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Guide to Recordable DVD Formats

Buying a DVD recorder is not quite as simple as it could be (or, indeed, should be). There are different recording formats in use and you must be aware of the differences between them before you join one camp or another.

This is not the sort of format war waged between VHS and Betamax in the 1980s. That was a savage struggle that ended in the total destruction of one of the formats. In comparison, the DVD recorder dispute is more of a border scuffle. There is often a surprising amount of cross-compatibility and so far all of the different formats are living together in a fairly civilised way.

There are three main camps in the DVD recording world. Some decks adhere to just one, others are happy to flit between two, while some truly enlightened decks accept discs from all three formats.

There are some basic truths about all of the formats. Recordings are made in much the same way on all of them (see our Guide to DVD Recorders) and they all offer different standards of recording.

We are used to VHS tapes offering SP and LP modes. We also accept that there is a trade-off between extra capacity and picture quality – LP mode recordings are inferior to SP ones, but you can fit twice as much on a tape.

In exactly the same way, DVDs can be recorded on at different quality settings. Most recorders offer four or more settings, usually corresponding to one, two, four and six hours of capacity on a single disc.

In one-hour mode the recording will be virtually indistinguishable from the original broadcast. In two-hour mode the picture will be slightly inferior, but still excellent and still far superior to VHS.

After this, different decks offer different quality. Some four-hour modes are awful, being no better than VHS recordings (and what’s the point of that?) while some are still very good indeed.

The different settings work by recording different amounts of data, so picture quality is largely dependent on the original broadcast. Programming that features a lot of fast-paced action, such as sports or action movies, requires more data than less complex material, such as soaps and sitcoms.

Trying to record cricket or football at a low recording setting will therefore result in a noticeably worse image than if you record Coronation Street in the same mode.

So much for the similarities – let’s look at the different formats in more detail.


This format was developed by Panasonic and is the most distinctive of the three. DVD-RAM discs usually come in a protective caddy. This prolongs the useful life of the disc and it is claimed that a RAM disc can be recorded on up to 100,000 times.

RAM discs are rewriteable – they can be erased and recorded on many times, just like with a VHS tape, although the picture and sound quality are far superior to the old tape format.

RAM discs also offer extremely flexible editing options. As well as deleting recordings to free up disc space, you can also delete small sections of material (such as adverts) and create a seamless programme.

You can add ‘chapters’, just like the ones on DVDs you buy in the shops, to make it easier to find specific scenes on a disc.

Finally, you can enjoy ‘playlist’ editing. This lets you change the order in which programmes play, and to skip over adverts or pre-match waffle, without actually deleting anything on the disc. This is handy if you may want to change the playing order again in the future.

The downside with DVD-RAM discs is that they are not very compatible with other DVD players. If you only intend building a library for your own use this isn’t a major issue, but if you want to share discs with friends and family it is.

DVD-RAM discs come in single-sided and double-sided varieties – but you have to manually turn the disc over to access the second side.

Recordable DVD Formats Pros

Recordable DVD Formats Cons


These two types of disc are from the same camp. The -RW format is rewriteable, while the -R version is ‘write-once’ – you can record multiple programmes on to the disc, but once it is full, that’s it. It cannot be recorded over.

DVD-R discs offer very limited editing options, but they compensate for this by being highly compatible with other DVD players, so they are ideal for sharing. They are also cheaper than rewriteable discs.

You can delete recordings on a –R disc, but the disc space is not freed up to use again. Also, in order to share the disc with others it must be ‘finalised’. This process closes the disc, making further recordings impossible.

DVD-R discs are available in dual-layer formats. This more or less doubles capacity, but it does mean you need a dual-layer capable DVD recorder to make full use of them.

DVD-RW discs are more flexible and can be used in two ways – simple ‘video mode’ and the more powerful ‘VR’ mode. The actual options available can differ from one DVD recorder to another, but in video mode you are usually limited to adding chapters and deleting programming to clear space for re-recordings.

VR mode offers similar functions to DVD-RAM discs, but again at the price of limited compatibility with other players.

DVD-RW discs can be recorded on an estimated 1,000 times.




The third camp sees two discs that occupy similar territory to their -R and -RW counterparts. The difference is that editing options are usually even more limited.

DVD+R discs (like -R discs)are available in dual-layer formats. This more or less doubles capacity, but it does mean you need a dual-layer capable DVD recorder to make full use of them.

DVD+RW discs cannot be formatted in VR mode, so the clever playlist editing and deleting of scenes is not available. You can delete material and free up disc space, and you can add chapters, but that’s about it as far as editing goes.

DVD+RW discs can be recorded on an estimated 1,000 times.

DVD+R and DVD+RW Pros

• Wide compatibility of finalised DVD+R discs

• Cheapness of DVD+R discs

DVD+R and DVD+RW Cons

• DVD+RW discs are less compatible with other players than +R discs (but more compatible than VR-formatted -RW discs)

Top tips for buying Recordable DVDs

• Buy from a recognised manufacturer. There are lots of extremely cheap discs out there, but be careful about using them. Respected brands like Sony and TDK are likely to be more reliable

• Buy in bulk. When you have a type of disc that you are happy with, buy in bulk – you’ll make big savings

• Think about cases. If you want to build up a big library you will need DVD cases. If you buy discs in bulk you will save money on the discs but may need to buy cases separately. Factor this into your budget

• Don’t buy the wrong sort of discs for your DVD recorder! It’s easily done, especially now dual-layered discs are available

DVD Formats Glossary

Chapter – A ‘bookmark’ on a DVD that allows you to skip over large chunks of programming to get to a desired scene. On recordable DVDs you can often create chapter marks where you want them

Finalised – A recordable DVD disc that has been ‘closed’, rendering it more compatible with other DVD players

Playlist editing – Changing the playback order on a recordable DVD disc without altering the original material

Rewriteable – A DVD that can be recorded and re-recorded on many times

Video mode – A format for DVD-RW discs that limits editing options but boosts compatibility with other DVD players

VR mode – A recording mode for DVD-RW discs that allows for non-linear editing

Write-once – A DVD that can be recorded on only once

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