Buying a CD or DVD burner can be a no-brainer, but buyers should beware: what you see isn't always what you get.
Optical disc burning combines convenient, robust storage with a pennies-per-megabyte price. Whether you are looking to back up data or burn DVDs for your home theater, disc burners are standard features in many computers. If your machine does not already have one, or if you are ready for an upgrade, we've got what you need.
When you buy a computer, it is likely that the company whose name is on the case did not manufacture the components inside of it. This applies not only to smaller system integrators, but also to the very biggest names in the industry as well, who all contract out manufacturing to factories in the Far East that specialize in computer components.
So, when you buy a CD or DVD burner, the company whose name appears on the box or stenciled on the front of the drive may not be the actual manufacturer. One company that does make its own components is Panasonic, which is a major original equipment manufacturer (OEM) of both CD and DVD burners. Panasonic is one of only a handful of OEM drive manufacturers in the world. Through aggressive distribution deals, a number of companies on the buyer's guides that accompany this article are really selling re-branded Panasonic drives. While this isn't some sort of secret conspiracy, many of these companies are reluctant to reveal their OEM information.
As far as computer technology is concerned, CD burners have been around for a long time, and are standard equipment in most new computers. When you can buy a drive for less than $50, OEM concerns are minor. In fact, the generic drive in your computer may not even have a name on it at all. You can easily find blank CD-R discs for less than 30 cents each. Since video typically occupies gigabytes of storage space, CD media, with capacities measured in hundreds of megabytes, are often of limited use for archiving video material. A great use for CD media is to create VCD and SVCD discs for distribution.
When buying a drive to install yourself, there may be other concerns than the price, however. Take for example, an OEM drive packaged from the Taiwanese manufacturer BTC (Behavior Tech Computer Corp.). Although BTC is one of the largest manufacturers of CD drives in the world, you probably won't find its drives on the shelf at your local computer store, but you can track one down with a brief search on the Internet. Because of the automatic nature of plug-and-play on a Windows PC, the drive will almost certainly install with no problems. The inexpensive price of the drive might mean that it does not include fancy CD burning software (if it has any at all) and your support contacts (in the unlikely event that you need support) will be with the manufacturer in Taiwan (which actually presents few problems in this electronic global community we live in).
You might prefer instead to get a name-brand drive (which BTC may have actually made), with a different software package and perhaps more attentive tech support (but that's not guaranteed either). Our advice? If you know what a hardware driver is, can find the latest version online and already have CD burning software, get an inexpensive generic (OEM) drive. It is unlikely you will have any problems. On the other hand, if you are the least bit concerned about any of this, spend the extra $20 and buy from a name you know and trust.
DVD burners are a different story, since DVD technology for the masses is relatively new. There are still only a few companies manufacturing DVD burning units. The importance of the newer DVD burners is that they create discs that can (theoretically) be played back in living room DVD players, which is the focus of our interest. The manufacturers are split between the two major competing formats, summarized as DVD-R and DVD+R. For the end user viewing your movies on a stand-alone DVD player, the particular format of the disc is irrelevant, as long as it works.
Your first choice is to decide which one of these two formats you want to go with. While that topic goes beyond the purpose of this article, we can summarize the debate like this: each format claims to be more compatible than the other. In the end, since your final goal is to get a disc to play back in a living room DVD player, your viewers probably don't care which kind of discs you burn, as long as they work.
Since so few models are being manufactured, the company you buy from and the software and support package that goes along with the hardware are more important for DVD burners than for CD burners. There are many DVD authoring applications available, so finding a package with a good software suite is an important consideration. While we wouldn't expect you to have many installation problems, there are many compatibility issues that the industry is currently working through. Shop carefully, read up on the technology and explore the support options offered by the brand name before you make a final selection.
Let it Burn
In the final analysis, buying and installing a CD burner could be the easiest upgrade you can make to your computer. External models don't even require you to open your case.
DVD burners are analogous, but the technology is still new enough to be more complex and potentially more troublesome. And there is no guarantee that the discs you burn will play back on the DVD player in your (or anyone else's) living room. The ultimate solution to these issues will be time. It may be another year before the price and compatibility of these products make them truly mainstream. Until then, we'd recommend some serious research (read some product reviews, browse Usenet discussion groups, ask around) before you lay down the few hundred dollars required for admission to the world of DVD burning.