How to Buy a Rewritable DVD Drive


DVD-Rewritable Drive Buying Guide graphic

All the talk about the next wave of optical formats--Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD--might make you think that the venerable DVD-Rewritable drive is passé. Not so fast: DVD burners, and the media you use with them, remain a vastly less expensive option for writing discs than those costly new formats. Plus, you can get superior performance from a dedicated DVD burner: The write speeds top out now at 20X.

Rewritable DVD's advantages over CD-R are long established: Single-layer DVD media lets you store up to 4.7GB on a disc, while dual-layer (also referred to as double-layer, for the DVD+R format) media lets you pack up to 8.5GB on a single disc. Like CD-RW drives, rewritable DVD drives support both write-once and rewritable media; write-once discs are best for creating movies playable on standard DVD players and for data archiving, while rewritable discs are well suited for regular file backup.

The Big Picture
Formats, speeds, compatibility--which to choose? We'll introduce you to the basics of rewritable DVD drives. more

The Specs Explained
Whether you're shopping for the fastest or the most economical rewritable DVD drive, use these specifications to compare the various DVD burners. more

Rewritable DVD Shopping Tips
Whether you're shopping for the fastest or the most economical rewritable DVD drive, use these specifications to compare the various DVD burners. more

The Big Picture

DVD burners remain the de facto, must-have kind of optical drive. And no wonder: The average price of a drive is $70, with prices running even lower depending on where you buy the drive, and whether there are rebates or other limited-time offers.

The format wars are a distant memory now; drives typically support writing to and reading from both of the competing, incompatible disc formats--DVD-RW and DVD+RW (and their corresponding write-once variants, DVD-R and DVD+R)--and most now support DVD-RAM, as well. In the past, drives that supported the DVD-R, DVD-RW, and DVD-RAM formats were called Multi drives; nowadays, you'll typically see models dubbed Super Multi drives that support all five DVD write formats.

An increasingly common feature of DVD burners is the LightScribe Direct Disc Labeling technology. LightScribe makes it easy to create a label on the disc, using the burner's laser to etch the label into the surface of specially coated LightScribe media.

Both DVD formats burn data and video DVDs that can be read by most DVD-ROM drives and television set-top DVD players. DVD-RAM lags behind the + and - formats in that fewer players and PC drives support it; the format has always been hindered by its playback incompatibility with most DVD-ROM drives and set-top DVD players. However, DVD-RAM provides hard drive-like random access to a rewritable disc, and that makes it a handy addition to your disc-burning arsenal.

Key Features

Write-once DVD: Because write-once DVD-R and DVD+R media have a highly reflective backing, they offer the best compatibility with set-top DVD players, though some players are more sensitive to a disc's reflectivity than others. Currently, the fastest write speed is 20X for recording on single-layer DVD-R and DVD+R media. Write speeds have progressed over the past year, migrating from 16X--the last spec codified by either the -R or +R camps--to 18X and 20X on the latest DVD burners. But none of the media manufacturers so far expect to release media that is rated to write at up to 20X--one of several reasons why you may see only a minimal performance boost with these newest drives.

Double-layer DVD+R and dual-layer DVD-R media write speeds are currently at 8X. A few drives are shipping with faster, higher-than-media speed ratings (10X for double-layer DVD+R, for example); in those cases, as with single-layer media, you may see a performance improvement only with media from specific manufacturers.

Single-layer write-once media is usually the best choice for archiving data or for burning video DVDs that you want to view on your living room player. You can buy the discs everywhere from drugstores to electronics stores, and the media remains less expensive than dual-layer discs. Single-layer DVD-R and DVD+R discs are least expensive when purchased in spindles--you can find spindles of 100 discs for as little as 25 cents per disc (including a rebate or special pricing). Industry experts estimate that write-once media is compatible with at least 85 percent of set-top players; that number climbs even higher when you look at the latest generation of players.

