Picking the Right Drive

When we first started looking at DVD recorders, there were only two reference designs out there, and they supported different DVD formats. Ricoh took a backseat for about a year and competition from NEC, Sanyo, Hitachi, Philips and MediaTek began to heat up while virtually removing the format barrier (read up more about Ricoh on the NuTech page). The single layer format wars are largely over without incident - with some exceptions. Those who bought Ricoh-based drives and were promised additional media support and faster firmware upgrades still hold memories of getting burned (pun intended). What about all those countless drives that would perform exceptionally on only one brand of media? It isn't just one set of recording manufacturers who have poor track records; they all have dark spots on a relatively short industry life. Our objective is to decide which one of these drives in our analysis performs the best for the price, so that no one gets burned.

How can we determine what the best performance of a recorder is? Although we largely compare one unit to another, the process is entirely quantitative - there is a systematic method to determining the best drive. Price, write quality, write speed, read quality, read speed, media support and feature support gauge the performance of our burners. Here is a checklist on how to pick the right burner.

Price: Perhaps one of the strongest weighted elements to evaluate, we want to know if the price makes sense. Two years ago, paying several hundred dollars for a DVD burner made sense. Paying over $100 today for a burner seems a little silly, even if performance is really outstanding. We have enough competition from several competing designs and dozens of manufacturers.

Write Speed: All of our burners burn at 16X, or do they? Looking at the average write speed of a burn is important to us, but mostly, it is just to let us know if a burner is doing something that it shouldn't. A 5-second difference between two burn speeds does not constitute a design win, but one drive writing twice as fast to another drive does.

Write Quality: The most important quantitative analysis that we do today is the write quality. As we mentioned before, no drive today will burn a DVDR significantly faster than another (with some exceptions), although perhaps the ones that do are doing it wrong. A burner that burns a disc with no errors (rather than a burner that burns a disc 5 seconds faster yet unreadable) constitutes a design win.

Read Speed, Read Quality: Probably the least weighted element in a DVD purchase. Obviously, a DVD recorder that can't read discs, or reads them improperly is a problem, but that flaw occurs extremely infrequently. Seek times and read quality both fall in this category.

Media Support: Choosing the right burner and choosing the right media are hand in hand with each other. The DVDR audience has been well trained to recognize the differences in media due to "the format wars", and those buying their second and third DVD burners tend to buy a burner for a type of media that they use. Now that the market is a little more mature, we are starting to see differences in each individual media brand. Ritek, Mitsubishi, Yuden, and CMC all have significant differences between each other, and some tend to burn faster and cleaner than others. Most of our examinations are limited to Ritek and Mitsubishi media, only because of the volume of testing needed to be done. The DVDR industry has shifted into the hands of the media manufacturers; even though a drive may promise a write speed for a particular format, if the drive's firmware team isn't working with all of the media outlets, then said drive will never perform correctly.

Another trend that we notice in media support can be generalized in maturity. Retail drive manufacturers who OEM the drive out to other manufacturers have the best media support. By OEM (original equipment manufacturer), we mean the manufacturer who produces the drive for a brand, but also sells under their own name. Most optical storage devices have a single programmer working on firmware for their drives; they only modify the OEM firmware by changing the name inside the drive BIOS - and sometimes not even that! The firmware teams are adding new media support and write descriptors. Write descriptors are the basic, low level operations that tell the burner exactly what to do, to write at a certain speed to a certain media. Generic write descriptors exist for all media, but performance comes from finely crafted write descriptors for a media speed and brand. Thus, manufacturing teams with large or talented firmware teams tend to perform better than ones who do not have such teams.

Determining if a drive can provide the best media support is extremely difficult to ascertain, but knowing that a drive supports the major write descriptors correctly is the best step in the correct direction.

Other Features: Booktype capabilities, Mount Rainier and error feedback are also important options to consider when choosing a drive. Most of these features have declined significantly in importance over the last few years, but some people place their entire purchase decision on booktype options. If you've never heard of booktypes before, you probably don't fall into that category. Setting a booktype (bitsetting) is just the process of telling your burner to convert a DVD+R disc "virtually" into a DVD-ROM instead. This feature is important for some people who have older set-top DVD players that cannot recognize the "bit" that determines what type of DVD media is sitting in the drive. You can check out how this works in more detail in an older article of ours.

