Burner Buying Basics: DVD Burners

In May of 2001, factories in China were ramping up to produce over a million Pioneer DVR-103 DVD burners for a mainstream consumer market. Well, if you consider $995 to be mainstream. As of this writing, we were able to find DVD burners for as little as $140. Now that’s what we call mainstream.

Competition

Of course the primary reason for the plummeting prices is competition. When the first DVR-103 drives hit the market, we could have written an article that was about a paragraph long and included not only the DVR-103, but also the Panasonic LF-D311. In the intervening two years, not only have we seen more models and more manufacturers, we’ve also seen the burnable DVD format split into two camps. Now there are enough brands of drives that we can’t possibly list them all in any coherent fashion that wouldn’t be out of date by the time you read this. We can however give you an overview of the technology and what you should look for as you buy a burner.

Who Makes ‘Em?

The big players to watch are the manufacturers of the drive mechanisms, primarily Pioneer for DVD-R/RW mechanisms, Ricoh for DVD+R/RW mechanisms and Panasonic for DVD-RAM mechanisms (although DVD-RAM is much less important for video). 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). 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 drives 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 DVD+R/RW or DVD-R/RW will all burn CDs also, although they can’t burn CDs as fast as some of the newest CD burners on the market, which might approach peaks of 56x.

Bigger Buffers are 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 the laser writes it 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. 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. Many DVD burners have a 2MB buffer. The Sony DRU-510A (MSRP: $310) has an 8MB buffer.

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 vast majority 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.

Format: DVD-R vs. DVD+R

We’ve dealt with the topic of the format war elsewhere in this issue, so we’re just going to summarize it here. While there are two competing formats (DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW), both are ultimately designed to work with the same playback equipment in the living room. From that standpoint, it doesn’t matter which drive you buy, and your viewer won’t care one way or the other. Despite marketing hype from both camps, in real-world tests, we have not found significant compatibility differences between DVD-R and DVD+R. DVD players that play one tend to also play the other format. We have found some advantages to the DVD+RW format for rewritable discs, however.

The most widely available drive in the DVD-R/RW camp is the Pioneer DVR-105 (MSRP: $220). This drive burns DVD-R discs at 4x speeds and DVD-RW discs at 2x speeds. The Panasonic DVD Burner II is another drive you should consider. It burns DVD-R at 2X, DVD-RW at 1X and DVD-RAM at 2X, which is nice for data backup and rewritability. In the DVD+R camp, HP has been the dominant force. Starting with the 100i and through the 200 series, the third generation 300i (MSRP: $299) drives burn DVD+R discs at 4x and rewritable DVD+RW discs at 2.4x.

Hybrid Drives

So whether you go with a DVD-R drive or a DVD+R drive might ultimately come down to the price of the drive and the price and availability of the media. We don’t foresee either of these formats becoming orphans anytime in the near future.

One reason for this is that there is a new crop of drives that burn both formats of discs. The first to hit the market in late 2002 was the Sony DRU-500A, but since then there have been a number of other hybrid drives released. One example is the Pioneer DVR-106 (MSRP: $329), which has similar specs to the latest Sony drive: DVD-R/+R at 4x, DVD-RW at 2x and DVD+RW at 2.4x. In every case, the drives command a price premium over their single-format brethren, somewhere in the range of $50-$100. Are these drives better in any way? No. What you are paying for is some sense of security that you can burn whatever type of disc you find on sale at the SuperMegaStore. Remember, your viewers sitting at home in their living rooms could not possibly care less what format of disc you are using.

Bare Naked Drives

You may have also noticed something else strange with the model names. Just what is the difference between the Pioneer DVR-105 and the Pioneer DVR-A05, besides about $50 on the street? The difference is that the DVR-105 is a bare drive, while the DVR-A05 is packaged for retail sales. When you buy one, you’ll get a box, some foam packing, an antistatic bag, the drive itself and not much more. Do you know how to set Master/Slave/CS jumpers, have an available IDE cable in your case and already own DVD burning software? Then go for the DVR-105. There aren’t any drivers to install with modern Windows operating systems, so you shouldn’t have any problems.

If you aren’t sure you understand the previous sentences entirely, but you are pretty sure you can figure it out with a little instruction, get the retail package. Besides the instructions, the drive also comes with a neat software package to get you started, including burning software from Nero and video editing and DVD authoring apps from Ulead. Other brands have similar software bundles that will be important in your decision making process.

Inside and Out

Among internally mounted drives, IDE 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 use the fast USB 2.0 standard. Several companies that market off-the-shelf drives in custom enclosures offer external drives with both FireWire and USB 2.0 connections, for example LaCie’s d2 DVD+/-RW drive ($299).

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 for laptops, but we fully expect that other manufacturers will ship these drives in the near future.

The Future

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 excited about 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 have been a bit high so far, with so many products emerging from so many manufacturers, we expect to see some very competitive prices by the holiday season this year.

Standalone DVD recorders are the next must-have product for the living room and a real tool for videographers who want simple DVD-recording without a lot of computer nonsense. They don’t create fancy menus or features, but then again, neither do VCRs.

[Sidebar: Prices: MSRP vs. Street]

We’ve included some prices in this article as rough guides, but be aware that street prices are much lower than the manufacturer suggested retail prices (MSRP) we’ve listed. This is true for all of the products in our magazine, but it is especially true for computer components.

[Sidebar: OEM]

It’s not a rock band or a Buddhist chant. Original equipment manufacturers (OEM) are the actual companies (usually in Asia, often from Taiwan) that own the factories that make the DVD burners that are then rebranded and sold by companies from Apple to Verbatim. Often there are only a very few OEMs for any particular product. So when you do a side-by-side comparison of two DVD burners and discover that their specs are exactly the same, there is probably a very real reason why: they are exactly the same.

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