Recordable DVD has been struggling through a swamp of obstacles, from movie studio restrictions preventing DVD back-ups of movies to expensive, hard-to-find DVD recorders. Computer-based systems offer a popular alternative to pricey stand-alone units, but the real barrier to consumer acceptance of a recordable DVD format is likely the multitude of competing approaches fighting for domination: DVD-RAM, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, and DVD+RW.

DVD-RW and DVD-RAM currently have the backing of the DVD Forum. Not surprisingly, Sony (which seems always ready to start a format brawl) and Philips broke from the Forum in 1997 and introduced a competitive format, DVD+RW, currently supported by Sony, Philips, Hewlett-Packard, Ricoh, and others.

DVD-R is designed for authoring, and as with CD-R, each disc can be written only once. DVD-R is compatible with most DVD drives and players. There are two different versions of DVD-R: DVD-R(A) for professional authoring and DVD-R(G) with general consumer authoring. DVD-R(A) media cannot be used in DVD-R(G) recorders, but both versions can be read on most DVD players and drives.

DVD-RW is an erasable format similar to DVD-R. DVD-RW discs can be recorded on and erased up to 1000 times and are playable on most DVD players and drives. DVD-RAM makes DVD a virtual hard disk as a removable storage medium, with random read-write access, which can be re-written more than 100,000 times. But, and this is a big but for DVD video fans, DVD-RAM is not compatible with most set-top DVD players.

DVD+RW is an erasable format based on CD-RW technology and DVD+RW drives can read DVD-ROMs and CDs, and usually read DVD-Rs and DVD-RWs, but do not read or write DVD-RAM discs. As a bonus, most DVD+RW drives also write CD-Rs and CD-RWs. Finally, DVD+R is a write-once variation of DVD+RW with similar compatibility to that of DVD-R.

Several new products hope to cut through the format confusion for folks interested in committing their video to disc. MedioStream, a company specializing in creating PC-based consumer software for recording digital video on DVD and CD discs, offers a range of products that the company says provide full compatibility with all competing DVD formats, including DVD+R/RW and DVD-R/RW.

Introduced in July 2001, MedioStream's neoDVDstandard, is intended as a complete DVD authoring system that "takes out the hassles" for consumers who just want to be able to edit, author and burn digital video onto a DVD or CD disc. The company says that NeoDVDstandard is compatible with all commercially available DVD recordable drives, including the Panasonic DVD-RAM/R combination DVDBurner, the Pioneer DVR-A03 DVD-R/RW drive, the Philips DVD+RW200 series drive, and the Ricoh MP5120A DVD+RW drive.

In addition to supporting all DVD recording formats, the neoDVDstandard software, the company says, also allows users to create DVDs that can be played in either NTSC or PAL video formats. MedioStream's Gordon Doran adds that consumers "just want to burn a DVD. They shouldn't have to worry about what software works with which format, whether it's DVD+RW, DVD-RW, DVD+R, or DVD-RAM. We create products that let users burn DVDs regardless of what format they are using, even if they don't know what that format is. Video in, DVD out, that's what neoDVD does, and it really is just that simple."

On the hardware side, and perhaps more significantly, Hitachi reported last week that it has developed what is described as the industry's first drive which can burn all writable DVD formats approved by the DVD Forum in addition to writable CDs. The company says the half-height drive was designed mainly for PC use and can read/write DVD writable format discs including DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD-RAM, and CD-R/RW and will start shipping next January.

According to Hitachi, support of the various writable DVD and writable CD formats was realized by deploying a newly developed optical head and DSP. The only catch is lack of support for the DVD+RW format as proposed by Sony, which could still slow consumer adoption as the companies continue to battle it out. Almost-all-in-one drives are a good start, and that may quell some initial format resistance, but many feel that unless Sony and DVD+RW can make a graceful exit, the industry will continue to struggle until it adopts a single universal standard.