Fast-lane DVD burning

SAN FRANCISCO (03/22/2004) - Got time to burn? If you bought a 2X rewritable DVD drive a couple years ago, you'd need it: A full disc would take about as much time to write as a prime-time sitcom takes to watch. But new 8X burners can do the job before you get to the first commercial break, give or take a bad joke or two.

Some of these drives can be found for US$200 or less-and can still write a complete disc in about 9 minutes. At that rate, backing up your data or creating your own video projects becomes much more tolerable.

We rounded up 10 internal and 2 external drives for evaluation by our skilled lab hands in the PC World Test Center. Our tests show that you can't go too far wrong with any of the drives in this review. The Plextor Corp. PX-708A and the Lite-On LDW-811S earned Best Buy awards by a narrow margin, mostly because of solid performance.

The process of getting a good burner may be easier than ever, but choosing the right DVD software has never been tougher-and a slew of packages are vying for your attention. Most applications have made tremendous gains in stability, features, and ease-of-use over the first, inelegantly designed DVD authoring packages. Now, anyone can create slick-looking DVD movies. Though none of the seven packages we reviewed has achieved perfection, our Best Buy, Ahead Software AG's Nero 6 Ultra Edition, comes closest. Nero 6 might not have the smoothest interface, but it was the most flexible, and feature-packed, application of the bunch. However, it has some stiff competition: Sonic Solutions' MyDVD Suite is exceptionally easy to use, and many other packages offer unique strengths and abilities.

Speedy DVDs

If you bought a 2X rewritable DVD drive a couple years ago, you needed a healthy dose of patience to go along with your creativity: A full disc would take about as much time to write as a prime-time sitcom takes to watch. But as our tests of 12 models show, new 8X burners can do the job in a third of the time.

The primary distinctions between DVD burners are formats and performance (as indicated by the drive's X-number). The DVD world has shifted to dual-format drives that support the two leading, competing writable formats, DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW. Of the drives on our chart, only those from Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and Benq Corp. support just one format (DVD+R/RW) -- and both vendors are moving toward dual-format support in the future (Benq is offering a US$10 firmware update to add 2X DVD-R, 1X DVD-RW writing support to its drive, and HP will soon ship its first dual-format model). The advantage to buying a drive with both formats is that you can feel free to buy whichever media is cheaper or more readily available.

Of the ten dual-format drives in our roundup, only three have matching 8X DVD+R and -R write speeds -- Kano Technologies Corp.'s $170 K8Xtreme, Memorex Products Inc.'s $200 True 8X Dual Format DVD Recorder, and Pioneer Corp.'s $230 DVR-A07. By the time you read this, however, drives that write at 8X in both formats are likely to have become more common.

While all of the drives in our roundup can burn at 8X speed to 8X-rated media, three of them can write at that speed to some brands of the cheaper and more plentiful 4X media. Both Plextor's $200 PX-708A and TDK Corp.'s $300 External Indi DVD 840G 8x Multiformat write at 8X to 4X +R media; Kano's drive, however, is the only one that does so to 4X -R.

Regardless of which write-once format a drive uses, performance improvements are no longer linear. Thus, for example, whereas a 2X drive takes approximately 30 minutes to write a complete disc, and a 4X drive takes about 15 minutes, an 8X drive requires 9 minutes or so. Unlike earlier drives, the new 8X drives write data at multiple speeds, as if they were shifting gears. They divide the write process into zones and start at a slower speed such as 6X or even 4X -- typically for the first 500MB or so -- before jumping to 8X. This approach to writing an optical disc is not new: CD-RW drives write in zones, too.

Some vendors choose to jump speeds later in the write process, a choice that affects performance. Sony Corp.'s $205 DRU-530A writes at 4X for the first 1.25GB, while LG Electronics Inc.'s $170 GSA-4081B starts at 4X and then jumps to 6X at 300MB and to 8X at 2GB. Both of these drives lagged on our write-once performance test and failed to make the chart.

We've also noticed that Memorex, Pioneer, Plextor, and TDK are slowing down their drives' DVD-Video read speed to 2X (the latter two vendors' drives can temporarily disable this function). According to drive makers, this is done to reduce drive noise during playback. But the limitation can become frustrating when you're trying to copy a DVD movie.

