Extra Large, Please

Published Date
01 - Feb - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Feb - 2006
Extra Large, Please
Combo drives make no sense any more. All this points to one essential piece of hardware-the DVD-Writer!

Our shootouts reflect a pattern: features and performance are always getting better, and prices are always falling. It's no different this time. It's been almost a year and a half since we last tested DVD-Writers, and this time round, you guessed it-prices have fallen, and features and performance have improved! But we must tell you that DVD-Writers have reached the theoretical speed limits of DVD-Writing. Also, it no longer makes sense to get a Combo drive or a CD-Writer: a DVD-Writer costs just a few hundred rupees extra. Go get yourself one right now!
Oh, wait. What brand, and what model? Well, you'll figure that one out by the time you're through reading this test.

We can hear a few of you asking, why even those few hundred rupees extra? The idea is that you have nothing to lose. A CD costs about Rs 12; a DVD costs between Rs 20 and Rs 40, giving you much more MB per rupee. Besides, we're urging you to back up all your important data, which means much of your hard drive-which could typically be anything between 40 and 200 GB. Imagine how many CDs you'd need to back up all that!

If you're wondering "Why back up," you probably haven't been reading Digit. We mention at least once in every issue that you should be backing up! You can't depend on your hard disk. It could crash any time, and for no apparent reason. Sure, your DVD could get scratched, but at least you can control whether it gets scratched or not.

Then there's the issue of dual-layer. Movies, especially those from abroad, are often on dual-layer DVDs-and if you've imported a DVD movie, you'd certainly want to back it up.

We could go on and on about why you need a DVD-Writer, but let's cut the spiel short and get to the tests!

We reviewed 16 DVD-Writers for you this month. The drives we received came from Asus, BenQ, Gigabyte, LG, Lite-On,Plextor, Samsung, and Sony. Of these, four were external drives, and the rest were internal IDE drives. This test is therefore in two sections-internal and external drives.

Segregation was possible only into these two categories, unlike in our last shootout, where single-layer and dual-layer drives were in two different categories. This time, all the drives were capable of writing to dual-layer media.

DVD Formats
When you buy a DVD-Writer, you'll see a host of supported formats mentioned on the box, and you'll probably wonder what these are-and what formats you need support for. That's why we put in this section.

We start off by listing out the available formats: DVD-ROM, DVD-R, DVD R, DVD R DL, DVD-R DL, DVD-RW, DVD RW, and DVD-RAM. ("DL" stands for dual-layer.) While DVD-ROM is a read-only DVD format, the rest are writeable DVD formats.

DVD-R, developed by Pioneer, was the first DVD recording format compatible with standalone DVD players. It is a non-rewriteable format and is compatible with 93 per cent of all DVD players and DVD-ROMs, and holds 4.37 GB of data. DVD-RW is a re-writeable version of DVD-R, but is compatible with fewer devices. It allows for about a thousand writes, after which it may not be usable.

DVD R was developed separately from DVD-R, and is less compatible across various DVD drives and players than DVD-R is. DVD RW is a rewriteable version of DVD R, and both these have the same capacity-4.37 GB. These formats have been strongly backed by Sony and HP.

Then there are DVD-R DL and DVD R DL, the dual-layer formats, which have capacities of 8.5 GB. They are nothing but DVD-R and DVD R with two layers to store data. They require drives that support these formats, which are quite common today.

Finally, DVD-RAM is a format that allows repeated recording and erasing, but it enjoys the lowest compatibility amongst all the DVD formats-it is supported by only a select few drives. DVD-RAM discs are typically housed in cartridges. This format supports 4.7 GB, which is the highest capacity in the DVD realm. DVD-RAM discs find application mainly in real-time video capture.

In addition to this-and we hope we're not adding to the confusion-each of these media has a double-sided version, which you can think of as two discs with the label sides stuck together-you can flip them over and write on the other side. Naturally, they have twice the capacity of the single-sided media, but they're hard to find.

Asus DRW-1608P2S

Internal DVD-Writers

These sport the IDE interface, and connect to the PC using an IDE cable. They are more popular than their external counterparts because of their considerably lower prices and due to them being faster because, well, the interface is faster. Other than this, there isn't much of a difference between an internal and an external drive. Regular home and office PC users and office PC users generally opt for internal drives.

