Panasonic breaks £200 DVD-RAM barrier

The DVD Burner II is less than half the price of its predecessor, and offers a lot more features, but Panasonic faces an uphill battle to establish DVD-RAM in Europe

Panasonic has launched the first sub-£200 DVD-RAM drive as part of a major push for DVD-RAM acceptance in Europe, but analysts say it has little chance of breaking the hold of a rival DVD format camp. Announcing the new drive, Nobuyuki Ogawa, manager of Panasonic's parent company Matsushita Electrical, said he hoped the low pricing would help see DVD-RAM enjoy the same success in Europe that it has done in Japan. Ogawa pointed out that the DVD Burner I, launched less than a year ago, cost over £500 and lacked the CD-R and CD-RW support of the DVD Burner II. Both models support DVD-RW, DVD-R as well as DVD-RAM. Of all these standards, Panasonic sees DVD-RAM as most strategic. Although DVD-RAM is touted as ideal for data storage, Panasonic is keen for it to gain wider acceptance among consumers. To that end, it will be lowering the prices of its home DVD-recorders, which also use DVD-RAM, this year. Two other rewritable DVD standards exist: DVD+RW, promoted by the DVD Alliance led by Dutch electronics giant Philips; and DVD-RW, promoted by the DVD Forum, which also set the DVD-RAM standard. Some companies, such as Sony, are members of both groups, but Philips and Panasonic remain aloof in their attempts to gain market share -- and dominance. Panasonic believes that DVD-RAM, despite its low market share in Europe, is a better all-round solution than the other standards because of its hard disk-like properties. It does not require special burning software and files can be dragged and dropped using any file manager utility. A second advantage, says Panasonic, is the durability: DVD-RAM discs can be rewritten up to 100,000 times, in contrast to the 1,000 rewrites supported by DVD-RW and DVD+RW standards. Panasonic says that it has artificially aged DVD-RAM discs to 60 years -- although the standard life is usually quoted at about 30 years However, drawbacks include the cost of the media: a 4.7GB DVD-RAM disc typically costs £12 plus VAT, as opposed to DVD-RW and DVD+RW discs at around £5 each plus VAT. Write-once DVD-R and DVD+R media cost about £1 apiece. A further drawback of DVD-RAM is that -- in Europe at least -- home DVD recorders rarely support the format. Pansonic hopes that products such as its Panasonic DMR-E50 home DVD recorder, due to ship this month, will help address this balance. The recorder is due to cost about £450 at launch, but Panasonic believes it can halve this price "in the near future." Devices such as the Panasonic DMR-E50 will, believes Panasonic's Ogawa, help establish DVD-RAM as the link between the PC user and the home consumer. But with such little player support for DVD-RAM, Ogawa believes that users will be happy editing their movies on their PCs using DVD-RAM then burning them to DVD-R for family viewing or for distribution to friends. Ogawa cites DVD-RAM features such as the ability to time-slip programs in the same way as hard disk personal video recorders such as TiVo, and the way that video can be edited directly on the DVD-RAM, as major benefits of the format. But the strategy depends on several factors: cheaper and more DVD-RAM recorders, cheaper media, and more take up by PC manufacturers. Panasonic claims a number of PC manufacturers as customers of the DVD Burner, including IBM, Gateway, Fujitsu, Hitachi, NEC, Sharp, Toshiba, Mesh and Time. But there are two notable exceptions. "HP and Dell would be a big win," he told ZDNet UK. However, HP and Dell are both signed up to the DVD Alliance, which promotes DVD+RW. Analysts say that despite the low price of the DVD Burner II, and Panasonic's promise to drastically cut the price of its DVD recorder, it faces an uphill struggle in Europe. Paul O'Donovan, a principal analyst with Gartner Group, said DVD-RAM is the weakest of the three DVD rewriteable solutions. "The fact that you have to go through separate stages if you want to distribute your movie -- edit it on DVD-RAM and then burn it to DVD-R -- makes it unattractive to consumers. People don't want to do that sort of thing." The key to the struggle between the formats, said O'Donovan, will be the PC market. "If you're not a PC user then the different DVD recording formats are just too complicated -- people will hold off," he said. "In the PC world, people who are used to burning CDs now want to move to DVDs and they won't buy a stand-alone DVD recorder because increasingly they will have it built into their PCs." And of course Dell and HP (both DVD+RW backers) are the two biggest PC makers. "I think that ultimately DVD+RW will be the format of choice," said O'Donovan.


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