The days of worrying about whether you need DVD+R or DVD-R discs may soon be over.

Eighteen months after Sony announced the first dual DVD+R/RW and DVD-R/RW drive that handles both formats, virtually every other optical-storage manufacturer is jumping onto the combo +/- (DVD±R/RW) bandwagon.

Even Toshiba and HP, loyal advocates of the DVD-R/RW and +R/RW standards respectively, have recently announced combo +/- drives for the retail market. Toshiba's Storage Device Division makes drives for its own notebooks, other PC vendors, and for retail under its own brand name and others.

"Our customers started to ask us to support both," says Maciek Brzeski, vice president of marketing.

Dual-format drives are moving to dominate the upgrade market. Currently, PC manufacturers such as Dell and HP continue to ship single format DVD-R/RW drives in their PC products – Apple, for example, supports the DVD-R format in its SuperDrive. Some manufacturers are moving to deliver dual format support in products, including eMachines and Gateway.

Before Sony introduced the first +/- combo drive in September 2002, users had to pick a writable DVD technology. Once you chose a DVD-R/RW or DVD+R/RW drive, you could make use of only that kind of disc.

The new combo drives obviate this problem, but there are pros and cons to either format – though different parties have different, sometimes conflicting, observations.

For example, Toshiba's Brzeski said: "You can't guarantee that a + disc will always work on an older player."

On the other hand, "We've found that +R and +RW media is more compatible," claimed Maureen Weber, HP's general manager of optical storage solutions.


Pioneer, which has been shipping +/- drives longer than those two companies, is less inclined to pick one format over the other. "Compatibility is quite similar" between the two standards, said Andy Parsons, senior vice president. Pioneer supplied the original SuperDrive to Apple.

Dual-format drives cost about the same to manufacture as the single-format varieties. They cost more to license, however, since the company must pay for more intellectual property. Brzeski says Toshiba is building only dual drives, and partially disabling some units that it then sells as single-format models.

The switch to +/- drives is entirely market-driven – or, to be more precise, aftermarket-driven. People buy these drives to upgrade.

"On the OEM side, there's still a lot of single-format drives," said Wolfgang Schlichting, an IDC analyst. "But in the aftermarket, they fly off the shelves. The end user would rather pay a little more and get a dual-format drive."

But you can still buy an increasingly cheap single-format drive. Weber says HP will now sell only +/- drives to the retail market, even while it sticks to DVD+R/RW in its own PCs and sells only +R/RW media. Toshiba plans to sell both dual- and single-format drives to retailers. But "newer drives, looking forward, should all be dual format," Brzeski adds.

The big exception will continue to be drives that come built into computers. At least with the large PC companies, these are almost all single-format. It's a very big chunk – for example, 80 to 85 per cent of HP's drives, according to Weber.

Part of this is company image. If you've been publicly stating that +R/RW (or -R/RW) is the only way to go, you may be reluctant to officially change your mind.

Price is another. Those dual licensing fees look a lot larger in the high-volume/low-margin business of selling PCs. Writing to two DVD formats is, according to IDC's Schlichting, "low on the feature list" for people buying a PC. "Comparing dual and single [format support] is not important," Schlichting adds.

Vendors have also cited tech-support calls as another reason they've supported only one format.

In the end, dual-format DVD drives will probably take over this market, too.

"It will be hard over time to find a single-format drive," says Pioneer's Parsons.