Meanwhile, with dual-format drives taking over, another format -- DVD-RAM -- is being left behind. Only a few drive makers, including LG, support DVD-RAM, which is the slowest of the rewritable formats. DVD-RAM works best for backups (due to its built-in error correction) and for reading DVDs created on DVD-RAM-capable set-top DVD recorders for TV, such as those from Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. (Panasonic).

Tracking performance

To see just how the latest generation of 8X rewritable DVD drives stacks up, we ran the drives through DVD and CD mastering and DVD packet-writing tests. We found that the competition was tight.

Before proceeding, we asked each of the multiformat-drive vendors which format they preferred that we use for testing. Pioneer specified -R/RW; all the others, +R/RW. For comparison, we tested the Pioneer DVR-A07 using both formats. The results for 8X a??R and +R on this drive were close (just 20 seconds separated them). We saw a bigger differential between the rewritable formats -- it took 17 minutes, 59 seconds, or nearly twice as long, to packet-write to DVD-RW as it did to DVD+RW, because we had to use 2X DVD-RW media, in spite of the drive's 4X speed rating (4X DVD-RW media was unavailable in time for our tests, but it should appear in stores soon).

For the most part, what we saw fell in line with each drive's X-numbers. A mere 75 seconds separated the fastest and slowest drives on our write-once tests. Nevertheless, Sony's DRU-530A and LG's GSA-4081B were about 20 percent slower than the average drive while writing DVD+R at 8X; we attribute this lag to these drives' comparatively late zone jumps.

The Plextor drive was the fastest performer on our write-once test, in which we used each drive's bundled disc mastering software to copy 4.35GB of data to an 8X disc. The PX-708A took 8 minutes, 21 seconds to complete our test -- just 1 second ahead of the TDK, and 2 seconds ahead of Pioneer's DVR-A07.

In our packet-writing tests -- where we formatted a rewritable disc and dragged and dropped 2.64GB of files and folders onto the disc -- the Kano K8Xtreme took the top spot, requiring just 8 minutes, 52 seconds to complete this task. Its closest competitor was the Plextor, which took 11 seconds longer. By contrast, the Memorex True 8X Dual Format DVD Recorder and the LG GSA-4081B were slower by 3 minutes and by 2 minutes, 10 seconds, respectively, than the Kano drive.

CD write performance is greatly improved with this generation of DVD burners. Fully half of the 12 models tested can write to CD-R at 40X, and all perform comparably -- a mere 14 seconds separates the six drives, with the Plextor and the TDK drives tying for the fastest time to master a 700MB disc, at 3 minutes, 2 seconds on our test. Five of the drives -- from Benq, Memorex, HP, Pioneer, and LG -- write to CD-R at only 24X, while the Kano falls somewhere in the middle with a 32X CD-R rating.

Beyond speed

Outside of performance, we saw few variations in these drives' main features. Benq's $140 DW800A was the only model to include convenient audio playback controls on the front faceplate, which saves you from having to launch a separate app to play and control audio CDs. And half of the drives -- the ones from HP, Kano, LG, Memorex, Pioneer, and Sony -- lack headphone jacks and volume controls, features that provide an easy way to listen to your audio CDs without snaking a cord behind your PC.

All of the drives here included documentation that will guide you through installation, but only HP, Memorex, Sony, and TDK supplement these instructions with comprehensive CD-based manuals.

Software is an important part of a drive package. All 12 drives bundled basic software, but the Alera Corp., HP, Pacific Digital Corp., and Pioneer models also had dedicated video editing applications (the first comes with Ulead Systems Inc.'s VideoSuite 7SE; the other three, ArcSoft Inc.'s ShowBiz 2.0). Surprisingly, the Alera, Lite-On, and Pacific Digital carried older versions of Sonic Solutions' software (Lite-On offers an upgrade online).

Compare top 10 DVD drives

Sweet suites

Every retail rewritable DVD drive comes bundled with basic CD/DVD burning software -- including limited, OEM versions of some of the suites we review here. However, boxed software packages may provide extra features such as audio and video editing, customizable DVD menus, and backup.

