Introduction to How DVDs Work

It wasn't really that long ago that VHS tapes dominated the home video market, but now, DVDs have all but wiped them out completely. Going from tape to disc gave the home theater experience a major upgrade, and ushered in an era of feature-packed special edition home video.

In this article, you will learn what a DVD is made of, how a DVD player reads a disc, a little DVD history and much more.

A DVD can store almost eight hours of CD-quality music per side.

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DVD Discs

A DVD is very similar to a CD, but it has a much larger data capacity. A standard DVD holds about seven times more data than a CD does. This huge capacity means that a DVD has enough room to store a full-length, MPEG-2-encoded movie, as well as a lot of other information.

Here are the typical contents of a DVD movie:

  • Up to 133 minutes of high-resolution video, in letterbox or pan-and-scan format, with 720 dots of horizontal resolution (The video compression ratio is typically 40:1 using MPEG-2 compression.)
  • Soundtrack presented in up to eight languages using 5.1 channel Dolby digital surround sound
  • Subtitles in up to 32 languages

DVD can also be used to store almost eight hours of CD-quality music per side.

The format offers many advantages over VHS tapes:

  • DVD picture quality is better, and many DVDs have Dolby Digital or DTS sound, which is much closer to the sound you experience in a movie theater.
  • Many DVD movies have an on-screen index, where the creator of the DVD has labeled many of the significant parts of the movie, sometimes with a picture. With your remote, if you select the part of the movie you want to view, the DVD player will take you right to that part, with no need to rewind or fast-forward.
  • DVD players are compatible with audio CDs.
  • Some DVD movies have both the letterbox format, which fits wide-screen TVs, and the standard TV size format, so you can choose which way you want to watch the movie.
  • DVD movies may have several soundtracks on them, and they may provide subtitles in different languages. Foreign movies may give you the choice between the version dubbed into your language, or the original soundtrack with subtitles in your language.

DVD formats

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DVD Layers

DVDs are of the same diameter and thickness as CDs, and they are made using some of the same materials and manufacturing methods. Like a CD, the data on a DVD is encoded in the form of small pits and bumps in the track of the disc.

A DVD is composed of several layers of plastic, totaling about 1.2 millimeters thick. Each layer is created by injection molding polycarbonate plastic. This process forms a disc that has microscopic bumps arranged as a single, continuous and extremely long spiral track of data. More on the bumps later.

Once the clear pieces of polycarbonate are formed, a thin reflective layer is sputtered onto the disc, covering the bumps. Aluminum is used behind the inner layers, but a semi-reflective gold layer is used for the outer layers, allowing the laser to focus through the outer and onto the inner layers. After all of the layers are made, each one is coated with lacquer, squeezed together and cured under infrared light. For single-sided discs, the label is silk-screened onto the nonreadable side. Double-sided discs are printed only on the nonreadable area near the hole in the middle. Cross sections of the various types of completed DVDs (not to scale) look like this:

Data tracks on a DVD

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Each writable layer of a DVD has a spiral track of data. On single-layer DVDs, the track always circles from the inside of the disc to the outside. That the spiral track starts at the center means that a single-layer DVD can be smaller than 12 centimeters if desired.

What the image to the left cannot impress upon you is how incredibly tiny the data track is -- just 740 nanometers separate one track from the next (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter). And the elongated bumps that make up the track are each 320 nanometers wide, a minimum of 400 nanometers long and 120 nanometers high. The following figure illustrates looking through the polycarbonate layer at the bumps.

You will often read about "pits" on a DVD instead of bumps. They appear as pits on the aluminum side, but on the side that the laser reads from, they are bumps.

DVD pit layout

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The microscopic dimensions of the bumps make the spiral track on a DVD extremely long. If you could lift the data track off a single layer of a DVD, and stretch it out into a straight line, it would be almost 7.5 miles long! That means that a double-sided, double-layer DVD would have 30 miles (48 km) of data!

To read bumps this small you need an incredibly precise disc-reading mechanism.

DVD Storage Capacity

DVDs can store more data than CDs for a few reasons:

  • Higher-density data storage
  • Less overhead, more area
  • Multi-layer storage

Higher Density Data Storage

Single-sided, single-layer DVDs can store about seven times more data than CDs. A large part of this increase comes from the pits and tracks being smaller on DVDs.

Track Pitch

  • CD = 1600 nanometers
  • DVD = 740 nanometers

Minimum Pit Length (single-layer DVD)

  • CD = 830 nanometers
  • DVD = 400 nanometers

Minimum Pit Length (double-layer DVD)

  • CD = 830 nanometers
  • DVD = 440 nanometers

Let's try to get an idea of how much more data can be stored due to the physically tighter spacing of pits on a DVD. The track pitch on a DVD is 2.16 times smaller, and the minimum pit length for a single-layer DVD is 2.08 times smaller than on a CD. By multiplying these two numbers, we find that there is room for about 4.5 times as many pits on a DVD. So where does the rest of the increase come from?

