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Why Set-Top DVD Needs to Read CD-R

It’s now been more than two years since I first talked about the need for DVD devices to read CD-R discs, but manufacturers of set-top DVD products still haven’t gotten the message.

Why Set-Top DVD Needs to Read CD-R

Hugh Bennett
EMedia Professional, September 1998

It’s now been more than two years since I first talked about the need for DVD devices to read CD-R discs, but manufacturers of set-top DVD products still haven’t gotten the message. Those making DVD drives for computers finally came around, and since the second round of DVD-ROM drives appeared, all DVD-ROM and DVD-RAM drives have been CD-R read-compatible.

To date, only Sony’s DVD-Video players employ the correct dual-laser optical pickup necessary to read both DVD and CD-R media. So if my first attempts aren’t persuasive enough, here are a few more reasons for set-top manufacturers to get their act together.

Surprising as it may seem to those sucked in by the DVD hype machine, not all applications call for DVD’s quality or capabilities. In a world where newer often just means more expensive, there are a lot of technologies and products that are good enough for their assigned tasks. One such technology is Video CD, released in 1993 as the White Book CD standard.

Popularly used for consumer video in China and other parts of Asia, Video CD has a place in North America and Europe for such corporate and institutional applications as computer-based training, information and point-of-sale kiosks, video-on-demand, canned sales presentations, and interactive education. A single Video CD disc holds 72 minutes of full-screen, full-motion, S-VHS-quality video, including 16-bit audio. Video CD also permits still images, common audio backgrounds, and rudimentary interactivity through programmed hot spots.

Many tasks simply don’t need the extra capacity, Dolby digital sound, parental controls, multiple camera angles, regional coding, or copy-protection that DVD offers. Video CD production fits well within the limited budgets of many corporate projects and can be put together in modest internal facilities for a fraction of the cost of DVD.

Since many consumer and industrial DVD-Video devices also play Video CDs, corporate and institutional users enjoy the best of both worlds in a single piece of hardware and the flexibility to use the right tool for the job. But only Sony’s DVD-Video players read CD-R media so Video CD compatibility with almost all devices is strictly limited to replicated discs, a needlessly restrictive situation given the compelling economics and versatility of using CD-R over replication in many situations.

Even in cases where applications call for DVD, one of the problems facing anyone wanting to create prototypes or low-runs of DVD discs is the high cost of DVD recorders and media. At $17,000 for the hardware and $50 apiece for the discs, DVD recording is the province of service bureaus and Hollywood studios. Even when equipment and media prices fall dramatically over the next year, DVD-R will remain beyond the reach of most humans.

This year, major CD-R software developers will upgrade their products to write CD-R discs in the UDF 1.02 formatting and file structures required for viewing on DVD-Video players. The discs’ 650MB capacity is sufficient for many kiosk, sales presentation, and educational applications as well as for the ever-expanding video hobbyist markets. With the installed base of CD recorders projected to be over 60 million by 2001, CD-R provides an economically attractive way for just about anyone to create short-length video discs. But as long as DVD-Video players lack the optics to read CD-R discs, the point is moot.

It’s safe to say that one of the most popular uses of computer-based CD recorders is for making audio compact discs, whether CD-to-CD compilations or LP preservation efforts. Several manufacturers already offer audio compact disc recorders that connect to home stereo systems to not only play music CDs, but also write audio to CD-R from either digital or analog sources. Many projections show consumer audio CD recording overtaking the home-taping market and thus driving CD-R media consumption into the billions. That’s a lot of discs that can’t be played on DVD-Video players, supposedly the cornerstone of everyone’s home theater system.

DVD-Audio players are also on the way, and while it’s hard to believe that their manufacturers are short-sighted enough to release devices that can’t read CD-R discs, stupider things have happened. A disc is a disc to the mass market.

No matter how persuasive an argument may be, there is always someone to say that the cost is too high. Putting dual-laser optics into consumer DVD products is no exception. Despite the fact that the same thing was said about DVD-ROM drives (where dual-laser mechanisms are now the norm), simple economies of scale can in time make dual-laser pickups less expensive than single-laser systems.

The size of the potential market for computer-based DVD-ROM drives will in time far exceed that for consumer DVD-Video and audio products. While DVD-Video players will be lucky to sell in the millions, DVD-ROM drives are already projected to sell upwards of 60 million units per year. Given that all DVD-ROM drives built today have dual-laser systems and the large amount of R&D money being spent to make their optical pickups simpler, lighter, smaller, and cheaper, today’s more expensive solution will quickly become tomorrow’s economical solution.

To quote one of the hits of a bygone era, “There, I’ve said it again.” But will they listen this time? For the good of the consumer I sure hope so.

Hugh Bennett, editor-in-chief of Hugh’s News, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems, a reseller, systems integrator and industry consultant based in London, Ontario, Canada. Hugh is author of The Authoritative Blu-ray Disc (BD) FAQ and The Authoritative HD DVD FAQ, available on Hugh’s News, as well as Understanding Recordable & Rewritable DVD and Understanding CD-R & CD-RW, published by the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA).

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