For this roundup, we examined seven boxed software products: Ahead Software's $100 Nero 6 Ultra Edition, ArcSoft's $70 DVD & CD Suite 6.5, MedioStream Inc.'s $100 NeoStudio 5, NewSoft Technologies Inc.'s $90 Presto DVD PowerSuite 1.1, Pinnacle Data Systems Inc.'s $50 Instant CD/DVD 8, Sonic's $100 MyDVD Studio Deluxe 5, and Ulead's $100 DVD MovieFactory 3 Disc Creator. All of the suites consist of a number of separate software components, which we refer to by name in the discussion that follows.

One vendor missing from our roundup is Roxio Inc. The company's Easy Media Creator 7 -- an almost complete redesign of Easy CD & DVD Creator 6 -- was in beta at the time of our review, but the software will be shipping by the time you read this. What we saw looks promising, with a dazzling interface and better-integrated components. (Look for our review next month.)

We trotted the seven suites through a series of common and not-so-common tasks, judging them on both features and usability. Despite a reputation for bugginess when it was first released last summer -- and an interface that remains obtuse in spots -- Nero 6 now seems stable, allowing us to award it our Best Buy for its power and breadth of features. That's not to say it didn't have serious competition: Of the remaining suites, most did something well -- as you'll see in our evaluation of each suite on eight basic tasks. But each seemed to lack at least one important feature, limiting its appeal as an all-encompassing upgrade from whatever might have come with your DVD burner.

After identifying eight core multimedia and data tasks, we scored each suite on that task. Read on to see which suites we liked, and why.

DVD authoring, video editing

Competition was fierce in this, the glamour category for DVD software. All of the suites include a program that lets you author DVD movie menus and at the very least trim your video clips. The differences lie in support for such features as motion backgrounds and buttons, advanced video editing and effects, and freely placeable menu text and buttons.

Ahead's NeroVision Express 2 offers the best control over the look of DVD menus -- it even lets you adjust the starting point and length of the video used for motion backgrounds and buttons. NeroVision Express also provides easy-to-use storyboard and timeline video editing. The program's biggest weaknesses are its mundane templates and its stock images (for buttons, and the like).

For editing video, our favorite was ArcSoft's ShowBiz DVD 2: Its exceptionally logical workflow; well-designed, powerful storyboard and timeline editors; and ability to export video creations to a number of different file types won it high marks.

Sonic's MyDVD Studio Deluxe 5, a longtime front-runner in the entry-level DVD authoring field, deserves a look, too, because of its beautiful motion backgrounds. The program won't permit you to freely place menu buttons or text the way Ahead does, but it's very easy to use, and it produces professional-looking results.

The rest of the packages layered too many weaknesses in with their strengths. Pinnacle's Expression simplifies applying DVD styles, layouts, and artwork; unfortunately, we found it to be a weak video editor. And the NewSoft and Ulead suites are similarly uneven: Both are a snap to use, but NewSoft's Presto DVD PowerSuite offers limited menu creation abilities, and Ulead's DVD MovieFactory lacks timeline editing.

Taking a more automated approach, MedioStream's NeoProducer analyzes your audio and video clips, and then automatically transforms them into a suave production that doesn't require an ounce of creative talent.

Five of the seven suites -- those from Ahead, MedioStream, NewSoft, Sonic, and Ulead -- let you capture video straight to disc in DVD-Video or DVD+VR format; they also allow direct editing of discs burned in a set-top DVD recorder or in a rewritable DVD drive using DVD+VR. Support for DVD-VR is less pervasive -- only NewSoft, Sonic, and Ulead support it.

Photo editing, slide shows

Every DVD authoring program in this roundup has the ability to create photo slide shows and store them on disc.

However, the programs that give you the most control over look and feel are Ahead's NeroVision Express 2 and ArcSoft's ShowBiz DVD 2. Both of them support a wide range of file types, transitions, and photo archiving (so you can include the original-resolution photos on the slide-show disc), and both give you the ability to place text over a photo. Ahead enjoys a slight edge with its integrated photo editing (and ArcSoft takes a ding for not permitting you to apply effects across a range of photos -- you must arduously apply them to each image).

The other programs we saw offer some, but not all, of these features. Neither Sonic nor MedioStream lets you place text over your photos, and the latter allows virtually no control over your slide show.