Less Overhead, More Area

On a CD, there is a lot of extra information encoded on the disc to allow for error correction -- this information is really just a repetition of information that is already on the disc. The error correction scheme that a CD uses is quite old and inefficient compared to the method used on DVDs. The DVD format doesn't waste as much space on error correction, enabling it to store much more real information. Another way that DVDs achieve higher capacity is by encoding data onto a slightly larger area of the disc than is done on a CD.

Multi-Layer Storage

To increase the storage capacity even more, a DVD can have up to four layers, two on each side. The laser that reads the disc can actually focus on the second layer through the first layer. Here is a list of the capacities of different forms of DVDs:

Single-sided/Single-layer

  • 4.38 GB
  • 2 hours movie time

Single-sided/Double-layer

  • 7.95 GB
  • 4 hours movie time

Double-sided/Single-layer

  • 8.75 GB
  • 4.5 hours movie time

Double-sided/Double-layer

  • 15.9 GB
  • Over 8 hours movie time

You may be wondering why the capacity of a DVD doesn't double when you add a whole second layer to the disc. This is because when a disc is made with two layers, the pits have to be a little longer, on both layers, than when a single layer is used. This helps to avoid interference between the layers, which would cause errors when the disc is played.

DVD Fact

If an average DVD movie were uncompressed, it would take at least a year to download it over a normal phone line.

Did you know?

DVDs often have special features hidden on the disc. These "Easter eggs" can be previews of other movies, computer software or music. DVD Review has a listing of some great Easter eggs that viewers have found on DVDs.

DVD Video

Even though its storage capacity is huge, the uncompressed video data of a full-length movie would never fit on a DVD. In order to fit a movie on a DVD, you need video compression. A group called the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) establishes the standards for compressing moving pictures.

When movies are put onto DVDs, they are encoded in MPEG-2 format and then stored on the disc. This compression format is a widely accepted international standard. Your DVD player contains an MPEG-2 decoder, which can uncompress this data as quickly as you can watch it.

The MPEG-2 Format and Data Size Reduction

A movie is usually filmed at a rate of 24 frames per second. This means that every second, there are 24 complete images displayed on the movie screen. American and Japanese television use a format called NTSC, which displays a total of 30 frames per second; but it does this in a sequence of 60 fields, each of which contains alternating lines of the picture. Other countries use PAL format, which displays at 50 fields per second, but at a higher resolution (see How Video Formatting Works for details on these formats). Because of the differences in frame rate and resolution, an MPEG movie needs to be formatted for either the NTSC or the PAL system.

The MPEG encoder that creates the compressed movie file analyzes each frame and decides how to encode it. The compression uses some of the same technology as still image compression does to eliminate redundant or irrelevant data. It also uses information from other frames to reduce the overall size of the file. Each frame can be encoded in one of three ways:

  • As an intraframe - An intraframe contains the complete image data for that frame. This method of encoding provides the least compression.
  • As a predicted frame - A predicted frame contains just enough information to tell the DVD player how to display the frame based on the most recently displayed intraframe or predicted frame. This means that the frame contains only the data that relates to how the picture has changed from the previous frame.
  • As a bidirectional frame - In order to display this type of frame, the player must have the information from the surrounding intraframe or predicted frames. Using data from the closest surrounding frames, it uses interpolation (something like averaging) to calculate the position and color of each pixel.

Depending on the type of scene being converted, the encoder will decide which types of frames to use. If a newscast were being converted, a lot more predicted frames could be used, because most of the scene is unaltered from one frame to the next. On the other hand, if a very fast action scene were being converted, in which things changed very quickly from one frame to the next, more intraframes would have to be encoded. The newscast would compress to a much smaller size than the action sequence.

If all of this sounds complicated, then you are starting to get a feeling for how much work your DVD player does to decode an MPEG-2 movie. A lot of processing power is required; even some computers with DVD players can't keep up with the processing required to play a DVD movie.

Comparison of a raw audio signal to the CD audio and DVD audio output

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DVD Audio

DVD audio and DVD video are different formats. DVD audio discs and players are relatively rare right now, but they will become more common, and the difference in sound quality should be noticeable. In order to take advantage of higher-quality DVD audio discs, you will need a DVD player with a 192kHz/24-bit digital-to-analog converter (DAC). Most DVD players have only a 96kHz/24-bit digital-to-analog converter. So if you want to be able to listen to DVD audio discs, be sure to look for a DVD audio player with a 192kHz/24-bit digital-to-analog converter.

