A few years ago, the idea that two standards could compete, yet coexist, was one that left most technology pundits and consumers cold. After all, we had witnessed the great struggle between BetaMax and VHS, the crashing and burning of the Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) and the abject failure of the DivX pay-per-view DVD format (not to be confused with the video codec of the same name). The conventional wisdom is that two similar standards that serve the same essential function cant really coexist.
Or can they?
Recently, two standards for high end, multichannel audio playback — SACD and DVD-Audio — have managed to coexist in the marketplace. The reason for this is twofold. After the great standards wars of the 80s and 90s, consumer electronics and PC companies have become somewhat jaded about the idea of standards fights. And as these devices have become more digital in nature, they can be easily accommodated by clever hardware design coupled with equally clever software and firmware.
On the consumer front, were seeing support for both DVD-Audio and SACD in multiformat players, some of which are dropping below $500. So it was inevitable that someone would do the same for the competing standards for recordable DVD. That someone is Sony, but well get to that in a bit.
The State of PC
DVD Recording”> Weve written extensively on DVD recording in the past. Alfred Poor covered the basics of competing optical recording standards back in 2001, in his excellent overview. We covered several DVD+RW recorders back in April, 2002, then touched on the topic again, comparing DVD+RW to the older DVD-RW standard in our overview of various optical storage hardware in August, 2002.
At that time, we found the DVD+RW drives to be good, but not perfect solutions for data backups and DVD authoring. Also at the same time, we found Pioneers aging DVR-A03 to be slow and awkward to use for backing up data. Recently, the DVD+RW camp has been readying new drives capable of 4x performance. Meanwhile, Pioneer went back to the drawing board and developed the DVR-A05U, their own 4x drive — something that some members of the DVD+RW camp had privately suggested wasnt possible.
In some respects, though, the pros and cons of the competing standards — performance aside — still hold true.
- DVD+RW supports defect management; DVD-RW does not.
- DVD+RW drives support both CLV (constant linear velocity) and CAV (constant angular velocity) spin rates. The second is particularly important for PC users, as it allows for higher speed DVD and CD-ROM reading.
- DVD+RW has been adopted by Microsoft to natively support the Mount Rainier standard for drag-and-drop, rewritable optical storage.
- DVD+RW supports high-accuracy editing of 32K blocks in place, called “lossless sector linking”
- DVD+RW supports variable bit-rate encoding for video, resulting in better image quality in high-motion scenes.
- Theres no lead-on or lead-out times needed during write
- Theres no “finalize” state to creating a DVD video disc, unlike DVD-RW.
And here are some advantages of DVD-RW over DVD+RW:
- Despite the goal of universal compatibility, more consumer DVD players to date will read DVD-RW disks than DVD+RW disks “out of the box”. If allowed to set the compatibility bit (as in the HP drive we review), that number goes up. Note that newer consumer drives can read both formats.
- Most mastering houses that will press consumer DVDs are set up to accept DVD-R media; some will accept DVD-RW as well.
- Theres currently greater penetration and awareness of DVD-RW among authoring professionals. Although aftermarket DVD+RW solutions exist for the Macintosh, the Macintosh can natively read and write DVD-RW.
Where things have changed has been mostly on the DVD+RW front. Various computer manufacturers, especially Dell and HP, have been rapidly deploying DVD+RW on their product offerings. DVD+RW has become the standard of choice for non-critical backup operations. With DVD+RW media dropping to under $2 in bulk, backing up large drives has become easier. However, if DVD+R/RW media has dropped substantially, the prices for DVD-R/RW media have practically fallen off a cliff, with DVD-RW(G) disks falling to well under $1. This, of course, brings up the specter of DVD copying, which no doubt caused sleepless nights among quite a few people in the motion picture industry.
But this isnt about copying DVD movies, but about using DVD recorders to either create original content or as a backup medium for data. Well also examine how these drives perform as CD recorders and CD/DVD readers.
Today we examine two prime examples of the DVD recording art. The first is Pioneers recently released DVR-AO5U DVD-R/RW drive. This is an ATAPI drive capable of recording DVD-R at 4x speed (roughly 40 megabits or 8 megabytes per second). Our other contender is the Sony DRU-500A, which can record on both DVD+R/RW and DVD-R/RW media. Well look at these drives in more detail after we check out the performance tests.
