Step-By-Step: Burn Your Own DVDs for Backup or Video Playback

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Most PC technologies don't become popular until they drop to a price where making a purchase decision is relatively easy. And that's exactly what's happened to DVD writers over the past few months. A year ago the $500-plus price of a DVD burner made it the province of early adopters and users with deep pockets. But DVD writers are now hovering around the $200 to $250 range for internal models, making them a wise upgrade for many PCs manufactured in the last couple of years. External DVD drives, which plug into a FireWire or USB 2.0 port, are much easier to install but cost an extra $75 to $100 over internal drives.

The middle letter in DVD stands for versatile, and the 4.7GB capacity of write-once (DVD-R and DVD+R) and rewritable (DVD-RW and DVD+RW) media makes such discs versatile indeed. Write-once DVDs are excellent for archiving important data, and rewritable DVD media can serve as extra 4.7GB drives, for on-the-fly backups or everyday storage. DVD drives also read standard CD-ROMs, and write both CD-R and CD-RW discs.

One popular application for DVD writers is to use them to create video DVDs--from your digital camcorder or analog videotape collection--that you can pop into a standard DVD player and enjoy in the comfort of your living room. (See "From Videotape to DVD" on the last page.)

Formats and Speeds

Write-once and rewritable DVDs are available in two types: DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW. The formats were created by competing industry groups, and for a while it looked as if many users would have to pick a format and hope their choice wasn't the loser. But manufacturers have come up with a neat solution: Most DVD writers are now a combination design, offering support for both formats. We don't have space here to delve into the pros and cons of each, but the short story is that (for video) DVD+R is more compatible with standard DVD players. For additional background, see "Buying DVD Burners Gets Easier" and "Is It Time to Upgrade to Rewritable DVD?"

Most drives now support 4X writing for DVDs, although 4X-compatible media is currently rather expensive and hard to find. But all 4X drives will also write at 2X, and 2X media is affordable and readily available. Prices for DVD media vary considerably, but figure on spending $2 to $4 per disc, depending on the format and whether it's write-once or rewritable.

Most DVD burners come with a wide selection of backup, packet-writing, and digital-video software. For help in choosing a suitable drive, check out our Top 10 DVD Drives chart.

Some words of caution: You'll need plenty of PC horsepower to write DVDs. Your system should have a CPU that runs at 1 GHz or faster, and 256MB of RAM is a bare minimum; 512MB of memory--or more--will make life much easier.

The Top Down

Benefits: Create DVDs from videotape, make large-scale data backups, use as a 4.7GB drag-and-drop drive.

Costs: Internal, $200 to $300; external, $300 to $400

Expertise Level: Beginner-intermediate

Time Required: 30 to 60 minutes

Tools Required: Needle-nose pliers, Phillips-head screwdriver, antistatic wrist strap (recommended)

Vendors:Hewlett-Packard, Iomega, LaCie, LG Electronics, Memorex, Pioneer, Plextor, Sony, TDK, Toshiba

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