We tested twelve internal DVD-Writers in this shootout. These were the Asus DRW-1608P2S, BenQ DW1640 and DW1625, Gigabyte GO-1623A-RH, LG GSA-4167B, Lite-On SHW-1635S, Super AllWrite SHM-165P6S and LightScribe SHW-16H5S, Plextor PX-716A and PX-740A, Samsung SH-W162, and the Sony DRU-810A.

Read and write speeds
The read speeds of all the drives were almost identical, with CD-ROM read speeds of 40x and 48x, and DVD-ROM read speeds of 16x. 16x is pretty good; whether you're watching DVD movies or copying files, none of these drives should pose a speed problem.

Similarly, write speeds were almost identical across the brands. The BenQ DW1625 seemed to be left behind, partly because this is one of the older models. It supported writing to DVD-R at a maximum speed of 8x, as against the 16x supported by the rest of the writers. In fact, neither of the BenQ models can be called new; they've been around for a while. That's also the reason why neither of them supports the DVD-R DL standard.

There were three multi-drives in this test: the Asus DRW-1608P2S, Lite-On Super AllWrite SHM-165P6S, and the LG GSA-4167B. A multi-drive supports reading from and writing to all existing DVD formats, including DVD-RAM. The ability to write to DVD-RAM drives makes these drives a very useful tool for those who require video capture and video editing. DVD-RAMs are also especially good for backups, since you can make incremental backups. (Incremental backups are those that only incorporate changes since the last backup.)

How We Tested 
All the DVD-Writers were tested on a single test machine to obtain comparable results. The test machine we used comprised an Intel Pentium IV Extreme Edition processor running at a stock speed of 3.4 GHz, a Foxconn 955X7AA-8EKRS2 motherboard, 1 GB of Micron 533 MHz DDR RAM, an ATi Radeon X850 Platinum Edition 256 MB PCIe card, and a Maxtor Maxline III 250 GB SATA150 hard drive. The test machine was powered by an Antec Neo480 480-watt power supply. Windows XP Professional with SP1 along with the latest drivers was installed afresh on the test machine. Nero Burning ROM 7 Ultra Edition was installed for the purpose of burning CDs and DVDs. The internal drives were set as master and connected to the primary IDE channel. The external drives were connected using the USB 2.0 interface.
The test process consisted of two sections-reading and writing of different types of media.

Reading Tests
Nero CD-DVD Speed was used to record data transfer rates, access/seek times, CPU utilisation, burst rate, etc., for CDs as well as DVDs. This software comes bundled with Nero Burning ROM 7.
SiSoft Sandra 2005 SR3, which is a system-wide performance benchmark as well as a diagnostic utility, was used to measure read speeds and access times.
dbPowerAmp, which is an audio format conversion and audio CD ripping tool, was used to rip pre-selected audio tracks of our test audio CD. The tracks were ripped to the MP3 format at 44 KHz and 128 Kbps, and the time was logged.
DVD Decrypter is a tool used to rip DVD video files to the hard drive. This software was used to rip a pre-selected chapter of our test DVD to the hard drive, and the time taken was noted.

Writing Tests
These included logging the time taken to write to CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-R, DVD R, DVD-RW and DVD RW. Assorted data totalling 700 MB was used to write to CD-R, CD-RW and DVD-RW, and the time was logged. Sequential data consisting of a 700 MB file was used to write to CD-R. Similarly, assorted and sequential data of 4.5 GB was used to write to DVD-R and DVD R media, and the time taken was noted.
The media used were 52x CD-R from EuroVision, 10x CD-RW from Moser Baer, 8x DVD-R from Moser Baer, 8x DVD R from Sony, and 2x DVD-RW from Moser Baer. A point to note is that though most DVD- Writers can burn DVDs at 16x, this media is not easily available in Indian markets even now, and even if it is, the costs are prohibitive. We therefore used the more commonly available and more affordable 8x media to compare the drives.
Other features such as support for various DVD types, maximum read and write speeds, LightScribe capability, tray build quality, silent operation, and bundled accessories such as the data cable, manual, media, bezels, etc. were noted and rated to arrive at the final score for a drive.

