Panasonic is the champion of the DVD-RAM standard, which is also currently supported by Hitachi, Samsung and Toshiba. Panasonic claims there are already more than 2 million DVD-RAM drives in offices worldwide.
A recordable DVD-RAM drive works much like your hard drive (only slower), allowing random access to all the data on a removable disc that you can overwrite 100,000 times. With a DVD-RAM drive and the right software, you can take a quick snapshot of all or part of most PC hard drives-fitting the critical data directories of even one of today's multigigabyte hard drives onto a long-lived DVD-RAM disc. That's a pretty good alternative to spending hours transferring data to magnetic tape, which can stretch, age and demagnetize and doesn't offer random access.
Panasonic's newest drive, the DVDBurner, also produces DVD-R (write-once) discs, which helps deflect the main criticism of DVD-RAM-that most legacy DVD-ROM players can't read the format. All but the oldest can access DVD-R discs, which, at $10 each, are about one-third the price of DVD-RAM media and provide 100 years of data integrity. Of course, you still have to manage two different kinds of media, and although the DVDBurner can read CDs, it can't record them.
The transition from old to new is smoother with the DVD-RW recorders. In addition to DVD-RW and DVD-R formats, Pioneer's new DVR-A03 DVD-R/CD-RW will burn CD-RW and CD-R discs that cost under a buck and can be read by all CD players.
Discs are limited to 1,000 rewrites, but that's about 10 times the number backup tapes can survive. DVD-RAM is still the better choice for data backup, because a DVD-RW drive will take twice as long to access files and doesn't manage physical defects on discs as easily. Still, DVD-RW is better than tape.
The last recordable type to consider is DVD+RW, which claims even greater backward compatibility with older players in all recording modes. That remains to be seen-at press time, DVD+RW drives were announced but not shipping. Hewlett-Packard plans to ship its DVD+RW drives in some PC models this fall.
Confused? Who wouldn't be? The three-way turf battle has inhibited the spread of DVD recordables (as has competition from the popular CD-RW drives). But don't let the hullabaloo scare you away from taking care of business. Gretton figures it takes him just six weeks to recoup the price of a new DVD drive in productivity gains.
Sure, you could save money and get a snazzier drive if you hold off until next year to buy. But that's true of every PC product. You're not going to quit buying PCs until Intel stops one-upping them with new processors, are you?
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor..