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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  • Warder45 - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    I think some are forgeting that testing these things doesn't happen over night. Between other reviews, news, etc and normal working hours it could be quite easy to have a new firmware come out after you've already tested.

    For the plextor drive it does seem like bestbuy's website has them in stock for $140 with a $30 MIR. So is the extra's of a plextor worth the extra $30 to $40?
    Reply
  • Mem - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    I notice with the Lite-On 1633 drive you was for the roundup still had the original firmware,there`s a new firmware "BSOK" update out dated 26th OCT that has "matched more media" support.

    I happen to own the external version and can say it`s very quiet while burning and also in playback mode,the only noisy thing is the tray when ejecting IMHO,btw I think it`s a great burner very low P1/PO errors and no bad burns so far.
    Reply
  • Dennis Travis - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    What is interesting is I just bought a Plextor PX-716a at Best Buy this last week. It works GREAT so far. Will do more testing but so far it's fast and reliable. It is at UDMA 4 by the way. It flys.

    It came with both a White and Black face and door.
    Reply
  • Bozo Galora - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    er, Nov 8 for PREORDER
    apparently they are still working out bugs

    I note in the specs that the drive will run in UltraUDMA mode 4 or 66MB/sec in addition to PIO
    Interesting
    Reply
  • Bozo Galora - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    http://www.plextor.com/english/products/716A.htm

    looks like Nov 8 for USA
    Reply
  • Bozo Galora - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    #25-
    I have never seen a 16X Plextor review - care to link one?

    Latest Plextools out today 2.18
    http://www.plextools.com/download/download.asp
    Reply
  • Mookie13 - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    Can anybody comment on the noise level of any of these drives (esp. the NEC, BenQ and Pioneer)? I'd like to throw one of these in a sff and use it as a htpc, so a loud drive spinning sound would really bother me. Reply
  • KristopherKubicki - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    Maverick215: Feel free to download the .zip files with all of the disc quality q-tools and nero tests.

    techfuzz: When we tested the drive 2.16 was the newest available.

    As for the BenQ drive, we tested with the newest firmware possible.

    Kristopher
    Reply
  • Aquila76 - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    From page 9 (Sony Review) <<...dual layer burners are pseudonymous with 16X burners...>>

    I think the word you're looking for is 'synonymous', not 'pseudonymous'. A pseudonym means 'a fake name', whereas a synonym means 'basically the same thing'. However, in Sony's case, pseudonym may be more accurate.
    Reply
  • Belzer - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    I find the average write speed of 11.88x for the NEC on 8x DVD±R MCC media very hard to believe. It would need to support them at max 16x speed to get this average speed and it does not, unless you've used a hacked firmware.

    I also doubt that the Pioneer is faster than the BenQ @12x on 8x MCC DVD+R if you compare the actual write time. Other tests have shown the BenQ to be a good 30 seconds faster than the Pioneer at 12x thanks to PCAV write tech (vs. ZCLV).
    Reply

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