CD burning
Almost all the drives supported writing to CD-R at 48x. The Asus supported only 40x for CD-R, but strangely, it supported 32x for CD-RW, which is the UltraSpeed standard.

Plextor PX-716A

Some vendors advertise their products as supporting the UltraSpeed standard; the HighSpeed standard is 24x for CD-RW.

The LightScribe technology has been around for quite a few months, but drives supporting this standard are just appearing in the Indian market. The Lite-On SHW-16H5S and the BenQ DW1625 were the only drives that supported LightScribe. As you might know, LightScribe is a technology that allows you to etch CD or DVD labels on compatible media using the drive's laser. This is an exciting technology, and with plummeting drive and media prices, it's bound to soon catch people's fancy.

Form Factors
Most of the drives featured the half-height form factor. Half-height drives have a much lower depth than do traditional drives, and can fit in almost any cabinet, leaving space for better air ventilation. Such drives also tend to interfere less with other PC components such as the motherboard, memory, and cables.

Download the PDF File of DVD-Writers

So What In The World Is LightScribe? 
After burning a CD or a DVD, you mark it in order to identify its contents. Traditionally, this is done by marking the disc's label surface with a marker pen-writing out the title of the disc or listing its contents. This can damage the disc if too much pressure is applied while writing. And then there is the messy possibility of ink spilling. Also, the disc could fall (and thereby get scratched) while you're writing on it. And finally, handwritten notes on a disc don't look pretty!
An alternative way of marking a disc's contents is to print the CD/DVD face label on readily-available sticky labels and then stick them on the disc face. This has to be done with caution because if the label is not stuck properly, it might dislodge while it's in the drive and the disc is spinning, thereby damaging the drive.
All this is changing with the introduction of LightScribe. Invented by Hewlett-Packard Development Company, L.P., LightScribe is a direct disc labelling technology, an exciting new way of disc labelling that enables you to <burn> CD and DVD labels by simply flipping a disc and putting them back in the drive!
LightScribe drives can burn text and graphics onto the surface of a LightScribe disc using the drive's laser. LightScribe discs are coated with a special reactive dye that changes chemically when a 780 nm infrared laser strikes the disc's label side, creating <etched> text and images.
To be LightScribe-capable, you need to have a LightScribe drive, LightScribe compatible media, and a LightScribe capable CD/DVD burning software. Some LightScribe capable CD/DVD burning software such as Nero can import digital photos, images or text and burn it as Title, Content, or Full (meaning both Title and Content)-either in a circular or a straight way and this determines the amount of radial space that it will occupy. While you cannot rewrite or erase a LightScribe label, you can add more content in the available un-reacted space.
The chemical reaction of the coating material with the laser beam is non-toxic and odourless, and the label produced is supposed to last for nine months under indoor lighting without fading. At present, you can only print LightScribe labels in greyscale, but in the coming years, you can expect LightScribe drives that print full-colour labels.
While the technology is currently limited to PC CD and DVD drives, HP plans to make this technology a part of consumer electronics by introducing it in home entertainment products such as stereo-component CD recording decks and set-top DVD recorders. So let your creativity flow, and add a personal touch to your discs. Burn, flip, burn!
Cables And Manuals
The Asus, Samsung and Sony were the only drives that shipped with data cables. With the other drives, you'll need to purchase the cable separately. Only the Sony drive came with a printed manual, whereas the others came with just quick-start guides. Of course, you can always download the manual from the manufacturer's Web site, but a printed manual is always preferable!

Bundled Media
Most of the drive manufacturers decided not to bundle blank media with the drives. Surprisingly, the Lite-On drives, the lowest-priced ones, came with blank media. The BenQ DW1625 and the Lite-On Super AllWrite even shipped with a LightScribe CD!

Bundled Software
The Asus DRW-1608P2S came with Ulead DVD MovieFactory 4 Disc Creator, a very good video creating and editing software.

The Plextor PX-716A, which comes under the Premium range, came with the famed PlexTools Professional, which allow you to tweak the drive's features-such as maximum read and write speeds-to suit your needs. It also featured GigaRec-a technology that allows you to write up to 1 GB of data to CD.

