Burner Basics: An Introduction to DVD Burners

Long ago, when the first CD burners hit the market, the equipment was very expensive, but prices fell rapidly and, today, most entry-level computers come with a CD burner. One could safely expect that this will soon be the situation with DVD burners.

Times were simpler back when the first CD burners came out, though. There was really only one standard with two types of discs: the write once discs (CD-R) and the rewritable discs (CD-RW). DVD is a little more complex. The first recordable DVD formats developed by the DVD Forum were DVD-R, DVD-RW and DVD-RAM. The DVD+RW Alliance, led by Philips and Sony, created a different format: DVD+RW and DVD+R. Both the DVD Forum (-R) and DVD+RW Alliance (+R) claim better compatibility. For the consumer, this can seem confusing. Rest assured, this format war shouldn’t cause the end user to lose too much sleep.

Will it Play in Peoria?

Naturally, both the proponents of the DVD+R/+RW and those of the DVD-R/-RW formats claim that their discs are the most compatible with the installed base of living room DVD players.
Who’s right?

Many factors contribute to whether a given disc will play in a given player. For the home DVD author, the hardware burner, the authoring software and type of blank media are all part of the equation. In the end, however, we’ve found that the bulk of compatibility problems are with the player. In our tests, living room DVD players that play DVD-R discs also tend to play DVD+R discs, and vice versa. This is a broad generalization and is not 100% true across the board.

That said, it is our responsibility as content creators to do everything we can to make the most compatible discs possible and the material on the disc itself is sometimes the problem. Many complex projects must be tweaked and re-built before the project can be widely distributed. We’ve experienced this firsthand when building our own Basics of Videography DVD. It can take a lot of patience (as well as a tall rack of DVD players and an intern to do some quality assurance tests) to find all of the problems that might crop up in a disc.

Who Makes ‘Em?

The big players to watch are the manufacturers of the drive mechanisms, primarily Pioneer for DVD-R/RW mechanisms and Ricoh for DVD+R/RW mechanisms (and Panasonic for DVD-RAM mechanisms). There are a wide cross-section of computer peripheral manufacturers that are offering branded-DVD burners, including Verbatim, TDK, Memorex, Pioneer, Panasonic, Toshiba, HP, Sony and LG. (See the DVD Burner Manufacturer Listing sidebar for the entire gamut.) There are also companies who repackage drives in their own enclosures, and bundle them with software and cables to create a convenient and consumer-friendly single-box DVD authoring solution (such as Pacific Digital, QPS, EZQuest, Fantom Drives and LaCie). Shop around and you’re sure to find something that meets all of your needs, whether it’s a complete kit or a bare drive.

Speed Demons

Need that disc yesterday? Drives get faster every day, with the fastest Pioneer drive currently burning at 4x. Confusingly, 1x for DVD (1,321KB/s) is not the same as 1x for CD (150KB/s). In other words, 1x DVD = 9x CD. DVD burners, whether +R/RW or -R/RW will burn CDs also, although they can’t burn CDs as fast as some of the newer CD burners on the market.

A Bigger Buffer is Better

A feature to watch for when buying a DVD burner is the size of the internal buffer. The buffer is a bit of RAM on the drive that temporarily stores data before it is burned onto the disc. The disc-mastering program that you use will try to keep the buffer as full as possible. There is an important reason for this: DVD burners (and CD burners, for that matter) need a steady flow of data. The buffer on the burner compensates for a certain amount of variability in the data stream, with larger buffers able to handle more difficulties. Most DVD+R/RW drives have a 2MB buffer, while newer DVD-R/RW drives generally have a more generous 8MB buffer (we’d expect this to change very rapidly). Buffer underruns were a common cause of CD-coasters a few short years ago, but modern technologies can easily deal with interruptions in the data flow, using such tactics as throttling down the drive to a lower speed when the buffer level falls below a specific point.

Interfaces

Among internally mounted drives, IDE (ATAPI) drives are by far the most common. Only a handful of SCSI drives exist anymore, although they once were common. Externally, FireWire is the interface of choice, but a number of drives using the fast USB 2.0 standard also look very promising. Several companies that market off-the-shelf drives in custom enclosures offer external drives with both FireWire and USB 2.0 connections.

Laptop DVD burners are not common at this point. If the trailblazing CD-R drives have taught us anything, it’s that DVD drives will become faster, smaller, less expensive and more available. Currently, Toshiba and Apple offer recordable DVD drives on laptops, but we fully expect that other manufacturers will have this feature in the near future.

The War is Over

At the beginning of this article, we told you not to worry about the DVD Forum vs. DVD+RW Alliance format war too much. In a very real sense, the war is over for consumers, although a winner has not been declared. TDK and Sony now offer writers that burn both DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW discs. We’d expect more manufacturers to offer more format agnostic burners over the coming year. These drives are a little more expensive, but if you are concerned about compatibility, this is the way to go. You’ll still have to decide on the media you use, but at a dollar or so a disc, the cost of burning incompatible discs is not high.

The Future

Recordable DVD is still a young technology, although second and third generation devices are making it to market as we write. We expect the combination of future drives and future software to yield discs that are even more compatible than discs authored with today’s drives and software. Prices will also continuing to fall somewhat, although not as rapidly as they did over the last year. Of course, better living room players are also coming out, and that should help home authors as well.

Witnessing the rapid rollout (and rapid price drop) of recordable DVD technology makes us wonder what will happen when the recordable version of the next high-capacity optical format comes around. We’re brimming with excitement to see what the future will bring, but we are also very happy with the state of today’s technology.

[Sidebar: No Computer? No Problem!]

One of the latest consumer electronic products to hit the shelves is the standalone living room DVD burner. Externally, these devices look exactly like the DVD player already connected to your TV. Functionally, they work more like your VCR: just press Record. All have inputs for analog video, but we are especially excited about the recorders that have FireWire input. While prices may be a bit high this year, with so many products from so many manufacturers, we expect standalone DVD recorders to be the next must-have product for the living room, and a neat extra for videographers who want simple DVD-recording functionality. Would-be DVD authors should note that while these standalones will record video to disc, they do not offer a means of creating custom menus or fancy navigational structures.

[Sidebar: General vs. Authoring Media]

If you’ve ever shopped for blank DVD-R discs, you’ve undoubtedly seen references to authoring discs (as opposed to general purpose discs). These discs are written with a different laser wavelength (635nm, as compared to 650nm for general discs). Authoring discs can’t be burned in drives meant for general media, and vice versa.

So why in the world are there authoring DVDs, anyway? Authoring DVDs were originally designed for professional use, and can hold information that general discs can’t. For example, an authoring DVD with standardized Cutting Master Format (CMF) data can be submitted to a duplication house instead of a DLT (digital linear tape). Authoring burners are, of course, significantly more expensive than the general burners discussed in this article.

[Sidebar: Don’t Call it "Minus!"]
When the burnable DVD world consisted solely of DVD-R drives, everyone just called them "Dee Vee Dee Arr." When the first DVD+RW drives came out, a distinction had to be made. Many people instinctively said "Dee Vee Dee Plus Arr Double-You." And, logically, the opposite of "plus" is "minus" and many people began talking about DVD-R as "Dee Vee Dee Minus Arr." The DVD Forum folks in charge of marketing DVD-R are not terribly fond of the negative connotation of "minus" and would respectfully request that you call it "Dee Vee Dee Dash Arr" instead. We suppose you could refer to it as "Dee Vee Dee Hyphen Arr," but, officially, it’s a dash.

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