FAQs about MiniDisc vs DAT, CD-R, DVD-RAM, etc.

The following questions and answers deal with technologies that do, or at least appear to, compete with MiniDisc. This document is not intended to disparage these other technologies; they all are impressive and useful in a variety of situations. This document is only intended to provide you with factual information so that you can make an informed decision about which music-recording format meets your needs. This FAQ does not address the use of these formats for other purposes such as video or data storage.

1. Why should I get into MiniDisc when CD-R and CD-RW allow me to create a CD that I can use anywhere?

CD-R computer drives are becoming affordable (under US$500) and widely available. They can write both data and audio CDs. The major limitation of CD-R is that it is a write-once medium; you cannot delete or add tracks or even reorder the tracks after you "burn" the CD (note: you do not necessarily have to write the disc in one sitting, though). CD-R discs are very inexpensive, though MiniDiscs blanks can now be found at retail stores for about US$5/each (even cheaper in Japan).

Unlike CD-R, CD-RW computer drives can rewrite a CD-RW disc. The drives are a bit more expensive, and at US$25 CD-RW discs are too expensive for making many music CDs. Also, CD-RW audio discs have limited editing capabilities: you cannot reorder tracks and you can only delete the last track or erase the entire disc (this is probably due to limitations of the CD-Audio format). And while CD-R discs can be played by most CD players, you are likely to discover that any CD-RW discs you create cannot be read by consumer audio CD players.

CD-R and CD-RW drives are primarily only available for computers, so you will have to do all your recording on your computer. This can be an inconvenient, complicated, and very time and disk consuming process, especially if you do not have a high-end machine.   There are a couple of consumer CD-R audio components, but at US$700-$800 they are rather expensive and require the more expensive CD-R Audio discs (due to pre-paid royalties to the music industry). It remains to be seen in the next few years how many electronics companies will start making consumer CD-R components, how soon they will become widely available and affordable, and whether consumers will buy into a write-once technology (or, how much CD-RW will drop in price and whether the makers of CD-players will start widely supporting CD-RW discs). See http://www.cd-info.com/CDIC/Technology/CD-R/FAQ.html for more information about CD-R.

MiniDisc recorders, on the other hand, are widely available as regular home audio components, in integrated minisystems (bookshelf units), and as small, portable units that allow you to record via a microphone or easily connect to a friend's audio system (even portable MD recorders have with a digital input line). The recording is done in real-time. Finally, the MiniDisc media has the same advantages over CD-R and CD-RW that it has over CD: MDs are tiny (three fit easily into your shirt pocket), the media is encased so it is very resistant to scratches, portable MD players are not much bigger than the disc itself, the disc and tracks can be titled, and you can even jog while playing an MD.

2. But I can download and store hundreds of MP3 songs on my hard disk or write them out to CDs.

MPEG Layer 3 is a lossy compression technology like ATRAC, but reduces CD audio to 1/12 of its original size as opposed to ATRAC's 5-to-1 compression. Many people claim that MP3 audio sounds about as good as ATRAC, though. There are also a large number of web sites where people (illegally?) provide MP3 versions of some songs. These sites often go down or go away and are difficult to connect to. MP3 files corresponding to a single song are usually about 3-4 MBs. So, once you find an song you want, it will take about 20 minutes to download that song using a 28.8Kbps modem.

Note that the compression ratio of MP3 is variable; the encoder can choose from 3:1 to 88:1 (telephone-quality sound). The MP3 FAQ at http://www.iis.fhg.de/departs/amm/layer3/sw/ claims that even a 12:1 compression ratio still allows for CD-quality audio. Btw, creating an MP3 file from an audio CD takes about 30 minutes for each song on a 100MHz Pentium (unlike ATRAC, MP3 compression is not currently possible in real-time using consumer hardware).

Of course, unless you only listen to music at your computer, or you want to drag around a high-powered notebook (with plenty of extra battery packs) to play your MP3 files, you'll eventually need to burn them to a standard audio CD (see above issues with respect to CD-R/RW).  CD players cannot read the MP3 or data CD format, so the songs will have to be expanded (sorry, no 600 minute CDs, though you can archive your MP3 files onto a data CD-R). And since MP3 is a lossy compression technology (like ATRAC/MD), the audio CD you create is not an exact duplicate of the original.

In any case, MP3 and MiniDisc are orthogonal, not competing technologies. If you have large MP3 collection downloaded from the Internet you can record these songs just as easily to a MiniDisc as you can to CD-R (probably easier) and enjoy the advantages of MiniDisc over CD.

3. But technologies like LiquidAudio are the future of music distribution; why do I need MiniDisc?

Details from http://www.liquidaudio.com are sketchy, but LiquidAudio is apparently another company trying to sell music via the Internet. You can sample and buy music through their web site or their music player software by downloading a "Liquid Audio" file to your computer. Although their web site does not discuss this issue, the music is compressed using Dolby Digital AC-3 compression. Even if it achieves the 1/12 compression of MP3, a 74-minute CD will take about 5 hours to download on a 28.8Kbps modem. The file can then only be played by your LiquidAudio player (your player and any music you purchase is tagged with your personal and unique ID). They advertise that the LiquidAudio file you purchase can be written once to an audio CD-R.