Speeds And Access Times
In the Nero CD-DVD Speed Test, the Plextor PX-740A logged the highest read speeds for a DVD at an average speed of 12x. The highest burst speed was logged by the other Plextor, the PX-716A, at 42 MBps. Copying data from these drives will be faster than from other drives.

In the SiSoft Sandra test, once again, the Plextor PX-740A logged the highest score in the data transfer test. The Lite-On LightScribe SHW-16H5S logged the lowest access time, which means it is the fastest in accessing data on the media. A fast access time means you can search faster on a CD or DVD, and navigate videos with better responsiveness.

Audio CDs
Audio CD ripping times were more or less the same across the drives, except that the Samsung and the Plextor PX-716A proved to be much slower. We repeated the tests several times and got the same results every time. For reasons unknown, the Plextor, which is otherwise a fast reader, is somewhat slow when it comes to reading audio CDs.

DVD Ripping
In these tests, too, the Plextor PX-716A lagged behind the others, being slower by a factor of two. The LG drive was also almost as slow as the Plextor in ripping DVD movies. If DVD ripping is slow on a drive, DVD playback is bound to suffer.

CD-R Writing
The Plextor PX-716A was slow in some cases, fast in others-for example, in the CD-R writing test, it was the fastest. The Gigabyte GO-W1623A, which is supposed to be able to write at 48x, could write only at 16x-and hence logged the lowest scores. However, when we tried writing to another brand of media, the problem disappeared, and it was able to write at 48x. This points to a compatibility issue.

DVD-R Writing
The LG was the fastest here, followed closely by the Asus. There was not much variation in the writing speeds of the rest of the drives, with the exception of the BenQ DW1640, which took almost twice the time to finish writing the assorted DVD-R.

DVD R Writing
We found that both the Asus and the Plextor PX-716A could write at 12x to the 8x DVD R media we had, and they did so without a flaw! This is possible because of the drive's over-speed burning capabilities, meaning it can write to media at speeds faster than the media's rated speed.

Lite-On Super AllWrite SHM-165P6S

The Plextor was the faster of the two. The fact that these drives offer over-speed writing out-of-the-box for DVD R, without producing coasters, is a feat in itself.

Lite-On LightScribe SHW-16H5S

In Conclusion
Features and performance have been taken into account earlier on in the tests, but the price factor decided the winner.

The Lite-On LightScribe SHW-16H5S was unique, with its LightScribe capability. It came with a LightScribe CD along with blank DVD R and DVD-R media. Its performance was also better than that of most drives, and it is priced at Rs 3,975-which is very good for a LightScribe drive. We therefore awarded the Lite-On LightScribe SHW-16H5S the Digit Best Buy Silver.

The Lite-On Super AllWrite SHM-165P6S is a multi-drive. It is capable of writing to dual-layer media at 8x, which is the fastest in its class. It came with blank DVDs and a silver as well as a black bezel so you can change the bezel to match the colour of your PC's cabinet. To top it all, it was the best performer, and is priced at Rs 3,085, which is dirt cheap for a multi-drive with top-notch performance. The Lite-On Super AllWrite SHM-165P6S therefore gets a well-deserved Digit Best Buy Gold.
External DVD-Writers
External DVD-Writers connect to a PC either via USB 2.0 or FireWire (IEEE 1394) or both. These are plug-and-play devices, and so do not need the PC to be shut down before they can be plugged in. Also, they need an external power supply, and ship with an AC adapter.

Like we've mentioned, external DVD-Writers are not as popular with the average home user because they cost a lot more than their internal counterparts, while not offering any extra features. These drives are primarily meant for small offices, where people would want to connect them to different machines for backups.

We received four drives in this category: the BenQ EW162I, Lite-On SHW-1635SU, Plextor PX-716UF, and the Sony DRX-800UL.

Most external DVD-Writers are in fact internal writers encased in a rugged casing, and with external connectivity. Thus, the Lite-On SHW-1635SU is the same as the Lite-On SHW-1635S, the Plextor PX-716UF is the PX-716A, and the Sony DRX-800UL is the DRX-800A. The internal versions of the first two of these-the SHW-1635S and the PX-716A-have been featured in the previous section. The external versions, naturally, have many of the same features.

