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In 2004, the price per megabyte plummeted in all forms of storage. Hard drive prices headed south, and the price of flash memory of all form factors plunged, even as the thirst for more space to store the digital aspects of our lives skyrocketed. Hitachi Global Storage estimates that the modern house may have up to twenty hard drives of different types by 2007.

Optical storage followed the same path. In 2003, the DVD burner was slow, somewhat creaky, and an expensive luxury. As we left 2004, DVD burners capable of burning dual-layer discs at 4x and single layer +R media could be found for well under $100. With the price of some DVD burners dipping below $50, people interested in preserving their digital photographs, video, and music no longer have price as an excuse. Media costs are lower than ever, too, with single layer +R media as little as $0.50 for media rated at slower speeds (4x). So if you’re worried about the fragility of that hard drive, get a DVD burner and start backing up your digital stuff!

But which drive to get? There are dozens of different drives out there, but most these days are multiformat capable. That is, they can burn both DVD-R/-RW and DVD +R/+RW media. Increasingly common are dual-layer burners, which can burn up to 8.4GB dual-layer +R discs. Dual layer media is still pricey. The cheap discs we’ve found capable of burning at 2.4x speeds cost about $6 apiece. Those prices are starting to erode as the 4x capable drives and media hit the market.

Click here for more on DVD burners and other storage devices.

Today, we look at six different retail dual-layer burners. Some are capable of burning DVD+R DL at 4x speeds. All are supposedly able to burn single layer +R media at 16x speeds. Some can even burn -R media at 12x or faster, depending on the media. We’ll first take a look at performance, and then we’ll move on to the individual drive reviews. Continued…

We used a 3.6GHz Pentium 4 system running on an ASUS motherboard as our test system.

Component Model / Brand Check Price
Processor: Pentium 4 3.6GHz (Check Prices)
Motherboard: ASUS P4AD2-E Deluxe (Check Prices)
Memory: 2 x 512MB Kingston ValueRAM DDR2/533 (Check Prices)
Graphics: Nvidia PCIe Geforce 6800 Ultra (Check Prices)
Hard Drive: Seagate 200GB 7200.7 SATA (Check Prices)
Audio: Creative Labs Audigy 2 ZS (Check Prices)
Chassis: Antec Plus 1080AMG (Check Prices)
Power Supply: Antec 480W Neopower ATX 2.1 (Check Prices)
O/S: Windows XP Professional, SP2 installed (Check Prices)

We used the CD-DVD speed utility included in the latest Nero 6 Ultra Edition (version 6.6) to test DVD burning speed. We focused on DVD burning and DVD-ROM performance in this roundup. Most drives today can handle digital audio extraction and CD burning at very high speeds. The system was configured with a clean install of Windows XP with service pack 2 installed. The latest graphics and audio drivers were also installed.

The DVD-ROM tests were conducted using the Microsoft DVD Test Annex DVD, which is a dual-layer DVD-ROM disc that includes data, video, and audio files. DVD burning tests were done by actually using the “Create Data Disc” functionality in the Nero CD-DVD speed utility. In other words, discs were actually burned using the utility, and that performance measured, instead of simulated burn tests. We created a lot of coasters in our testing, so many +R and -R media were harmed during testing…

We tested six drives:

  • AOpen DUW1608-ARR
  • ASUS DRW-1604P
  • Memorex DLRWL1-F16
  • Pioneer DVR-A08XL
  • Samsung TS-H552B
  • Sony DRU-710A

Note that the DRU-710A we tested differed from the PC Magazine review in that we used the latest firmware, which enables high speed burning of DVD-R media. In fact, the latest available firmware, which was downloaded from the manufacturer’s Web site, was installed in all the drives we tested.

We used Verbatim media in most of our testing, with the exception of using Sony DVD+RW media for the +RW tests and JVC 4x DVD-RW media for the -RW testing. Continued…

Before we plunge into the test results, we should note that these drives were all capable of burning 4x DVD+RW and DVD-RW media at pretty much the same speed. Rewritable media rated at 8x is due later this year, so we’ll check that media out when it’s available. So we’re not posting the charts of the +RW and -RW tests, since all of them are essentially identical.