Double-layer and dual-layer media remains more costly than single-layer media, because the media is more difficult to produce. Discs typically cost $18 for a 10-pack spindle, or $37 for a 25-pack spindle. The advantage of these discs lies in their capacity: up to 8.5GB of storage, versus 4.7GB for a single-layer disc. The extra capacity is useful for data backups, and is necessary if you want to record a two-hour block of video at the maximum image quality possible.

Rewritable DVD: Rewritable formats comprise DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM. Rewritable discs are useful if you're trying to do regular, incremental backups (in which you continually add data to the disc), for example.

DVD-RAM is the least compatible of the three, but its robust error correction and high rewrite rating (vendors claim discs can be written to up to 100,000 times, compared with 1000 times for -RW and +RW media) make it a good choice for data backups. Today's drives support bare-disc DVD-RAM media; cartridge media is still available, but few drives support it (such media is contained within a protective enclosure about the size of a jewel case).

The current speeds for rewritable media max out at 12X for DVD-RAM, 8X for DVD+RW, and 6X for DVD-RW. Industry experts estimate that DVD+RW and DVD-RW discs are compatible with about 60 percent of the installed base of DVD players and drives. By contrast, only other DVD-RAM drives and a handful of DVD-ROM drives can read DVD-RAM discs.

Rewritable media tends to be more expensive than write-once media; you can expect discs to cost approximately $1 to $2 apiece.

Internal versus external drives: Internal DVD burners, whether they use the older IDE connectors or the newer Serial ATA (SATA) connections (something becoming more common on burners), cost less than external models--by as much as $100. External drives typically use either the FireWire (IEEE 1394) or USB 2.0 interface; some drive manufacturers offer both connectors on the same drive.

CD-R/RW recording: All rewritable DVD drives can burn CD-R and CD-RW discs. DVD drives typically burn CD-Rs at speeds of 48X to 52X; dedicated CD-R writers max out at 52X. CD-RW write speeds are comparable to those found on stand-alone CD writers as well.

Software bundle: All drives packaged for retail include video DVD authoring software that allows you to create menus and to encode analog video to MPEG-2 so that you can play the resulting video DVD on a standard DVD set-top player. In addition, all drives can create data DVDs with their bundled mastering and packet-writing software. The most common software bundles include scaled-down OEM versions of Nero's Nero Ultra 7 Enhanced and Roxio's Easy Media Creator 9. Some burners may include a more full-featured version of Nero or Roxio than others; look for software bundles that are as close to the shipping, stand-alone versions as possible.

Other popular bundles include a Corel Ulead software suite headlined by DVD MovieFactory 6, or a software suite from CyberLink.

In any case, pick a drive that has as much relevant software as possible. Often you can get backup software, video editing software, and even image editing software ensconced in your drive's disc-burning suite.

Beware of any drive that is sold at a very low cost and without any software. Such a drive is probably intended for sale as a "bare" OEM drive, so it not only has no software, but also (often) no warranty and none of the necessary firmware updates that are standard with drives sold at retail.

LightScribe: Many drives now support LightScribe, a disc-etching technology licensed by Hewlett-Packard. Often, you won't pay any significant premium for a drive with LightScribe support; however, LightScribe-enabled drives sometimes don't support the latest and greatest disc-write speeds. If speed is important to you, check the drive's specs.

With a LightScribe drive and specially coated LightScribe media, you can flip the disc over and use the drive's laser to etch a monochromatic label--as elaborate or as simple as you want--on the disc's top surface. Be aware that it can take 20 minutes or more to etch a complex, full-surface label.

The Specs Explained

Rewritable DVD drive specifications are expressed in a confusing litany of numbers and letters. We'll try to decipher them for you here and let you know which we consider important, somewhat important, or minor in a buying decision.

Important: Disc Formats

DVD burners today can write and rewrite to a variety of disc formats. What all the formats mean and how to distinguish among them are the primary questions facing prospective buyers. Most DVD burners can write to both write-once (R) and rewritable (RW) media. Each type of media comes in two formats: DVD+R and DVD-R; and DVD+RW and DVD-RW. You'll want a DVD burner that supports both + and - formats for maximum compatibility. DVD-RAM is useful for backups, or if you have a living-room DVD recorder that can burn to DVD-RAM--and you actually use the format for your recordings.