Traditionally, external DVD-Writers have been a generation behind the internal writers, and were slower. Not any more. The external drives featured in this test boasted of the highest write speeds of 16x for DVD-R and DVD R, just like the internal drives. The exception to the rule was the BenQ EW162I, which has been around for a long time. It supported only 4x write speeds for DVD RW, as against 8x supported by the other drives. It also lacked support for the DVD-R DL format.

The BenQ and Lite-On drives had only the USB 2.0 interface,while the Plextor and Sony featured both the USB 2.0 (480 Mbps) as well as the FireWire (400 Mbps) interface. The drives are backward-compatible with USB 1.1. All the drives shipped with the cables for the supported standards, as well as the power adapters.

Physical Considerations
All the drives had rugged build quality, and we couldn't decide which was better. The Sony and Plextor drives sported killer looks. The BenQ's casing had perforations to aid ventilation-this is very helpful in Indian conditions.

Sony DRX-800UL

All the drives except the Lite-On shipped with stands to help keep them upright-a vertically-placed drive helps save valuable PC desk space.

A unique feature on the Lite-On drive was the EZ-DUB function. The drive ships with EZ-DUB software from Ulead, which is a CD/DVD burning and data backup software. After you install it, the software detects whether you have an EZ-DUB compatible drive, and sits quietly in the System Tray. Most of the EZ-DUB functionality comes from the software, but the drive, too, has two extra buttons on the top that make it even easier to burn DVDs (or CDs).

The 'File' button launches the EZ-DUB software, and a Wizard helps you drag and drop files you wish to write to disc, to the EZ-DUB main window. When you are done selecting the files, you press 'File' again to burn the compilation. The 'Dub' button is for making a 1:1 disc copy.

Next-Gen storage: Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD? 
Even as we progress from the meagre 700 MB storage space of the CD to the 4.7 GB offered by DVDs (or even the 8.5 GB offered by dual-layer DVDs), we are left wondering if that much capacity is enough for our ever-growing digital real-estate needs. And here's where the next-gen standards of storage media-Sony's Blu-ray and Toshiba's HD-DVD-come into play.
Both these formats support considerably higher data storage capacities-Blu-ray discs can store 25 GB on the single layer and 50 GB on the dual-layer version, and HD-DVD has proven that it can store 15, 30 and 45 GB of data in the single, dual and triple-layer versions respectively. TDK has reportedly produced a 100 GB quad-layer Blu-ray disc, which puts it miles ahead of HD-DVD where sheer data volume is concerned. The upgradeability path to these optical drives requires the consumer to purchase drives supporting these standards, as neither of these standards is backward-compatible (similar to the case of DVD a few years ago). This is because both these standards deploy a lower-wavelength, 405 nm laser. This falls in the violet-blue part of the electromagnetic spectrum-hence the name Blu-ray. A different and more expensive laser head is hence called for. Also, the lower wavelength of the laser allows data to be written at a higher resolution, enabling a much higher amount of data to be packed onto the same surface area as a DVD or CD.
The media types of Blu-ray and HD-DVD are also different from that of DVD. While HD-DVD uses a specification that is much closer to that of DVD, a 0.6 mm thick base and a 0.6 mm thick protective layer, Blu-ray uses a thicker 1.1 mm base but a much thinner, 0.1 mm protective layer. As far as data transfer rates go, Blu-ray is again the front-runner, being able to achieve a speed of 12x (400 Mbps) at the same rotational speeds at which a HD-DVD drive will be able to achieve 9x. Such speeds might not matter much today, but to accommodate the needs for higher data throughput in the future, this is sure to make a difference.
The Blu-ray "camp" includes Sony, TDK, Dell, Hitachi, Apple, HP, Philips and Samsung, and consumer electronics giants such as Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Pioneer and LG Electronics-as also game makers EA and entertainment companies Twentieth Century Fox, Vivendi Universal, Walt Disney and Sony Pictures. HD-DVD is backed by NEC, Sanyo, and heavyweights such as Intel and Microsoft, as well as entertainment companies such as HBO, New Line Cinema, Universal Studios Home Entertainment and Warner Home Video. In late December 2005, HP announced that it would stop taking sides, and support both formats.
Talks for a hybrid disc technology, which were in the news a while ago, are in the cold as of now, and hence backward compatibility of these media seem out of the question. At the end of the day, the consumer is left to decide which side to choose. On one side is Blu-ray with its bevy of supporters, along with its higher capacity and data transfer speeds. On the other side is HD-DVD with its lower price tag, and the vital backing of the biggest names in the computing world-Intel and Microsoft-which guarantees it native support in future computers and operating systems such as Vista. When these drives begin shipping in 2006, the consumer will face a daunting task-which way to upgrade?