DVD-ROM Performance

Most people will only buy a single drive, which must serve as DVD and CD readers as well as DVD burners. The good news is that a number of high-profile PC games are finally starting to ship on DVD-ROM media. So it’s worth checking out DVD-ROM performance.

This chart reveals the key weakness of the Pioneer and ASUS drives. While they have great transfer rates, the seek times are quite slow. Samsung and Sony take the honors here. Continued…

The ASUS, Pioneer, and Sony drives were all capable of burning dual-layer media at 4x speeds. The AOpen, Memorex, and Samsung drives burned at a more sedate 2.4x speed.

DVD Single Layer Burn Tests

DVD+R and DVD-R media offer different performance levels on most drives.

The results here are the average burn speeds. All these drives were burning at 16x speeds by the end of the drives, but the burn curves looked different for each one. We’ll show a few of these in the individual reviews. The firmware update for the Sony DRU-710A seems to have had an impact, as its DVD-R burn speed easily outpaces the competition. Continued…

Let’s take a look at the individual drives, including software bundles and overall impressions during use.

The AOpen drive exhibited some odd and finicky behavior, even after the firmware update. For example, let’s take a look at the DVD+R burn curve for the AOpen drive, as captured by Nero CD-DVD Speed.

At times, the drive refused to eject a CD or DVD when the front button was pressed, even when the drive was idle. You could only eject by either using the drive’s property sheet and selecting “eject” or rebooting the system. DVD-R burn speed was the slowest of the six drives.

The software bundle consists of PowerDVD 5 and Nero 6.3, which is a well-rounded bundle for most users. One nifty addition is the inclusion of multiple bezels (black, beige, and light gray) for different cases. Continued…

Product Name AOpen DUW1608-ARR
Company: AOpen
Price: $60 (Check Prices)
Pros: Low price; multiple bezel colors.
Cons: Poor DVD-R write performance; finicky behavior when ejecting discs.
Summary: A low cost drive that can get the job done, but is somewhat annoying to use; if price is an issue, go with Samsung instead.

ASUS uses the same underlying hardware as the Pioneer drive, so performance is nearly identical to the Pioneer DVD-A08XL. However, you can find the ASUS drive online for about $40 less than the A08XL, so it’s a bargain if you want a drive based on Pioneer’s mechanism. Perhaps the biggest concern with both of these drives is the fairly slow seek times. The drive ships with Nero 6.3 and Ulead’s DVD Movie Factory.

Product Name: ASUS DRW-1604P
Company: ASUS
Price: $90 (Check Prices)
Pros: Lower cost than the Pioneer drive; can burn DL discs at 4x speed; great DVD-ROM performance.
Cons: Slow seek times.
Summary: Relatively inexpensive for a drive offering excellent overall burn performance.

At $125 (estimated street price), the Memorex Dual Layer drive is neither the cheapest nor the speediest drive we tested. It does perform reasonably well, and has no odd quirks. The DVD-R performance locks in at 8x pretty much across the disc, unlike many other drives, whose burn performance changes depending on disc location.

What the Memorex drive has going for it is its compact size. It’s the same size as the Sony DRU-710A, and these two are the most compact. This makes the Memorex an ideal candidate for those ultra-compact, small-form-factor PCs. Being shorter allows easier routing of cables and less congestion inside tiny PCs.

The only software consists of the full Nero 6.3 suite, including subsidiary applications such as PhotoShow. Continued…

Product Name: Memorex DLRWL1-F16 Dual Layer Drive
Company: Memorex
Price: $125 (Check Prices)
Pros: Compact; good +R burn performance; great DVD-ROM performance; attractive cosmetics.
Cons: Not the fastest in any category, nor the cheapest.
Summary: The Memorex drive’s compact size makes in an ideal candidate for small-form-factor PCs, but performance is somewhat lacking.

Pioneer was the first to ship DVD burners years ago. The company has stayed at the forefront of DVD burning technology, and the A08XL is the latest product offering. The A08XL is a dual-format drive, from the company that created DVD-R technology, so Pioneer is also willing to respond to the needs of the evolving customer base.