All DVD burners can write to both single-layer and dual-layer (or double-layer) formats. Single-layer discs hold 4.7GB of data. Dual- or double-layer discs hold 8.5GB of data.

Write-once DVD--which encompasses both DVD-R and DVD+R--is the most compatible DVD format, especially for sharing discs with living room DVD players. DVD-R SL and DL (single-layer and dual-layer) and DVD+R SL and DL (single-layer and double-layer) are the four write-once variants.

DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM are three rewritable variants you might encounter. Be sure not to buy one of the older, first-generation DVD+RW burners that lack write-once DVD.

Important: Write-Once DVD Speeds

Most of the latest drives are reasonably comparable in speed; however, it is common to go into retail stores and see older stock--drives that are slower. Check the double-layer and single-layer write speeds before you buy--you'll find a huge difference between 2.4X double-layer DVD-R writes and an 8X or 10X write, for example. The current maximum speed ratings: 20X for DVD-R SL and DVD+R SL; 8X for DVD-R DL; 10X for DVD+R DL.

Important: Rewritable-DVD Speeds

DVD-RW and DVD+RW are about equally compatible with most DVD drives and DVD players. But DVD-RW usually takes longer to format than DVD+RW. DVD-RAM's higher rewrite rating--up to 100,000 rewrites, compared with up to 1000 for DVD-RW and +RW--and robust error correction capabilities make this a good format for data. But DVD-RAM is less compatible with other DVD drives and players.

Currently, the maximum write speeds are 6X for DVD-RW, 10X for DVD+RW, and 12X for DVD-RAM.

Somewhat Important: Interface

Internal drives--as with other storage devices--tend to be cheaper than external ones. Pick a Serial ATA (or SATA) internal drive if you have a newer PC; you won't see a performance boost, but the more efficient SATA cables can help improve air flow in your system.

If you're buying an external drive, pick one with an interface that matches what's installed on your computer--or pick a drive that supports both FireWire and USB 2.0 for maximum flexibility. And choose your drive carefully, based on your needs. If you choose a slimline DVD burner, for example, you'll make a significant sacrifice in speed, but you'll gain portability. A full-size, "half-height" drive--like the one you'd see in your PC, except that it's housed in an external enclosure--will provide the performance you'd expect from a desktop drive.

Somewhat Important: Software

If you know how you plan to use your drive, you may get a better deal if the drive includes the software you'll need. Check to see how complete the OEM bundle of the burning software (such as Roxio's Easy Media Creator or Nero's Nero Express) is; also, see if the burner includes backup software or additional video or image editing software.

Rewritable DVD Drive Shopping Tips

Are you ready to buy a rewritable DVD drive? Here are PC World's recommendations for buying a drive that will best suit the needs of the average user.

Decide if speed is important to you. At this writing, speed is not much of an issue, since the two write-once/single-layer DVD formats are identical. Keep an eye on double/dual-layer write speeds, though--many drives on the market don't support the fastest speeds possible.

Consider compatibility. Both DVD-R and DVD+R are highly compatible with current DVD players and DVD-ROM drives. Some older players might have better luck with DVD-R than DVD+R, simply because DVD-R has been around longer. If the drive burns DVD-RAM, remember that the format can be useful but is poorly suited for discs you plan to share with friends and family.

For desktop PCs, get an internal drive with a SATA interface. If your PC supports Serial ATA (SATA), you'll do better by having SATA's thinner, less cumbersome wires inside your system.

For external drives, or desktop PCs with few internal connections, consider the interface. With external drives, you'll see about the same speed from a FireWire drive as you would from a USB 2.0 drive. Costs for drives of each interface type are similar, and for a few more dollars, you can often buy a drive that has the flexibility of both interfaces.

Make sure the bundled recording software fits your needs. With drives sold at retail, all manufacturers include software; the bundle typically covers DVD and CD mastering (including audio CDs), DVD video authoring, and the ability to drag and drop data. Some vendors add software for backup tasks and video editing.

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