If you've been on the fence about upgrading to a new internal DVD burner, you're officially out of excuses. In the 12 months since our last major DVD roundup (in April 2004), disc capacities have nearly doubled, write speeds have increased twofold, and average drive prices have dropped by more than half.
Formerly an exotic feature, double-layer support--which permits users to write up to 8.5GB to a write-once DVD+R disc--is now de rigueur, and speeds are increasing from 2.4X. Double-layer's superior capacity is especially valuable for people who need to burn up to 2 hours of high-bit-rate video or to copy data folders that exceed a conventional DVD's 4.7GB space limit.
Double-layer burners designed to pack twice as much content onto a disc.
The current 16X write speed for both DVD-R and DVD+R is a maximum rating; the drive commences writing at a slower speed (say, 6X) on the inner part of the disc, and only approaches its full stride of 16X as the recording progresses toward the outer edge of the disc. The write time per full disc running at 16X is a little over 6 minutes, as compared with 8.5 minutes at 8X. That's an improvement, certainly, but not the doubling you might expect from the specified maximums. Because the rate of improvement in performance is not linear and would continue to diminish above 16X, we may not see burners that push beyond the 16X barrier.
We gathered 12 state-of-the-art burners to run through the PC World Test Center's rigorous test suite. Though their technical specs are far too numerous to list here (see "Double-Layer DVD Burners on Parade"), all of the drives burn to at least one kind of write-once recordable DVD disc at 16X, and all can burn to double-layer discs.
Drive by Drive
When double-layer DVD+R was introduced last year, its write speed was 2.4X. Today, the latest drives can burn to a write-once double-layer disc at 4X or 5X (achieving the faster write speed when recording to 2.4X double-layer media). In this roundup, only one-third (4 out of 12) of the drives wrote at 2.4X: the AOpen DUW1608, HP DVD Writer 640i, Lite-On SOHW-1633S, and Samsung TS-H552B (you can bump BenQ's DW1620 up to 4X with a free firmware update). The others reached 4X/5X. For more information on double-layer technology, see "Double-Layer: Burning Issues."
Though rewritable speeds remain largely at 4X for both DVD-RW and DVD+RW, fans of rewritable DVD will be happy to learn that faster speeds are imminent. In fact, two drives we tested here--Plextor's PX-716A and LG's GSA-4160B--have already upped the ante to 8X. Unfortunately, we couldn't officially test how well they performed at 8X because no suitable media was available at press time--nor will it be available until March at the earliest. Plextor, however, supplied us with preproduction media, and in our informal tests using it the results met our expectations for significant speed gains, based on the performance rating of the drive. None of the drives we tested support 6X DVD-RW, but models that do support this speed will be shipping by the time you read this.
Only one model here, the LG, supports writing to DVD-RAM (at 5X). On the other hand, several models (including Pacific Digital's Mach 16 U-30264, Pioneer's DVR-A08XLA, and Toshiba's SD-R5372) can read DVD-RAM discs--and that's a boon if you use DVD-RAM to capture content on your DVD video recorder.
We tested complete retail kits so that we could evaluate the out-of-box experience each vendor provides. Installing an internal DVD burner isn't particularly difficult, but helpful documentation and appropriate cables and screws make things even easier. Most of the drives we looked at offered at least passable instructions on paper. Plextor and Toshiba earn kudos for providing exceptionally detailed documentation, as does Memorex, for its 16x Internal Double-Layer Dual-Format DVD Recorder. Alas, LG provides no paper manual at all, opting instead for a CD-based installation guide--which is fine unless your only computer is already open (or you're trying to replace its deceased optical drive). The guides from Pacific Digital and Samsung were barely adequate, offering meager usage details.
Of the dozen we tested, only the Sony DRU-710A and the Lite-On have short bodies--an important detail if you're upgrading a bread box-size compact PC.
The Speed Game
We found no great surprises in our performance tests. All of the drives performed within reasonable proximity of what we'd have expected from their speed ratings. We tested all units with the most up-to-date firmware available at the time; sometimes, as in the case of the BenQ, this boosted the drive's write speeds.