As with MP3, the use of Liquid Audio or other proposed music distribution formats is orthogonal to the format you choose to actually record and listen to your music. You can write music that you download off the Internet to a MiniDisc as easily as a CD-R (and MD is rewritable). Also, with a MiniDisc recorder in your audio/video setup, you can also easily record music from digital satellite systems which broadcast CD-quality music on various channels (in real-time!).

4. But what about emerging technologies like DVD-RAM which allow for gigabytes of storage? Shouldn't I wait for recordable DVD?

First, note that DVD-Audio (the format for DVD discs containing music as opposed to movies or computer data) will not even be finalized until mid-1998 at the earliest, and there is doubt whether DVD-Audio will ever replace the audio CD as a mainstream music distribution medium (certainly don't expect any DVD-Audio players this century). So, even when DVD-RAM drives are available (supposedly 1998 for computers, no predictions yet for consumer audio/video equipment) you will only be able to record and play DVDs on your computer.

There is still a great deal of debate and uncertainty about the rewritable DVD format(s): there are competing formats from different companies (DVD-RAM vs DVD+RW) and unsettled compatibility issues with current and future DVD players (eg, DVD-RAM discs may require a case and they will probably not be compatible with current DVD drives/players). Also, DVD-RAM will have the same limitation of CD-RW in that the disc cannot be edited -- you have to start from scratch when you record. DVD+RW, a competing format from Sony, may not have this limitation. See http://www.videodiscovery.com/vdyweb/dvd/dvdfaq.html for more information about DVD.

As an aside, don't even expect DVD to replace your VCR for recording purposes for at least several years. In addition to hardware limitations, encoding a video stream to MPEG-2 requires an extremely powerful and expensive computer and the algorithms do not work in real-time (decoding MPEG-2 is of course much simpler). The first (only?) "DVD VCRs" will probably be combined with a digital satellite system (so it can avoid the MPEG-2 compression step). It's too bad that we're stuck with VHS recording for another few years -- it is as annoying a format for video as the cassette is for audio. I'm sure consumers would love to have MiniDisc-like recording and editing capabilities when recording television programs: instant commercial skip and the ability to delete commercials or an entire program to make room for another program.

5. Why would I want to use MiniDisc instead of DAT which makes perfect copies of a CD (no lossy compression)?

MiniDisc's advantages over a tape format like DAT include its editing capabilities and quick random access. Unlike any tape-based format, you can instantly jump to a specific track on a MiniDisc and you can delete, split, and reorder tracks. MiniDisc also supports disc and track titles and has a wider availability of portable and car players.

6. What about the DCC (digitial compact cassette) format from Philips?

Production of DCC equipment has stopped and Philips has declared it a dead format. Philips do now make a MiniDisc player, though.

7. But solid-state electronics/flash RAM will make MiniDisc obsolete in a few years!

And MiniDisc owners will be the first to welcome this new format, especially since it will probably integrate well with the hearing aids we'll all be wearing by then ;-). Seriously, it will be many years before the capabilities of that technology increase and prices drop enough to allow companies to develop a credit-card-sized "Walkman" on which you can store a few albums worth of music. Also remember MiniDisc player technology is not standing still -- expect further size reductions (though they're already nearing the size of the disc itself) and increased "electronic skip protection" memory (players with 40 seconds of memory were introduced in 1997, a 4x increase from previous years). Life is too short to wait for the future, especially since the future is so unpredictible (just look at  20- or even 10-year old sci-fi movies).

8. But I heard MiniDisc is a dead/dying format. Is it a safe investment?

MiniDisc is definitely not dead and Sony and many other companies stand firmly behind it. Remember that MiniDisc is not intended to replace the compact disc as a music distribution format, so don't be surprised by the lack of many prerecorded titles. MD is intended to replace cassette tapes as a music recording format for the digital age.

MiniDisc is extremely popular in Japan (corner convenience stores sell MD blanks, ??% own a player, all electronic companies make MD equipment), and 1997 is the year that Sony successfully renewed its marketing push in the US with frequent commercials/print ads and more education of retail salespeople. Sony announced a ??% increase in sales. Sharp, Aiwa, and Kenwood also made a strong entrance into the US market, so MiniDisc is by no means a single-company format. Prices also dropped significantly in 1997, with a MD recorder audio component and portable player combo widely available at stores like Best Buy, Circuit City, and Good Guys for under US$500. These stores also started advertising MD units in their weekly advertising circulars -- a very good sign that sales are going well. Finally, MD blanks have dropped dramatically in price, from US$8/each mail-order at the beginning of 1997, to less than $5/each at local stores in the Fall of 1997. Nothing is certain, but MD's future is more promising than ever.

This document was originally written by Jamshid Afshar <[email protected]> in November/December 1997. It has been placed into the public domain.

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