The Pioneer and ASUS drives, which are built on the same underlying platform, are also the physically largest drives. This makes them less well-suited for small-form-factor PCs. Pioneer does offer multiple bezel colors, and a unique, flush tray bezel. Although more attractive than the run-of-the-mill drive tray, this also makes it somewhat problematic in cases that have flip-down doors concealing the optical drive, as these sometimes expect the drive trays to adhere to certain format restrictions.

The Pioneer also exhibits some interesting burn curves. Here’s a typical burn curve for DVD+R media. DVD-R also shows similar behavior. The ASUS drive also behaves in a similar fashion.

Unlike the Sony drive, which is a full CAV (constant angular velocity) drive throughout its burn cycle, the Pioneer drive seems to burn at a constant linear velocity of up to 2GB, then changes speed for the rest of the burn cycle.

Pioneer ships with a Ulead software bundle for DVD burning, movie viewing, and DVD authoring. While not as well-known as the Nero software, it’s a well-rounded suite. Unfortunately, the Pioneer is the priciest drive in the roundup, though not by a large margin. Continued…

Product Name: Memorex DVR-A08XL
Company: Pioneer
Price: $130
Pros: Good overall burn performance.
Cons: Pricey; physically bulky; slow seek times.
Summary: The Pioneer drive is a smooth, relatively speedy performer marred by slow seek times and a high price.

Samsung offers up a compact drive with middle-of-the-road performance, but a very low price. It’s small enough to fit easily into many small-form-factor PCs. Seek times are relatively good, so it’s a well-balanced performer all around. On top of that, the software suite is fairly generous, including the Nero Express (the “lite” version of Nero’s software suite), Intervideo’s WinDVD Creator, and Win DVD Recorder.

You get all this for roughly $70 on the street. That’s a great price for a 16x burner that can also burn DL discs. The drive is also available with a black bezel. Continued…

Product Name: Samsung TS-H552B
Company: Samsung
Price: $70 (Check Prices)
Pros: Solid performer at a low price; compact size.
Cons: Software doesn’t include the full version of Nero; burns DL discs at 2.4x.
Summary: A compact, inexpensive drive with good performance and a decent software bundle. It’s a compelling solution for small-form-factor PCs.

This drive just keeps getting better with every firmware update. If you already own this drive, you owe it to yourself to download the firmware update for the DRU-710A. The firmware update now allows the drive to burn 16x DVD-R media at full 16x speeds. It should be noted, though, that the Sony is a full CAV (constant angular velocity) drive throughout the burn cycle, as we can see in this chart.

On top of all this performance goodness, the drive is compact, so it’s well-suited for small-form-factor PCs. However, the DRU-710A is a little on the slow side as a straight-up DVD-ROM drive.

A black bezel is shipped in the box in addition to the translucent silver bezel installed by default on the drive. Also included is the full Nero 6 suite, including DVD playback software, music ripping software, and DVD/CD burning applications. The DRU-710A is the best all-around performer we tested. You can find the drive online for about $105, so it’s a great price for an exceptional performer. Just make sure you have the latest firmware. Continued…

Product Name: Sony DRU-710A
Company: Sony Storage
Price: $105 (Check Prices)
Pros: Excellent burn performance; good software bundle; compact size.
Cons: Not the best DVD-ROM performer.
Summary: The Sony drive is a great DVD burner, offering exceptional burn performance and a compact size at a reasonable price, but other drives may offer better DVD read performance.

Let’s take a quick look at our stack of DVD burners.

Size matters. As we can see: the Sony, Memorex, and Samsung drives are all smaller than the competition, making them good choices for cases which have limited space.

Of the drives we tested, the ASUS and Memorex drives are notable. The ASUS drive offers the exceptional DVD-ROM performance of the Pioneer mechanism, and is certainly no slouch in the DVD burning department. But seek times are a bit lacking, and the drive is bulky. The Memorex is another compact drive. While its performance is generally middle-of-the-road, it does offer a good software bundle, but it’s not the least expensive drive by any means.

Overall, we liked the Sony and Samsung drives best, for somewhat different reasons. Both are compact drives that are well-suited for any PC chassis, including small-form-factor cases. The Sony drive is the better performer, and offers a better software suite, but the Samsung costs less. Both are balanced performers in their price categories.

Read Loyd’s article on storing your data in “New Strategies for Personal Mass Storage.”