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Is DVD ready for you?

Fourth-generation DVD-ROM drives are here. Is it time to upgrade yet?

December 15, 1998
Web posted at: 10:00 ASM EST

by Dean Andrews

(IDG) -- Ready or not, better be prepared to confront DVD the next time you go to purchase a new PC or upgrade your CD-ROM drive. You'll find DVD-ROM upgrade kits side-by-side with the latest CD-ROM drives, and you'll find DVD-ROM drives preinstalled in new home systems. The question: Should you choose a DVD-ROM drive over a CD-ROM drive? The answer depends on how optimistic you feel.


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Only a handful of DVD-ROM applications are currently available for PCs. Meanwhile, hundreds of DVD-ROM movies, better suited for set-top players, fill store shelves.

It's a chicken-and-egg problem: Software developers won't create expensive PC DVD-ROM titles until the installed base of DVD-ROM drives grows. But users are reluctant to buy drives until titles arrive. If you buy a DVD-ROM drive, you're gambling that the format will take hold on the PC. It's a pretty safe bet, but it may take several years for that to happen.

In the end, it's a personal choice, so here are some factors to consider.

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Extra costs

A DVD-ROM drive adds about $100 to $150 to the price of a new PC. Most PC manufacturers offer DVD-ROM only for home systems because the format is still very entertainment-oriented. All PC makers let you customize your new system, so you can pick a 32X CD-ROM over a DVD-ROM drive and save the money. Upgrade kits run from $150 to $210 for so-called third-generation DVD-ROM drives (more on this shortly).

Software decoding vs. Hardware decoding

DVD movies and PC titles require MPEG-2 video decoding. This can be done by software or a hardware add-in board. Software decoding works well on systems running at 266 MHz and faster but places a greater burden on your PC's CPU. If you plan to surf the Internet (or do anything else) while playing a DVD title, your overall system performance will suffer with software decoding.

Hardware decoding allows for perfect playback and puts very little burden on the CPU. Most PC makers let you choose either software or hardware decoding when you customize a new system--software decoding will save you $70 to $90. Most upgrade kits include a hardware decoder board.

DVD speed

The latest drives mark the third generation of DVD-ROM -- each generation either added features or improved performance. These drives play DVD titles at 5X DVD-ROM speed and CD-ROMs at 14X to 32X CD-ROM drive speed. In reality, these speed ratings won't mean much to you. DVD and CD titles are optimized for slow drives, so that they will work on average PCs as well as the latest and greatest systems. You'll only notice improved performance when you install software from a disc or when you copy files from a disc to your hard drive.

In general, third-generation DVD-ROM drives are perfectly adequate as replacements for CD-ROM drives in home PCs. Just be careful when you shop -- you'll still find slower second- and even first-generation DVD-ROM drives out there. These older drives are less suited for replacing your CD-ROM drive.

Rewritable DVD

Trouble is brewing over a rewritable DVD format. Toshiba, Hitachi, and Panasonic tout their new (2.6GB per side) DVD-RAM formats, while Sony, HP, Ricoh, and Philips hype their upcoming (3GB per side) DVD+RW formats. These drives let you record as well as play new high-capacity discs.

Unfortunately, neither DVD-RAM media nor DVD+RW media are compatible only with fourth-generation DVD-ROM drives, which are just starting to ship. And then, only with the format that the drive manufacturer has adopted. Therefore, Panasonic's fourth generation DVD-ROM drive will support DVD-RAM media but not DVD+RW. Sony's fourth generation DVD-ROM drive will support DVD+RW but not DVD-RAM. And so on.

Still with me? The bottom line: Don't buy a DVD-ROM drive for its rewritable qualities -- those first DVD-ROM drives will be expensive and it's too early to tell which format will win out.

For now, the CD-ROM market is alive and well. If cost is your primary concern, you might opt for a CD-ROM drive and consider DVD-ROM for your next upgrade. On the other hand, buying a DVD-ROM drive now is a pretty safe investment. All indications point toward its success. And you should find more PC DVD titles in the coming year.

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