We use the same 2.8GHz Pentium 4 system weve used for our recent hard drive reviews and previews. Heres a quick summary of the configuration:
The DVD recordable drives were installed as the master optical drive on IDE2 of the system. The Toshiba DVD-ROM drive was installed as the slave on the same connection.
We used a variety of tests to determine performance across a wide range of parameters:
- CD Winbench 2.0 and Nero CDSpeed 1.02 for general CD read performance.
- Nero DVD Speed version 0.53 for DVD read performance, using the Microsoft DVD Test annex DVD, a dual-layer DVD with 6.7GB of content used for WHQL testing.
- Nero Burning ROM for CD and DVD writing tests
- Nero DAE Extraction test to test digital audio extraction performance and accuracy.
- DVDTach 98 version 2.51 for general DVD read testing.
All tests were conducted using a freshly defragmented hard drive, with background tasks completed using the ProcessIdleTasks function prior to running each test.
CD Read Performance
CDs are still heavily used for distribution of most applications, so its fair to look at how these recorders function as CD-ROM drives.
The Pioneer drive makes a good showing in CD Winbench. The access time is particularly remarkable, approaching the performance of dedicated CD-ROM drives. On the other hand, the Sony drive has a slightly better CPU utilization than the Pioneer — but the CPU utilization of both drives is small enough to be insignificant.
Nero Test Results
The Nero tests paint a slightly different story.
As a CD drive, the Pioneer still fares a bit better in most tests, but all the results are fairly close.
CD Write Performance
To test CD write performance, we created a synthetic audio CD using Neros DAE extraction tool. Then we copied the 74 minute CD to an image file stored on the hard drive. We then burned the entire image in one pass. This allowed us to remove any file overhead and test raw burn rate.
As you can see, the Sony is a better CD burner. Its not in the same class as the latest 52x dedicated CD burners, but its a pretty solid 24x CD-R burner and 10x CD-RW burner. Since all current DVD burners now support packet writing for DVD recordable media, we tested packet writing performance on “native” DVD rewritable discs.
DVD Read Performance
We used Nero DVDSpeed 0.53 and DVDTach 2.51 to test DVD read performance.
We had to scratch our heads over the performance of the Sony drive in Neros DVD transfer rate tests. The behavior of the Sony drive looks suspiciously like DMA wasnt operational, even though the Windows Device Manager reported the Sony drive running in DMA mode 2.
So we dug out our old copy of DVD Tach 98, version 2.51.
The behavior of the Sony drive in DVDTach was essentially the same — very little spread between the maximum and minimum transfer rates at both 32KB block size and 2KB block size. While the system is reporting DMA mode, perhaps the Sony isnt properly handling DMA transfers. At any rate, as a DVD player, the Pioneer moves data off the disk much faster than the Sony.
DVD Write Performance
We tested DVD write performance in two ways. The first method was to burn a DVD video disc capable of playing in a consumer DVD burner. The second method was to use the DVD recorder in packet writing mode, so we could drag-and-drop data onto the disk.
We used NeoDVD 4.0 to generate the DVD video files from a set of video clips. The video clips ranged in size from 192KB (yes, kilobytes) to 397MB, for a total of 3.93GB. The compression process generated actual MPEG-2 encoded files in the DVD video-compatible VIDEO_TS folder of 1.26GB. This was the folder used to burn to DVD disc. To maintain consistency, we used Nero Burning ROM to actually burn the DVD disc.
Note that the Pioneer drive could not burn to DVD+R/RW media, but we compared its DVD-R results to the Sonys results in burning both DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW media.
Its no surprise that the Pioneer is a better tool for creating DVD-R/RW discs. In fact, the Sony was only capable of burning DVD-RW media at 1X speed, although it performed somewhat more credibly as a DVD-R burner. Another interesting point is that the Sony is better at DVD+RW (rewritable media) than the Pioneer, but the Pioneer performed better on its own record-once media than the Sony did on DVD+R.
We used a folder with 893MB of mixed data, with file lengths varying from a few kilobytes to tens of megabytes — 1470 files in all, some in the root directory, some in folders.