DVD audio recordings can provide far better sound quality than CDs. The chart below lists the sampling rate and accuracy for CD recordings and the maximum sampling rate and accuracy for DVD recordings. CDs can hold 74 minutes of music. DVD audio discs can hold 74 minutes of music at their highest quality level, 192kHz/24-bit audio. By lowering either the sampling rate or the accuracy, DVDs can be made to hold more music. A DVD audio disc can store up to two hours of 6-channel, better than CD quality, 96kHz/24-bit music. Lower the specifications further, and a DVD audio disc can hold almost seven hours of CD-quality audio.

Sampling Rate

  • CD Audio = 441. kHz
  • DVD Audio = 192 kHz

Samples Per Second

  • CD Audio = 44,100
  • DVD Audio = 192,000

Sampling Accuracy

  • CD Audio = 16-bit
  • DVD Audio = 24.bit

Number of Possible Output Levels

  • CD Audio = 65,536
  • DVD Audio = 16,777,216

In an audio CD or DVD, each bit represents a digital command telling the DAC what voltage level to output (see How Analog and Digital Recording Works for details). While an ideal recording would follow the raw waveform exactly, digital recordings sample the sound at different frequencies, and therefore lose some of the data.

The graph above shows how the highest quality DVD audio compares to CD audio. You can see that DVD follows the signal more closely, but it's still a long way from perfect.

To get the full experience of the Dolby Digital sound used on many DVDs, you need a home theater system with five speakers, a subwoofer, and a receiver that is either "Dolby Digital ready" or has a built-in Dolby Digital decoder.

If your receiver is Dolby Digital ready, then it does not have a Dolby Digital decoder, so you need to buy a DVD player with its own Dolby Digital decoder and 5.1 channel outputs. If you also want your system to be compatible with DTS sound, then your DVD player will need a DTS decoder, too.

If your receiver has its own Dolby Digital decoder and DTS decoder, then you don't need a DVD player with 5.1 channel outputs, and you can save some money on cables by using the digital outputs.

DVDs and Laser Discs

Laser disc is an older technology. It offered a better picture and better sound than videotapes, and it is comparable to DVD. But the laser disc format is analog; DVDs are digital (see How Analog and Digital Recording Works). Laser discs are only used for prerecorded movies, and they are larger, about 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) in diameter, instead the 5-inch (12.7-centimeter) diameter of DVDs. The two formats usually can't be played on the same machine.

Laser discs, like DVDs, allow viewers to go to the exact scene they wish to see, and to freeze a frame or slow the picture. Laser discs can only hold an hour on each side, so you have to flip the disc to watch the second half of the movie.

Because of DVD compression techniques, DVDs can hold more data. You rarely have to flip a DVD to watch a whole movie. Laser disc players are noisier than DVD players, and they can sometimes suffer "laser rot" -- the aluminum side of the disc oxidizes, and the quality of the disc deteriorates. DVDs are less likely to have this problem, because manufacturing techniques have improved. As the popularity of DVD grows, laser discs are becoming harder to find.

DVD FAQ

What does "DVD" stand for?

"DVD" stands for digital versatile disc, but some sources declare that it doesn't stand for anything anymore.

Can I record television shows or movies on a DVD player?

Yes, you can -- if your DVD player is also a DVD recorder.

Can I play CDs on a DVD player?

Yes. DVD players are completely compatible with audio compact discs. And music will become increasingly available in DVD format. See What is the difference between DVD-audio and CDs? for more discussion of the DVD audio format.

What is the difference between DVD+R and DVD-R?

DVD+ ("plus") and DVD- ("dash") are two competing DVD formats. You may remember the "war" between the Betamax and VHS formats for domination of the VCR market. The big difference with DVD+R vs. DVD-R is that there are hybrid (dual-format) drives capable of reading both types. Many companies have taken sides -- the DVD Forum is a group of manufacturers that support DVD-R, while the DVD+RW Alliance supports that format. Consumers have yet to make either format the winner.

What are region codes?

Movie studios use region codes on DVDs to thwart unauthorized copying, and to control the release dates of DVD movies. The actual region code is stored in one byte on the DVD. The DVD player or drive has a region code in its firmware. Personal computer DVD-ROM players often have the code in the software or in the MPEG-2 decoder.

For the player or drive to play the movie, the two codes must match. The code is also printed on the back of a DVD package, superimposed on a small image of the globe. If you have a DVD that was made for release in Asia, you won't be able to play it on a DVD player intended for use in Australia.

For more information on DVDs, DVD players and related topics, check out the links on the next page.