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Thursday, March 02, 2006

To burn or not to burn... that is the problem.

Apologies to Mr Shakepseare of Stratford...

Do you yearn for the good old days? I do.

Once upon a time (the 80s), saving stuff for posterity was pretty straight forward. If you wanted to save a TV programme, you bought a VHS video tape (let's forget Betamax...). Different manufacturers would claim that their product was the best, but ultimately it came down to a decision as to whether you would pay slightly more for a 240 minute tape or stick with a 180 minute tape. Similarly, for audio you would buy a blank cassette tape. For those with precious computer data that needed to be kept, the capacious 1.44Mbs of a 3.5 inch floppy disk was all one needed.

By the 1990s, things were moving on and new horizons opening. A little under 1.5Mb doesn't cut it anymore and the recordable CD reigned supreme. The choice here soon became one between wanting to write once (CDR) or wanting to be able to erase and rewrite again (CDRW). Later disks would allow one to choose between 650Mb (or 74 minutes of music) and 700Mb (80 minutes). Again, different manufacturers would claim to be the best, but for most people, if you had a modern CD burner you could buy a spindle of blank disks off the bargain shelf of Tesco and not worry too much.

Well, our data needs keep on growing and by the late nineties/early noughties the recordable DVD has become the latest tool of mass data storage. Here things have become all complicated again. DVD+R, DVD-R or DVD-RAM? What's the difference? The advent of the multi-format burner knocked that problem on the head for a while, and I just stick with whatever is cheapest. No problems.

Until now...

I have been recording a lot of TV recently, much of which I would like to keep. A DVD boxset costs a small fortune - but I have the entire fourth season of Smallville sitting on my external Hard Drive, recorded gratis off E4. However, at 1Gb an hour, I am fast running out of space. I can squeeze 4 episodes at decent quality onto a standard blank DVD. But that is a fair number of DVDs and a lot of hassle, so I decided to take the next technological leap - to dual-layer DVDs. These are essentially what you buy pre-recorded DVDs on. Two layers of data (on a single side, no need to flip the disk) giving you a spacious 8.5Gb of storage - enough to fit on 8 episodes of Smallville, sans ad breaks.

I thought I had done everything right - I looked up the drive specifications of my DVD burner on the internet and found that it needed DVD+R format dual layer disks. Trotting off to Maplin, I bought a 10 disk cake of MR DATA blank DVD+R Dual Layer, for the princeley sum of £29.99. at 3 quid per disk it's quite pricey, but still much cheaper that buying a season's boxset.

Getting home, I set to work. Trimming the adverts out of 8 episodes, making pretty menus and adjusting the recording quality to match that of the original TV broadcast (that lets you squeeze more on a disk, since there is no point having the picture quality set to DVD for a TV quality picture), I left the conversion programme to run overnight. 10 hours later, I inserted the new disk into the cradle and sat back.

Error! Disk format unrecognised. Please insert a compatible blank DVD.

Following the instructions, I closed the dialogue box and checked all of my settings. Everything was as it should be. I tried again. Same message. I saved the file and closed the programme, opening up my regular DVD burning package.

Disk unrecognised. Please insert a blank disk into drive F: and click OK.

I tried again with a different disk. Same message. Rebooting the computer had no effect. I checked for the latest updates to my burning package. I'm up to date, and DL recording is specifically listed as one of the new options in this version. I tried a freeware utility - same result.

Maybe the drive itself needed upgrading? I updated both its drivers and its firmware (the software that actually sits on a memory chip in the drive). Still no joy.

I was starting to get pretty pissed off by now. I had just enough hard disk space for this week's episode of Smallville and 30 quids worth of shiny tea coasters. In desperation, I turned to the geekier side of the internet. Several hours of searching later I have found that manufacturer's claims are (for once) true! Some brands are better than other. It seems that MR DATA's cheap brand of blank DVDs are crap and don't work on even the most popular of DVD burners (mine is an NEC 6500A, one of the most popular drives in the world, shipped with millions of laptops across the globe).

So yesterday, I went back to Maplin and bought a pack of 5 Verbatim brand disks for £20. Bingo! Worked first time! So, I have now bought £50 worth of blanks DVDs. I will keep the Verbatim disks, naturally, but shall be returning the MR DATA disks, for which I kept the receipt. There was no warning on the package about compatibility issues, so I should have the law on my side. I have no intention of being fobbed off with any bollocks about the package being opened. They didn't do the job as advertised.

I'll keep you all posted.


I did eventually get my money back. Naturally, the manager tried all of the usual lines
"I've sold loads of these and no one has ever complained before"
"You probably have an unusual brand of writer"
"It's well known that some writers don't work properly with all media"
"Have you tried updating your software?"

Eventually however, he conceded that I had everything covered and gave me my money back. As I left the store however, I heard him instruct the sales advisor "don't worry about the packaging being missing, just shove them back on the shelf".

So, next time you are buying blank media from Maplin - check the packaging is intact. I tried multiple times to burn to those disks, I can't be sure if those disks are forever damaged now. And of course, not everyone will have been as careful as me, when they removed the disks from the spindle.



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