When it came to packet writing performance to rewritable DVD media, the Sony won hands down using DVD+RW media (we didnt test with DVD-RW discs). The Pioneer took nearly two hours to format a DVD-RW disc suitable for packet writing. This was in contrast to the roughly ten minute format time for the Sony drive using DVD+RW. In addition, the actual packet writing time took considerably longer on the Pioneer.
Inside the Box
: Pioneer DVR-A05U”>
The DVR-A05U ships with a software bundle consisting of:
- Roxios EZ-CD Creator Basic, , for burning CDs.
- Sonics MyDVD 4.0 for simple DVD authoring capabilities
- ArcSofts Showbiz, a simple movie editing package
- Pinnacle InstantWrite, a packet writing driver and UDF management tool
Manuals are on disc, in PDF (Adobe Acrobat) format.
The drive itself is fairly unassuming, with a stock beige bezel. The rear panel has the usual connectors for the parallel ATA cable, ATA master/slave jumper, analog audio and power. No S/PDIF connector graces the back panel, though an unlabeled 4-pin connector is present. The drive also has a headphone jack and volume knob, spiffy features when you just want to pop a CD in and listen to music, though it seems oddly anachronistic in todays digital music world.
The drive performs very well in its primary task of authoring DVD video onto DVD-R/RW media. In addition, it seems to be a speedy CD-ROM and DVD-ROM player, but its CD-RW capabilities are modest next to todays high speed dedicated CD burners. Still, the capability is there if you need it.
However, we wouldnt recommend this drive for data backup, especially if you plan on using packet writing, drag-and-drop capability. The Pioneer takes an eon to formate a packet-writable disc, and write times are quite long.
Inside the Box
: Sony DRU-500A”>
The software bundle differs a bit from Pioneers, and is more in line with what youd expect from a consumer product:
- RecordNow CD burning application
- MyDVD 4 DVD authoring application
- MusicMatch 7.1 digital music ripping and playback software
- PowerDVD XP 4.0 DVD movie playback application
- SimpleBackup software backup tool
Some, but not all, manuals are on disc. Sony supplies a fold-out folio with directions for downloading additional updates and applications, such as Veritas DLA packet writing driver.
The real strength of the DRU-500A lies in its ability to use multiple DVD recordable formats. Its not quite a “universal recorder”, since it wont write to DVD-RAM disks. Being able to write to DVD-RAM would make this drive a serious tool for archival backups, but thats not the purpose of the drive.
Its main purpose is to be a device suitable for consumers and pros alike. Pros will like the ability to write to DVD-R/RW when needed, as many of their clients or repro houses will likely want that format. But the ability to write to DVD+R/RW will appeal to consumers and users who need up to 4.7GB of casual backup. Bear in mind that this is not a serious tool for regular backups to the same disc — DVD+R/RW media can only be written to perhaps 1,000 times at best. If youre constantly overwriting sections of the disc, you can hit that 1,000 time mark much more quickly than you might expect.
Performance is generally pretty good, though DVD read performance is unusually slow. However, it doesnt seem to be slow as a CD-ROM reader, so most users might not notice. Its certainly fast enough for playing back DVD movies.
The drive itself is a little more attractive than most optical drives, with the actual drawer bezel being platinum-colored plastic. The drive also lacks a volume control and headphone jack, but that will likely not be missed by most users.
Analysis and Conclusions
DVD burners are rapidly becoming cost-effective tools for authoring DVD video discs, backing up files and as CD burners to boot. At prices approaching $300, the capability to handle multiple formats is a real plus for most users. Media is getting increasingly cheap, too, and soon prices for all DVD recordable media will drop below $1 (DVD-R discs have already plunged well below that point).
If the cycle holds, well undoubtedly see Blu-Ray recorders arrive on the scene later this year. Those will no doubt command a serious price premium, but the net effect will be to drop DVD burner prices even more.
Both the Pioneer DVD-AO5U and Sony DRU-500A are excellent examples of the engineering craft. The Sony is more flexible in its use, but the Pioneer drive will appeal to authoring houses who need fast DVD-R/RW performance. Both can author to their respective record-once formats, suitable for giving away to family members or archival storage. The Sony is a bit more pricey, and its DVD read performance is sub-par, but its an excellent drive in every other respect.