DVD drives that do it all

Multi-format DVD drives are burning up the charts. New drives add DVD-RAM to the mix.

Last year, we expected DVD+R/RW burners to overtake the competition and thought that the establishment of a single standard would be critical for rapid adoption. We were half right: DVD+R/RW drives now dominate the desktop, but we still don't have a single standard. Instead, manufacturers simply started building drives that supported multiple formats -- both DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW -- and sales took off.

Sony debuted the first multi-format drive last autumn, and its current model, the DRU-510A, remains the most popular. Now, though, you can buy a universal drive that supports DVD-RAM as well, in the shape of LG Electronics’ GSA-4040B and Iomega’s Super DVD All Format drive.

Like most current multi-format burners, both drives support 4X DVD+R and DVD-R, 2.4X DVD+RW, 2X DVD-RW, and 24X CD-RW. But they also add 3X DVD-RAM. These universal drives aren't just good insurance policies against the standards war, they also let you choose the best format for the job.

Backed by the DVD+RW Alliance (Dell, HP, Philips, Sony and others), DVD+R/RW is arguably the most versatile because it's suitable for both data storage and creating audio and video discs that can be played back in most drives and DVD players. More than half of the DVD drives sold now use this format solely, and another 40 percent support it in addition to other formats. Even Pioneer, whose DVD-R/RW SuperDrive opened up the DVD recording market, has added DVD+R/RW to its latest DVR-A06 product.

DVD-R/RW had a six-month head start, and when Apple and Compaq started pushing it in new PCs in 2001, it jumped out to an early lead. Backed by the DVD Forum, the format is technically similar to CDs and DVD-ROMs, and initially it had better compatibility with existing drives and players. It's still a good choice for burning audio and video, but it has limitations as a general-storage format for PCs.

The opposite is the case in the electronics world, where DVD-R and DVD-RAM reign. About 70 percent of DVD recorders sold use DVD-RAM because the format makes it easy to implement features such as time-shifting and editing video on the disc. But DVD-RAM discs can't be played back in most drives and DVD players, so most recorders also let you burn DVD-Rs.

So why would you want DVD-RAM? The same features that make it good for DVD recorders also make it great for desktop storage. It functions like a hard drive, and you can rewrite to a single disc 100,000 times, making it ideal for regular, automated backups. Microsoft says the Mount Rainier technology in the next version of Windows (code-named Longhorn) will make both DVD+R/RW and DVD-R/RW formats behave much the same way; but for now, DVD-RAM is a great addition to the combo drive's repertoire.