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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  • Sabresiberian - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    #15 DL is important to me because I know the price of media will drop and I want the drive I buy to be as useful as possible for the longest time possible. I might be buying it today but I will be using it tomorrow :) Overall you make some good points :)

    I think this is a difficult time to do this kind of article, because other improved versions will be available before the end of the year. For example, the Plextor 716A will be released with SATA capabilities.

    I think its wierd that you couldn't get the Plextor drive in time, as I know this product has been reviewed by others.
    Reply
  • southernpac - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    A recent (17 August) article in PC World advised extreme caution when buying an OEM (versus retail) DVD burner. It said that OEM units "carry no manufacturer's warranty, lack burning software and are ineligible for firmware upgrades" (therefore costing more in the long run). Many examples were given. I would appreciate advise as to whether this is percieved to be a real concern. If so, NEC has no retail outlet - how would you buy a non-OEM unit? Reply
  • southernpac - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    A recent (August 17th) PC World article advised extreme caution when buying OEM vs. retail DVD burners. It claimed that OEM versions carry no manufacturer's warranty, lack software and are ineligible for firmware upgrades (therefore actually costing more in the long run). Many examples were given. I would appreciate some advise as to whether this is percieved to be a real risk. If so, NEC has no retail outlet - how would you buy a non-OEM unit? Bill Reply
  • Gatak - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    How about overburn tests? I have many times wanted to burn 50-100MB more than a standard single-layer disk but failed because my drive or software won't do it. Reply
  • Codyman - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    I'm kinda wondering if a PX716A couldn't get crammed into this test somehow. Been waiting for this review in hopes that it would've been in this test and I haven't been waiting the extra couple months for nothing. Reply
  • danidentity - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    I'd like to see a list of recommended media for different speed grades (4x, 8x, etc.) for different burners. Reply
  • techfuzz - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    Why weren't the firmware on all the drives tested brought up to at the very least the most recent officially released version? For example, NEC's current official firmware is v2.17 where the v2.16 used in this roundup is the original firmware as-shipped from the factory?! Reply
  • Bozo Galora - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    firmwares are on www.cdrinfo.com Reply
  • ecouser - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    Doesn’t Samsung make a Dual Layer DVD burner? If so why isn’t it in this roundup? Reply
  • MIDIman - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    Yay! I'm a winner! I was waiting for this article, but couldn't wait long enough, and picked up the NEC two weeks ago. Couldn't be happier.

    Here's hoping for better Ritek 8x/16x support...
    Reply

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