Morpheus on… The Truth About ODDs

Not those you bet on – rather, Optical Disk Drives.

Remember the Eighties? Those halcyon days when you could receive four different channels on four different TVs – SIMULTANEOUSLY – with just one little aerial and a cheap TV amp?

And with a VCR, you could time-shift the programmes – and even keep and/or share them, on video-cassettes?

Of course, you still CAN – but those times are fast disappearing, thanks to recordable disks, Satellite/Cable TV and all that digital stuff.

And this piece concerns the latter – the means by which you do what you USED to do with your VCR.

These days, there are two methods of recording TV programmes – HDDs and ODDs – Hard Disk Drives and Optical Disk Drives.

Hard Disk Drives have been around since the Fifties – but only recently have they evolved to become the (relatively) cheap, compact, high-volume storage units they are today.

And since they work using much the same MAGNETIC principles employed by video- and audio-tape recorders – they are pretty much bomb-proof.

They do have their problems though – they do not take vibration well – and they HATE power cuts.

But provided you avoid those twin evils, your HDD will last a life-time. However, the same can NOT be said of ODDs.

Laserdiscs have also been around since the Fifties, but were overshadowed by video-tape, which had a major advantage over the discs – it could be RECORDED on. Then erased and RE-recorded on – MANY TIMES.

Thus when, after twenty years, Laserdiscs eventually made it to the domestic market, they were only popular amongst those who were both discerning – Laserdisc quality was only SLIGHTLY better than VCR quality – and could afford BOTH. Mainly, the Japanese.

They amassed LIBRARIES of the twelve-inch (almost) disks. But even THEY switched to the twelve-centimetre DVD, when that system emerged in 1995 – however, we are getting ahead of ourselves.

CDs had been launched in 1982 and thanks to greedy record companies who were content to just re-release “remastered” archive material – they eventually killed Pop Music.

But while CDs could play up to eighty minutes of audio, they could only manage about five minutes of video. Which meant that analogue video CD-Vs (which appeared in 1987) were great for Pop videos – but very little else.

So when, six years later, using digital technology, the VCD burst forth – it RULED. And even though the far superior DVD format was launched just two years later, the VCD format STILL rules in the Developing World.

Yes, here in Thailand almost twenty years later, the low-resolution VCD format lives ON, with movies (on TWO disks, with two-channel audio and no “extras”) – and in particular, with music disks servicing the huge “karaoke” market.

However, around the Developed World, the DVD is king. And in answer to the demands of HD TV, the Blu-ray system is currently in the process of usurping THAT.

But with the Laserdisc and all of the disk systems that came after, the fundamental problem was that you could not RECORD on them. However, around 1990, that slowly began to change.

First came “writeable” CDs. The machines that used them were initially expensive and somewhat hard to find. And it would be another seven years before writeable DVDs emerged – with rewriteables following, two years after that. And now, Blu-ray have them.

But all of these formats use OPTICAL means to facilitate the recording. Which is where the problem lies for those who like to keep and/or share recordings.

For while Hard Disk Drives will record and re-record indefinitely, Optical Disk Drives have an Achilles Heel – they use DIODES to “burn” the disks. Which WEAR OUT. QUICKLY. But AGAIN, we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Of course HDDs have a massive capacity, thus you can store MANY programmes on them – but sooner or later, you will have to ERASE some of them, to make space for NEW stuff.

You can buy EXTERNAL Hard Disk Drives – but as a method of storage, they are WAY more expensive than recordable disks.

Which leaves you with ODDs.

These days, video-recorders fall into three main types…

PVRs (Personal Video Recorders) like TiVo, contain only an HDD, connected to a satellite/cable decoder, which means you can programme it to store all of your favourite programmes – then watch them at your convenience.

You can also KEEP some programmes, but as stated above: the more you keep – the fewer NEW programmes you can record.

Then come DVRs (Digital Video Recorders). These only contain an ODD – usually with an RF tuner – and are essentially a replacement for (and work much the same as) VCRs, with rewriteable disks replacing the video-cassettes. But while the RF tuner is fine for RF broadcasts, they do NOT have satellite/cable decoders.

Finally come DVD-Rs (Digital Versatile Disk-Recorders). These contain an RF tuner, an HDD AND an ODD – thus are pretty expensive.

However, they will do nearly the LOT – store programmes, record programmes onto recordable or rewriteable disk – AND allow you to EDIT recordings stored on the HDD, before transferring them at high speed, DIRECT to the disks. Goody, goody.

But the drawbacks of DVD-Rs are the same as with DVRs.

While they will usually include RF tuners, they will NOT have satellite/cable decoders. Thus with both, they will require FEEDING. You cannot just select the programmes you want to record, then forget them. You can connect them to your satellite/cable decoder output – but you will have to constantly keep CHANGING CHANNEL for them.