As we already briefly mentioned, the format wars are in passing. Although the debate between +R and - R format seems to rage in various enthusiast circles, +R seems to be winning in terms of market penetration and speed. The DVD-R consortium does not have a dual layer, nor 16X media available yet, and they have been playing catch up for almost two years now.

Index The Test


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  • yourdeardaniel - Tuesday, November 2, 2004 - link

    the PO graphs dont work for me. Reply
  • CrazeeHorse - Tuesday, November 2, 2004 - link

    Yeah, Belzer is right. NEC have not allowed overspeeding of MCC003 anywhere, your read transfer speeds have been mis-mentioned as your write speeds. MCC003 stays at 8X! Reply
  • Belzer - Tuesday, November 2, 2004 - link

    WTF. The write speed tables for 8x MCC DVD±R show the read transfer graph not the write speed.
    Here are the correct tables for some of the drives (pictures are missing for the LG and the rest are OEM versions so I don't bother to check them):
    MCC 02RG20
    Time Speed Drive
    6:33 10.44x BenQ
    6:33 10.22x NEC
    6:49 10.01x Pioneer
    9:29 7.05x Lite-On

    MCC 003
    Time Speed Drive
    6:26 10.47x BenQ
    6:46 10.01x Pioneer
    8:11 7.96x Lite-On
    9:47 6.72x NEC

    And it's the time not the average speed that is interesting so for MCC 004 (again pictures missing for several drives in the zips):

    Time Speed Drive
    5:50 11.38x BenQ
    6:04 11.68x LG
    6:50 10.00x Pioneer

    Also the BenQ does not cost $90, it costs $67 for the OEM version at Newegg (and you're taking the price of the OEM versions for other drives). Now if you also had bothered to update the firmware to the latest the BenQ would have had the by far best media support too making it the clear winner imo especially as a 4x DVD+R DL firmware update is expected to be released later this month for free.
  • Maverick215 - Tuesday, November 2, 2004 - link

    Ok now I can do even less... will check back tomorrow to see if its working then Reply
  • Maverick215 - Tuesday, November 2, 2004 - link

    >I find that comment inaccurate. Pioneer USA's website is generally *months* behind the Japanese or European versions.
    I'm not sure what you're trying to say; and perhaps I wasn't clear since you don't seem to understand what I was saying. I am not familiar enough with pioneer's releases to really give you a certain answer. Though my experience with most of my personal hardware is that it is true one country will lag behind, but often times they end up posting the SAME exact firmware, unless there are language changes(do you really think pioneer USA is further certifying xyz firmware release or even recoding it from scratch? or did I miss you point all together?). Seems especially true for larger multinational corporations (left hand doesn't know what the right is doing) so you'll often see the earliest release on the "mother land" website. There will of course be a gradient of this effect since some companies are more tightly knit.
    My point was that nutech seems to have used plain vanilla OEM/Bulk firmware in their drive. So updating it with a newer firmware from the same line (not "forked" or otherwise customized) made by the same people would be the same as updating any other OEM'd drive with G series firmware. and the same as updating a retail drive with with the H series firmware.
  • Maverick215 - Tuesday, November 2, 2004 - link

    not letting me post large comments breaking them up:
    [ok I lied :)]
    I thought as much on the 3 drives issue as soon as I posted, sorry I got on a roll :)
    >>I think if it's official enough to be on the OEM's website that should be good enough to prove its quality.
  • Maverick215 - Tuesday, November 2, 2004 - link

    Odd... Reply
  • Bozo Galora - Tuesday, November 2, 2004 - link

    Well< I got back from BestBuy and what do you know - they had them. Three on the shelf, I scooped them up and paid and out I went. The whole thing took less than 5 min.

  • KristopherKubicki - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    Maverick215: You are correct, those dates are exactly the dates we worked on those images.

    There are a lot of things in the editorial process that take some time to wade through, although we did the best we could.

    >I must also wonder why you chose 3 of the same drive.