Audio and MP3 CD creation

At a minimum, all these suites can create audio CDs from .mp3 and .wav files. All but the NewSoft and Ulead packages can rip audio CDs to MP3 and other file formats (MedioStream offers MP3 encoding for only 30 days or 20 files, whichever comes first). And all but the MedioStream suite cache tracks from multiple CDs, so you don't have to reinsert them when it comes time to burn.

Ahead's Nero offers the broadest support of the bunch for creating compressed audio files. We also gave extra credit to packages that can download album information from Internet databases such as Freedb or Gracenote, so you don't have to enter it by hand. MedioStream, NewSoft, and Ulead lack this feature, while Sonic downloads album information circuitously by using Windows Media Player.

Labeling

Every suite offers an application that lets you create professional-looking disc labels and jewel-case inserts. Sonic's labeling capabilities are the most rudimentary, and many of the packages are hampered by complex interfaces.

We liked Pinnacle Expression's labeling best because it automatically transfers your DVD menu theme and disc information to the labels and inserts. Ahead's Cover Designer imports information for audio and data discs, while Pinnacle's InstantDisc does so only for audio discs. Cover Designer has two unique and noteworthy points: It handles both slim jewel-case inserts and the large, movie-style DVD case and booklet inserts.

CD and DVD mastering

For creating a data disc or writing an image file -- the structure and contents of an entire disc duplicated in a single file -- all the suites offer a competent mastering program. Ahead's Nero Burning ROM and Pinnacle's InstantDisc burn in the widest variety of disc formats. While both programs may take a little time to learn, we feel it's worth the extra effort (Ahead offers a simpler, step-by-step wizard, too).

We particularly liked the way that the NewSoft and Ulead suites are able to tailor their interfaces to the task at hand. You pick a project from either suite's launch bar, and the appropriate application pops up, along with just the right features and interface to correspond to that activity -- file trees for data discs, for example, or track lists for audio CDs.

Packet writing

Only four of our seven suites feature packet-writing software, which lets you use rewritable optical discs as a high-capacity alternative to floppies: Ahead, ArcSoft, Pinnacle, and Sonic.

Ahead's Nero InCD, Pinnacle's InstantWrite, and Sonic's DLA (standing for Drive Letter Access, and so called because you can drag and drop data to your optical drive just as you would to a hard disk or floppy) take the hands-off approach, blending into the background and using the Windows interface for drag-and-drop operations. ArcSoft's FileCD has its own stand-alone interface; you must launch the program to use it. FileCD is also the only program that won't let you write to a DVD-RW disc until it's formatted -- a process that takes nearly an hour at 2X.

Disc copying

Dedicated components that automate disc-to-disc or disc-to-image copying are suite staples. But only two of the packages we reviewed -- Ahead's Nero Recode 2 and Pinnacle's InstantCopy -- shrink the content of a non-copy-protected 9GB, dual-layer disc by reencoding that content to fit onto a standard 4.7GB DVD or onto a 700MB VCD or SVCD.

Nero's Recode 2 takes this a step further by letting you reencode video to its Nero Digital MPEG-4 codec, thereby generating a movie that fits on a single CD and is of much better quality than a VCD (but isn't quite as clean and detailed as the MPEG-2 format that is used on universally accepted commercial DVDs).

Backup

The better suites offer time-saving automated backups that can span multiple discs. Ahead's BackItUp and Pinnacle's InstantBackup compare favorably with dedicated backup programs such as Stomp's BackUp MyPC.

We found InstantBackup the simpler of the two, but BackItUp offers more options: differential backups (which include every file changed since your last full backup), full backups, incremental backups, and uncompressed backups that you can restore via Windows Explorer.

Sonic's RecordNow has a fairly useful backup routine, but it doesn't allow true incremental backups, and it lacks a setup wizard. NewSoft and Ulead offer no backup at all, while ArcSoft has only a trial version of NTI's capable Backup Now 3.

Lab notes: Boost your drive via firmware

Based on our experiences in the PC World Test Center, rewritable DVD drives are never final: Manufacturers are continually upgrading their drives' firmware and drivers, along with their burning software, which means that you should check your drive manufacturer's support site every so often for the latest updates to make sure you're getting the most out of your drive.