Which will be unfortunate if you are working – or SLEEPING – at the required time.

So while PVRs are fine for recording and time-shifting programmes – as in the days of VCRs – if you want to keep and/or share those programmes, you will HAVE to get a DVR or DVD-R (and organise your LIFE around it).

Which brings us (finally) to that Achilles Heel they both possess – the ODD – and its DIODES.

While VCRs also had an Achilles Heel, in the form of their transports – they would nevertheless record many THOUSANDS of video-tapes before said transports fell apart. Not so the ODD.

Oh no. After recording just a few HUNDRED disks, their diodes begin to fade. At first, recorded disks will no longer play on older DVD players. Then newer DVD players. And finally, they will not even play on the DVR or DVD-R itself.

At which point, you have to REPLACE the diodes.

However, at this point you discover that ODD modules are like a lot of OTHER electronic devices, these days – they are SERVICE-PROOF.

You see, those diodes are MOULDED INTO the beam-emitter carriage (known in the trade as the Pick Up Head – or PUH). And REPLACING that carriage (which constitutes about HALF of the cost of the module anyway) would mean CAREFULLY disassembling and reassembling the ENTIRE module – for which an engineer would charge PLENTY.

Thus, you have to replace the WHOLE DAMN THING.

On computers, this is relatively easy – albeit a bit expensive (around $40). Undo one screw on the underside of the laptop (or on the back of the tower housing) and the module will slide out. Put in a new one and away you go.

But on DVRs and PVRs, it is less simple.

With DVRs, you are replacing half of the machine – thus it will often be cheaper to buy a whole new unit (if you can FIND one – due to their short life-span, few companies MAKE them anymore).

But with DVD-Rs, since they also contain an HDD, it IS worth doing – although it can be VERY expensive.

This reporter has a PVR and two DVD-Rs. The PVR outputs to one of them: usually the Sony – the Philips is crap, so he only uses it as a spare.

But in said Philips, the ODD is in the form of a module that can be changed relatively easily – however, Philips in Thailand charges an arm and both legs for them.

His Sony is far better, quality-wise – but its ODD is integrated into the structure of the whole mechanism – thus servicing HAS to be left to THEM. And when he recently did just that, the bill was around $150 – worth it, as a complete new unit would have cost him around FIVE hundred bucks.

This combination allows him to record up to two TV programmes at once. If he is recording just one, on the PVR, he can watch it live or on “chase-play” – and if it is on the DVD-R, likewise on that. However, if he is recording on both – he has to watch the programme on the DVD-R.

He can also edit and then transfer a TV recording to recordable disk (recording it onto the DVD-R first, if it was on the PVR). And he can transfer MUSIC from his audio systems onto the DVD-R – even mixing it with video from the PVR or his separate DVD player – then put THAT onto a recordable disk. Plus he can use material downloaded from the Interweb, using a disk recorded on his computer.

He can even (after transferring them to disc) play 78s on the 250-watt, six-channel Dolby ProLogic system in his living room. You should hear Stan Kenton’s 1946 recording of “Intermission Riff” through surround-sound and a SUBWOOFER!

But if you understood all of that, he probably explained it wrong.

So where does this leave us?

Well – while recordable disks are a lot cheaper than the old video-cassettes (although how long they will LAST is anybody’s guess – this historian has video-cassettes he recorded THIRTY YEARS ago, which play as well now as they did then) the frequent replacement costs of the means to record them makes them a lot less cheap than they at first appear.

The secret is to only use ODDs to BURN disks when absolutely ESSENTIAL – like, to transfer files or keep and/or share IMPORTANT TV programmes. While they will PLAY disks indefinitely, their ability to BURN disks is strictly LIMITED, in terms of numbers.

Of course, all of this suits The Industry nicely. For DECADES, the manufacturers of audio-visual material and the equipment it plays on have either been associated with each other – or been one and the same (like EMI and Sony).

So while they do not really mind people shifting their products around in TIME (as PVRs do) they do not really want people shifting it around in SPACE (like transferring them from an album to a CD – or off TV onto a DVD).

And they REALLY hate people DUPLICATING it, so their friends and relatives do not have to buy THEIR copies.

Thus audio-cassette recorders and later, VCRs were a constant THORN in their collective arses. And now they have to endure the massive bugbear of file-sharing on the Interweb.

And while their lawyers – aided by various authorities – toil against it, they know they are fighting a losing battle. The enemy (which would be US) is simply too big to effectively police. Therefore the best they can hope to do is remove our WEAPONRY, of which DVRs and DVD-Rs are two prime candidates.

As it is, DVD-Rs are only made in relatively small numbers – and DVRs barely at all. External HDDs are awkward to use and are expensive, so they do not fear those.

