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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  • Maverick215 - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    1) where are the 8x disc quality tests, it seems you only did -r, 16x, and DL
    2) who cares about DL at $10 a disc I have to quote you, "read/write capabilities are not really useful in applications for the common end user."
    3) who cares about 16x
    a)it's not readily available
    b) will likely be more expensive when it is
    c) no realized speed improvement (your review states 11.9x max for 16x and 11.88 max for 8x media @ 12x (again we don't know the burn quality of this 8x@12 burn but you gave the result)
    given these I'd have to say "read/write capabilities are not really useful in applications for the common end user." again.
    ----
    And to just take one drive here, the benq, you used a BETA firmware, it might be fair if you used a BETA of a upcoming release, but you used a BETA that is 3 public releases and atleast 5 weeks old. you consider NEC more mature, why not give Benq etc a chance to mature? At the very least you could say all burners were updated as of xyz date, at least we would have a reference point. And we could then understand that infact you started doing this comparison 5 weeks ago.
    ----
    That minor point aside. If you really care what is applicable to the "common end user" then why not more 8x media with the price of said media and then that media's burn quality tests(16x has a use here in comparing burn quality). 8x is what's most readily available, 8x@12x is comparable burn speed to 16x.
    Sorry but this review just leaves me with an empty feeling. Perhaps I am alone in my opinion, but I can live with that.
    Reply
  • Reflex - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    Nice to know I made the right choice a month and a half ago when I grabbed the 3500A. It wasn't anything more than me looking for a bargain for a Media Center PC, so I just lucked into the best drive it appears.

    BTW, where do you find the latest firmware for this stuff? And are there any good reccomendations on softare, seeing as OEM drives don't come with it usually...
    Reply
  • AkumaX - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    don't really care about speed, but which burner has the best COMPATIBILITY and RELIABILITY in terms of burning? the 108D or the 3500A or something else? Reply
  • mkruer - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    So I take it DVD+R/RW won the format wars. BTW that would be a good article in itself. Why IS there a difference between the two formats (that’s -R vs +R) Reply
  • KristopherKubicki - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    Most of the drives we reviewed are the OEM versions - they pretty much all look identical (flat, beige/black, one button).

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

    OCedHrt: Errors have been fixed for your viewing pleasure :) Reply
  • Operandi - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    xsilver: If the drive is a re-badge then just say so in the artical, I don't think a picture is required.

    My point is simply that if your going get pics of the drives you should be taking pics of the portion people will be looking at. Other pics are fine but not geing bezel shoots dosn't make any sense to me.
    Reply
  • OCedHrt - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    Hmm dunno how to edit. The CD-R write speed for the Pioneer between the graph and the table at the end is also different. Reply
  • OCedHrt - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    The description for the Ritek G05 read test doesn't match the graph at all. One of them is wrong. Reply
  • xsilver - Monday, November 1, 2004 - link

    I think the circuit pcb thing is a good idea -- some drives a just rebadges of other drives? (asus?) so to tell you look that the pcb / insides Reply

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