Plextor PX-716UF


Read speeds and access times
We carried out the Nero CD-DVD Speed Test on DVDs as well as CDs to gauge read speeds, access times, CPU usage, etc. for the drives. In the DVD read test, we found the Lite-On the fastest, with the Sony not much slower. The Plextor could not complete the transfer rate test despite multiple attempts.

In the CD read test, the Lite-On was the top performer. The SiSoft Sandra test reflected similar results, and we can conclude that the Lite-On is a better drive for when you need to read data-as in when you install software, restore backed-up data, or watch movies off the drive.

In the audio CD ripping test as well as in the DVD video ripping test, all the drives performed well except the Plextor. Something-we don't know what-crippled this drive's performance, causing it to take almost twice the time, in both the tests, that the others did.

In the CD-R writing test, the BenQ was the slowest, and the Lite-On was the fastest. In the DVD-R writing test, the Plextor and Lite-On were neck-and-neck, with just a couple of seconds separating them. The picture was a bit different in the DVD R writing test: the BenQ drive supported over-speed burning! It could effortlessly burn 8x DVD R media at 12x, thus taking about 25 per cent less time per DVD-to do so as compared to the other drives. This is significant in, say,offices, where many DVDs are burnt every day.

The Plextor produced mixed results in this test. Whereas it scored second-best in the sequential data write, it came in last in the assorted data write test. For backup purposes, therefore, the Lite-On is better if the media is CD-R, and the BenQ is undoubtedly better for DVD R.

In the DVD-RW writing test, the BenQ once again proved its mettle by being able to over-speed burn the media. It burnt data at 2.4x for the 2x DVD-RW, while the others drives could only burn at the rated 2x.

In Conclusion
So who's the winner? We need to take the prices into consideration to figure that out. The prices ranged from the Rs 6,495 for the Lite-On to the astronomical Rs 11,250 for the Plextor.

The Lite-On DVD-Writer returned good performance as well as a good feature set, which included EZ-DUB. And it carries the lowest price tag. We've therefore adjudged the Lite-On SHW-1635SU the winner of the Digit Best Buy Gold in the external DVD-Writers category.

Lite-On SHW-1635SU

A Parting Word
In this shootout, we tested and compared a large range of DVD-Writers that are available in the Indian market.

Those of you who read our last review of DVD-Writers-carried in our November 2004 issue-might have noticed that there was a great degree of variation in the performance and prices of the drives that were reviewed back then. This time, it's a completely different picture...
The technical limits of DVD-Writing have been reached, like we mentioned earlier, and almost all the drives had comparable features and maximum read and write speeds.

The only new technology we've seen this time round is LightScribe, and even this is a niche technology. Drives that feature it are priced considerably higher. With the unavailability of LightScribe compatible media in India, it remains to be seen how well LightScribe DVD-Writers will take off here.

The same can be said for DVD-RAM drives and media. Despite boasting of a 9.5 GB capacity, and having been around for quite a long time, it's still hasn't been able to garner enough support from drive manufacturers-owing to the considerably high price tag of the media.
One technological advancement in writers has been the introduction of the SATA interface, but, as of yet, no such devices are available in the Indian markets.

When we test optical storage devices the next time round, we probably will not be testing only DVD-Writers, because Blu-ray and HD-DVD-Writers will soon make forays into PC hardware markets worldwide.

Pioneer launched the first Blu-ray drive-the BDR-101A-for the PC in late December 2005, thus becoming the first new format to hit the markets after DVD. HD-DVD will surely follow suit soon.

Though this may sound repetitive, buying CD-Writers just doesn't seem to make sense today, considering the falling prices of DVD-Writers. If you buy an optical drive, make sure it's a DVD-Burner!

Team DigitTeam Digit  teamdigit@digit.in

All of us are better than one of us.