How to Buy a Rewritable DVD Drive

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.

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