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Ted Landau's User Friendly View - DVD-RAM reconsidered. Seriously.

by Ted Landau
May 25th, 2006

Back in late 1999, when Power Mac G4 computers first arrived on the scene, most came with a DVD-RAM drive. It's not a mystery why Apple initially put its faith in this format. They had the advantages of floppy disks but without their downsides. Specifically, DVD-RAM discs offered much greater capacity and reliability than floppies; yet (as with floppies) you could copy files to or delete files from a disc on an file-by-file basis. You could even modify and re-save a document already contained on a disc. Put simply, the discs could be used repeatedly, modifying their contents as desired, with no hassles. In contrast, today's DVD±RW discs have to be completely erased before you can re-use them and DVD±R discs can only be used once! [Technical note: Yes, I am glossing over the little-used and awkward multi-session burning here.]

Despite all of these advantages, Apple's experiment with this format ended about a year after it began. There is no formal obituary that details the causes of this early death, but I am reasonably certain what happened. First, and foremost, a different DVD format was becoming increasingly popular as a medium for movies. As there were no drives that could read from and write to both the DVD-RAM and DVD±R formats, Apple had to choose one or the other. Apple was just recovering from its miscalculation of the demand for CD-burners (having initially gone with DVD-ROM drives in its iMacs rather than CD-RW drives). It was not going to make the same mistake again. They had to go with the format that was being used with the rapidly growing number of DVD players out there. Eventually, the SuperDrive arrived, with its ability to both read from and write to the common CD and DVD formats (but not DVD-RAM). If there was any doubt as to what Apple would use, it ended with the SuperDrive.

The potential success of DVD-RAM was also hurt because the discs need to be placed in a bulky cartridge before you could use them. Plus, the other CD and DVD formats were rapidly outpacing DVD-RAM in terms of reading and burning speeds.

And so, DVD-RAM drives joined OpenDoc and the Newton and all of the other products that are in Apple's abandoned technology heap. And eventually DVD-RAM drives faded out of existence altogether. Or so I thought—until about a year ago when I began to shop for something to replace my VCR. I wanted something mainly as a means of recording TV shows for my now-frequent time-shifting. I looked at TiVo, of course, but decided against it (I have since relented, having purchased one last month). My initial reluctance was for two reasons. First, I did not want to commit to paying a monthly fee on top of what I was already paying for cable. Second, I wanted the ability to record a show on one TV and play it back on another, without any fuss.

I looked at plain-vanilla DVD recorders, but did not like them either. As I intended to primarily record programs that I did not care to save after viewing, I was not happy either with the limitations of DVD±RW discs or (even worse) having to discard DVD±R discs after one use.

And that's when I discovered Panasonic DVD recorders. They included, of all things, a DVD drive with DVD-RAM support. But these were not the same DVD-RAM drives used by Apple years before. The discs for these new drives have greater capacity (matching the 4.7GB of single-layer DVD-ROM discs), the drives support all the other CD (for reading only) and DVD (for writing and reading) formats, and they don't require using a cartridge. In essence, I could get my cake and eat it too. With one drive, I could have the advantages of DVD-RAM without sacrificing compatibility with the other more common formats. This meant, for example, that I could record two weeks or more of The Daily Show on one DVD-RAM disc. After watching one show, I could simply select to erase it, freeing up its space for recording a new show while leaving all other recorded shows untouched. The erasure is simple and quick, taking only a few seconds to do. I could keep using this same DVD-RAM disc over and over, saving money as well as hassle.

As a bonus, with DVD-RAM discs, the drive offers chasing playback, much like a TiVo device. This means that, for example, if I get home 30 minutes into the recording of a 60 minute show, I can select to watch the show from the beginning, with the ability to skip commercials(!), while the drive continues to record the latter half of the show.

One downside, of course, is that these DVD-RAM discs cannot be played on most other brands of DVD drives. But, after I discovered that I could get a Panasonic DVD player (not a recorder) with DVD-RAM support for about $70, I wound up getting two Panasonic drives (one recorder and one player)—all for under $250. The recorder was missing several of the convenience features of TiVo, but I had no monthly fee to pay. Overall, I have been quite happy with these drives.

All of this leads me full circle back to the Mac. With one of these new-generation multi-format drives attached to my Mac, I could use DVD-RAM discs as removable mini-hard drives for storing data. Not as fast, obviously, but adequate for many tasks. Plus, I would still be able to use the drive as a player for movie DVDs or for burning standard DVDs when desired.

I am not counting on Apple adding DVD-RAM drives as a build-to-order option any time soon. But what about purchasing an external multi-format DVD-RAM drive? Yes, they do exist. But you would be hard-pressed to find them. Searches for these drives on Amazon came up empty or nearly-so. I did find a Sony model at PC Mall. A few sites also carry drives made by LG and Panasonic. Availability is apparently greater in Europe and Asia. For example, Amazon's UK site stocks several DVD-RAM drive models.

The specs indicate that these drives should work fine with a Mac. There is a potential minor snag with the type of format preferred for these discs (UDF instead of Apple's HFS Plus), but it is not a deal-breaker (see Wikipedia for more background on this).

I know. DVD-RAM is not likely to ever make a significant comeback. There is just too much momentum in the other direction for it to overcome. To be honest, even after writing all of this, I have not yet purchased one of these external drives and I am not sure I ever will. But I am thinking about it. Regardless, I do wonder what might have been, if history had started down a slightly different path back in 1999.

Ted Landau is the founder of MacFixit, and the author of Mac OS X Help Line, Tiger Edition and other Mac help books.

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