We always test shipping drives. If newer firmware is posted on a vendor's site before we begin our performance tests, however, we will apply the update -- as we did for more than half of the drives in this review (from Benq, HP, LG, Memorex, Plextor, Sony, and TDK).

Firmware updates typically fix performance bugs and add support for additional brands and speeds of media. The media issue is particularly thorny, since new drives often ship several months before high-speed media is ready, or before a drive's firmware has broad media support.

We see this happen a lot. For example, Memorex's True 8X Dual Format DVD Recorder took 54 seconds (or about 8 percent) longer on our packet-writing test with Memorex media than it did when used with Verbatim media, which, at the time of our test, had been available longer. Memorex couldn't explain the discrepancy, but the company indicated that its next firmware would be optimized for use with a broader range of media.

Media support isn't all that's being added via firmware upgrades these days. Benq and Sony are both offering upgrades for their respective drives that will add support for 8X DVD-R and 4X DVD-RW.

-- Thomas Luong and Melissa J. Perenson

Future look: Optical goes blue

Optical drives in the United States will soon be crooning a new tune, to the beat of blue-laser technology. It's all about wavelength: Blue lasers produce light with a shorter wavelength -- 405 nanometers versus a DVD drive's 650nm red-laser light. The shorter the wavelength, the more bursts the laser can produce in a given amount of time. The burn marks are smaller, too, so you can fit more data on a disc.

Higher capacity is the main appeal of blue laser. Depending on the implementation, you can pack up to 27GB on a single side of a disc -- five to six times the capacity of a single-layer DVD. With a blue lasera??based drive, you can fit a 2-hour, high-definition movie on one disc, something current DVD technology can't come close to.

In a repeat of recent history, two competing groups are vying to control lucrative licensing rights for blue-laser products. The DVD Forum champions HD DVD (High-Definition DVD, formerly known as AOD), while the Blu-ray Disc Founders, a consortium of ten major consumer electronics giants along with PC heavyweights Dell Inc. and HP, backs Blu-ray. The technologies are incompatible with each other and with today's red-laser DVD players and discs -- though either type of blue-laser drive could be paired with a red laser in the same device (at increased cost) to achieve backward compatibility.

Sony's forthcoming Professional Disc for Data drive uses a variation on Blu-ray technology that is incompatible with Blu-ray, but it employs 23GB media made with the same dyes as Blu-ray discs. The $3,300 drive targets data archiving applications rather than video.

Manufacturers generally think that the demand for blue-laser DVD will depend on how quickly HDTV permeates the market. Already available in Japan, the first batch of pricey blue-laser video recorders is due for release in the U.S. later this year.

DVD duplication: Copying, or piracy?

When we listen to people describe what they want to do with a DVD burner, they usually mention preserving home video, backing up their systems, and burning audio CDs. However, we're also hearing that some prospective users want to make copies of their DVD movies, to play them in different rooms of the house or simply to back them up. Nobody wants to receive a desist-or-get-sued letter, though. Fortunately, you can make DVD copies and still conform to the letter of the law.

Copying so that you can disseminate the duplicates to others -- even to friends and family -- is illegal. But long-established fair use law condones consumers' right to make personal backups of media they've purchased.

One catch to backing up your movies is that many commercial videos ship on 8.5GB, dual-layer DVD-9 media and can't be copied to a single 4.7GB DVD-R/RW disc. Dual-layer, 8.5GB-capable burners and media will ship later this year; but in the interim, there's only one solution -- shrink the movie. 321 Studios' $100 DVD X Copy Platinum and the free DVD Shrink do this automatically, as do programs like Ahead's Nero Recode 2 (a component of Nero 6 Ultra Edition), InterVideo's $50 DVD Copy Gold, Pinnacle Systems' Instant CD/DVD Copy (included in Pinnacle Instant CD/DVD 8, or sold separately for $30).

But you don't have to spend a dime to back up your commercial DVDs. Free programs such as SmartRipper and the aforementioned DVD Shrink will copy the content of a DVD to your hard drive, after which you can use the software that ships with your rewritable DVD drive to burn that content back to disc.

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Jon L. Jacobi

PC World
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