So the LAST thing they are likely to spend money on is improving the durability of devices that are specifically designed to do the very thing they want to STOP – us recording audio and video.

Therefore, if you want to DO that, you only have two choices – keep your old VCR going – or resign yourself to the prospect of having to REPLACE your ODDs every couple of years!

[Legal note: the writer of the above does not himself execute – or in this monograph, condone – the recording of copyright material.]


2 responses to this post.

  1. As usual, a superb article my friend!

  2. Posted by Vincent on June 25, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    I wrote a version of the above to my son in England (I am retired to Thailand) and later, replied to his response. Said reply is relevant to the above, so I am duplicating it here…

    The question of how LONG writeable, rewriteable (recordable, re-recordable) disks and the machines that record them LAST – is one which is difficult to find an ANSWER to.

    Regarding rewriteable disks – the manufacturers claim “up to” 1000 times. But given they are cheap, no-one much cares. When a disk fails, it becomes a beer-mat and you buy another one.

    But “once only” writeables are a different matter. We use them to store our treasured photos, music and moving images – so we need to KNOW.

    However, given the media is NEW – the fact is, no-one really DOES know.

    Optical disks use a system of DYES to hold the pits that the machines read as “ones” – and how long THEY’LL last… Various claims are put forward, but it’s all guess-work really.

    One major manufacturer launched a new disk with a GOLD dye last year, claiming it was a LONG-TERM storage system that would last forty years. But what would they say if, in ten years time, they imploded? Oops?

    Then there is the question of the machines. Those blasted diodes are at the heart of the problem. A wander round the service engineer sites showed me that no-one really knows how long THEY are good for, either.

    Most people reckoned a few hundred disks – but some claimed THEIR ODDs had lasted 1,000-2,000 disks. However, did those people record ENTIRE disks? If they only recorded on PART of the disks, then obviously the numbers WOULD go up.

    There was also a lot of quoting of module MODEL numbers – “my Sony KT 10566/2 has done over 2,000 disks and is still going strong…” – good for YOU, Boo-Boo.

    But that ain’t a lot of good when you are standing in a shop, looking at UNITS, trying to decide which to buy.

    I can only go on MY experience. So far, my old recorded disks (up to 7 years old) SEEM to work. But I RARELY check on them, as I have too much NEW stuff to watch/listen to.

    Generally, it would seem that CDs and DVDs made by “legitimate” factories last a long time. But as for HOW long… I have a record that was made in 1894 – THAT still works, 118 years on!

    However, that brings into focus the issue of how long do you want your stuff to last ANYWAY? Of course, a lot depends on how OLD you are. If you are in your mid-twenties and just got married, you’ll want to show the pictures/video to your GRANDKIDS. So – sixty years?

    But if you’re an old fart like me, you’ll likely be DEAD in just TWENTY years…

    So for ME, the MAIN issue is – how often will I have to replace those damn expensive ODD units in my two DVD-Rs and computer?

    And I can tell you that ALL FOUR ODD modules I have replaced, in those THREE units (two in the computer and one each in the DVD-Rs) only did about 100-150 disks before they gave out.

    Thus you appear to have been LUCKY (so far) with your Panasonic DVD-R.

    I noticed that my local Tesco only ever bought ONE lot of DVRs (see above – ODD only – to use with rewriteable disks, like a VCR). They were CHEAP, but disappeared SO quickly I wondered if they were SOLD – or withdrawn from sale by Tesco, when they discovered they were a LIABILITY due to their potentially short life-span.

    I also found only ONE shop that sold ’em, in Bangkok.

    But I noted that BOTH models were made by a NON-NAME-BRAND company. It seems the “big boys” do NOT want to involve themselves with DVRs. And given the fact that EVERYBODY made VCRs back in the day (although some were only badge-engineered) – one can only assume the reason is the inherent problems with those DIODES.

    Even DVD-Rs are hard to find – at least, here. One batch arrived with all of their cooling fans BURNED OUT. Which means they must have coughed on the LINE – and were shipped out REGARDLESS.

    If memory serves, THEY were Panasonics – you might want to check the back of YOURS to ensure the fan is working (then again, if it wasn’t – it’d’ve likely blown up YEARS ago).

    So there you are, sonny-boy! Your old Dad has given you the benefit of his experience. The companies trying to part you from your cash won’t of course tell you ANY of the above. Info on this is hard enough to find on the INTERWEB – and much of it comes from MY personal experience.

    Having walked away from electronic servicing in 1994, I’ve had to do a lot of CATCHING UP to understand the “alien technology”(?!) that has emerged since that time.

    OWNING some of it has forced your poor old Dad to go back to SCHOOL to have any chance of staying ON TOP of it!


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