    Some of those drives we did not expect to be the same when we received them. The NuTech we obviously thought was based on a Sanyo chipset (this was detailed in the review). We had no knowledge of the MSI's chipset before we asked for a review sample.

    >I think if it's official enough to be on the OEM's website that should be good enough to prove its quality.

    I find that comment inaccurate. Pioneer USA's website is generally *months* behind the Japanese or European versions.

    >BTW how did you accomplish bitsetting with the 3500..

    The official firmwares past 2.16 (our tested version) support DL bitsetting automatically, anything past 2.26 supports SL bitsetting as well. Since the drives are OEM, they almost always ship with the newest firmware available, and we thought the review should reflect that. Obviously though, we could only test on 2.16.

  • Maverick215 - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    Thanks for the zips. I am obviously blind.
    As I said I understand you can't TEST the latest and imediately post the review. But typing one or two sentances that outline updated firmware changes (esp if those changes occurred several weeks before your submission) wouldn't take much time (unless you type REAL slow) You obviously had to go back to look at the results of the drives that you already tested to do your final comparison. Wouldn't drastic differences warrant a little more investigation rather than to just say NEC/etc is more mature, end of story?
    These dates are the apparent test dates (yes I know modified != created, but it's the best we have)
    Pioneer 10.13-10.20
    NEC 10.13-10.21
    BenQ 9.17-9.28
    MSI 10.12-10.13
    LiteOn 10.13-10.20
    Sony 10.5-10.12 (pics of drive 9.27)
    LG 10.20-10.21
    Nutech 10.20-10.21
    While I imagine you were busy with other things, that's quite a gap.
    I must also wonder why you chose 3 of the same drive.
    From the review it seems BenQ, MSI and Nutech are all using the same hardware, differing only by firmware.
    BenQ B7J9 9.24.04 (beta, from what I can gather)
    MSI M1.4 (can't find directly but others say it's 10.12.04; harder to change this firmware but can still be done, I won't go into it here since it's beyond the scope and likely MSI is more likely to be altering the oem firmware compared to nutech)
    Nutech G7H9 8.25.04 (first release solely for 1620 series drives, from what I can gather)
    http://www.nu-global.com/1_english/3_products/01_i... no new firmware apparently; though G7H9 would correspond to B7H9 (G is an indication of OEM/Bulk drive supposedly no difference among same revision they also seem to post to benq's european website within a day or so of each other.
    (this ftp is what you are redirected to from the official website, the ftp houses the older revisions though)
    b7h9.zip 8/25/2004
    b7k9.zip 9/29/2004
    b7l9.zip 10/13/2004
    b7m9.zip 11/1/2004
    g7k9.zip 9/30/2004
    g7l9.zip 10/13/2004
    g7m9.zip 11/1/2004
    What the heck does all this rambling mean!?!?!??!
    in short you could have easily upgraded your nutech to G7K9 (OEM released firmware) and tested it since you apparently didn't test it untill later in october, well after G7K9 was released, perhaps you might have even squeezed in G7L9.
    Yes, you might say that it's not an "official firmware" it will void your nutech warranty!!
    But when the manufacturer refuses to update their website, what choice does the consumer, who wants the most out of his/her hardware, have.
    from nutech's website:
    "This warranty is void if: (yatta yatta) If the unit is repaired, modified or altered, unless such repair, modification or alteration is expressly authorized in writing by NU.
    (yatta yatta)"
    I must say it is worth noting that none of the firmware downloads from NU's site that I looked at contained any such written authorization.
    I think if it's official enough to be on the OEM's website that should be good enough to prove its quality.
    On a side note, one might wonder "is such an upgrade a modification or alteration?" I'm inclined to call it a repair :)
    BTW how did you accomplish bitsetting with the 3500.. To my knowledge NEC hasn't released a tool to do this (when I say NEC, I mean dl'able from nec.com, not mdmm.com(oem'd)) and if done in nero I was under the impression that there is a limit to the number of times this can be done (an enforced limit, ie it's coded in like RPC changes rather than the memory "wearing out") just wondering.
    ok three very long posts that rehash the same thing.. unless there's something new I yield.

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