter and reflection tolerances as current dual-layer DVD-ROM discs. Thus, "DVD-R discs supporting this technology can be played back on most existing DVD players, and DVD recorders supporting this technology will be developed easily."

Writing to the new media was a different matter and it was not clear whether or not the older drives would be able to burn data to either layer of the new discs. Pioneer will submit its specification to the DVD Forum "after further improvement in performance," the company said.

Officials at Imation Corp., which manufactures optical media, said they did not know whether the proposed dual-layer Pioneer format would be compatible with older DVD-R drives.

One Pioneer executive said that the leap to the new format will require some hardware changes.

"Weve developed the fundamental technology and submitted it to the DVD-R Forum to be ratified by the Forum properly," said Andy Parsons, senior vice president of the business solutions division at Pioneer USA. "Were the chair company of Working Group 6, involved in the DVD-R specification, and once we get the spec. developed Id expected this to be rolled out in 2004."

According to Parsons, the new dual-layer DVD-R discs will not be write-compatible with older drives, as the additional layer requires a higher-power laser to write data. "But read compatibility looks quite promising," Parsons said.

While the ability to write to dual-layer discs may add a slight premium, Parsons said the impact on pricing will largely be negligible.

At the same time, DVD-RW customers shouldnt expect dual-layer rewritable discs anytime soon, since the technology will use a different phase-change technology, he said. Pioneer is considering whether to even develop the technology, as 75 percent of all media sold is currently write-once.

"But years ago when someone asked me if dual-layer DVD-R was feasible, I said never say anythings impossible," Parsons added. "Im glad I did."

For the consumer market, the increase in capacity finally puts the DVD player on par with the capacity available from VCR tapes. And the transition to dual-layer DVD-R technology could sound the death knell for the tape technology commercialized by Philips in 1972. The new discs will be able to record about 16 hours at VHS quality.

"The recording time is now the same as the VCR, meaning that we have overcome the last remaining obstacle to replacing the VCR, besides cost," said Perry Solomon, chairman of the marketing committee of the Optical Storage Trade Association, a format-neutral industry association based in Cupertino, Calif. In an interview, he said the new media format represents "a tremendous opportunity to democratize ... a consumer-level replacement for tape."