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Dual-Layer DVD Burners Hitting The Market - 8/5/2004 6:04:37 AM   

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AFTER a shaky start, double-layer DVD burners are finally hitting the market in large numbers, but it may be a while before consumers choose to make use of their full talents.

Double-layer DVD's provide nearly twice the space for data and are already the industry standard for manufactured DVD movies. Invisible to the eye, the two layers are made possible by a DVD player's highly focused laser, which reads out to the edge of one layer, then refocuses to read back from the edge of the next layer.

In a movie on a double-layer DVD, there may be a slight scene freeze toward the end. This is the "layer break," the moment when the player's laser makes the jump.

Double-layer DVD recording systems from Dell, Lite-On Technology and Iomega (as well as unbranded DVD writers sold to computer makers by Philips and NEC) were announced on the heels of the first double-layer recorders, introduced by Sony in April. The DVD-recording powerhouses Hewlett-Packard and Pioneer have taken more time in view of questions about the format's compatibility with conventional DVD players and the availability of blank two-layer DVD's. They are expected to release their own versions this month. "Now we get 90 percent compatibility with set-top players," compared with 40 percent in trials five or six months ago, said Steve Johnson, Hewlett-Packard's DVD product manager.

Because a double-layer DVD provides 8.5 gigabytes of storage instead of the typical 4.7 gigabytes, you can either fit twice the amount of viewable film or store a video at twice the quality. But there are reasons that someone who is not recording two hours of high-quality video or archiving six hours of old analog video should stay away from double-layer DVD for now.

The discs themselves, officially named DVD+R DL, cost $10 to $15 apiece and are at the moment not easy to find. Sony offers such discs, made by Verbatim, at www, for $10 apiece, or six for $50. A Verbatim spokesman said that "modest supplies" were also at Best Buy and that the company was making an effort to increase production and lower the price. Other media makers are following suit.

The discs must contain the same amount of data on each layer. If you are burning, say, six gigabytes, the software program will divide your file into two three-gigabyte sections or slice a 90-minute video clip into two 45-minute segments, separated by a layer break. At the moment, you can't pick your layer break, which could spell trouble.

"On your wedding video, you don't want to hear 'Do you take this person to be your lawfully wedded wife?' - then the layer break happens," said Andy Parsons, Pioneer's senior vice president for advanced product development.

If you are recording from TV and don't know the duration of your video, you run the risk of writing too much on one side, which DVD- authoring software can remedy by adding dummy data - meaningless ones and zeros - to the other layer for balance, a time-consuming fix.

The double-layer race is itself a side current of the greater speed race. New writers boast speeds of 8x and 12x, meaning they can burn an hourlong video in 7.5 and 5 minutes respectively. Over the next few months, 16x writers will arrive; for now, 16x is considered the fastest potential speed for DVD writing.

Still, double-layer discs cannot be written at those speeds. HP's coming double-layer DVD recorder, the Dvd530i ($99), writes single-layer discs at 8x but can manage only 2.4x for double-layer media. The company's 16x internal and external models ($149 and $199), anticipated this fall, will still write the DL discs at 2.4x, the company says.

Pioneer's new DVR-A08 ($179) will also be a 16x drive, but it will be the first with the ability to write certain DL discs at 4x.

Bob DeMoulin, Sony's marketing manager for storage products, says the greatest demand for double-layer DVD recording was from DVD producers. "Before this, producers would have to send a tape and wait a week" for a production center to send back a DVD, he said. "Now they can burn proofs on the desktop and be ready in an hour. For them, $15 a disc is no problem."

Hollywood has yet to express concern over the format, which in theory could be used to duplicate manufactured discs more easily. "In the short term it seems like it's not being used as a movie-copying tool," Mr. DeMoulin said. "That's in part due to lack of supply and price of media. Over time, that could change."
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