Burning Questions: The Joys and Mysteries of Firmware Upgrades

In the world of DVD burners, no drive is ever truly considered a final product. Just because your new DVD burner went straight from the delivery truck to your hands, perhaps with a brief stop on a store shelf, doesn't mean it's fully optimized to provide you with the best and most complete burning experience. The firmware--the software built into the flash memory that acts as the control center for a drive's operation--can be updated on the fly and is therefore always in flux, subject to updates as needed over time.

For many users, the prospect of fixing something that's not broken is scary. After all, why tinker with a device that's not giving you trouble?

Such concerns, while understandable, are generally groundless. The truth is that flashing your DVD drive's firmware is a relatively safe and painless procedure. True, snafus have been known to occur during updates--but they're the exception, not the norm. And you don't have to worry about your system's integrity, as a whole; your DVD burner is the only component that might be affected if something doesn't go smoothly.

New Features, Bug Fixes, and More--Oh My!

Depending upon the vendor, downloadable firmware upgrades may appear as often as every month or as infrequently as once in a drive's lifetime.

The vendors that tend to be most proficient and expedient about firmware upgrades are the ones that manufacture the drives themselves: for example, AOpen, BenQ, LG Electronics, Lite-On, NEC, Pioneer, Plextor, and Ricoh. If your drive is not from one of those companies, then chances are the vendor is "rebadging" drives, meaning that it's selling a retail package of hardware that's manufactured by another vendor. Among the rebadgers out there are vendors such as Alera Technologies, I/O Magic, Iomega, Memorex, Pacific Digital, and TDK. And often, if a company doesn't make the drive itself, it tends to be less diligent about providing firmware updates.

But that doesn't mean you're completely out of luck if you buy a drive from such vendors. As long as the drive maintains the firmware ID string--the piece of code by which a drive's model and manufacturer is identified to the operating system--of the original equipment manufacturer, you can always go to that OEM's site and download the firmware update there.

So why bother with firmware updates? Typically, they offer everything from feature and performance enhancements to bug fixes and support for a wider variety of media.

As Bob Smith, technical engineer at Plextor, notes: "The biggest reason why firmware should be kept current is media: As media becomes more available, support for it is implemented in the firmware. The firmware determines the best parameters for a piece of media, and then continually monitors the burn process to ensure the quality of the burn."

For example, Plextor's firmware update version 1.04 for its PX-708A drive, our Best Buy at this writing, adds support for additional brands of 8X DVD+R media. This is an important supplement, as production of 8X media didn't kick into full swing until more than six months after the drive was released. The update also adds support for additional media brands for writing at 8X using 4X discs, a feature previously supported by only three brands of media due to concerns about quality. Broader media support as a whole is a theme for this particular firmware update, as Plextor's change log says it improves compatibility and performance across all speeds of DVD±RW and CD-R media. Finally, the update corrects a few glitches with disc burning software.

Some firmware updates add features as well. For example, Sony's latest update for its DRU-530A successfully boosted the DVD-R/RW write performance to 8X DVD-R and 4X DVD-RW from 4X and 2X, respectively. Although the drive's performance on the -R/RW formats lagged behind that of some competitors even after the firmware update, it's still a nice value for consumers who purchased the drive. The firmware update also fine-tunes the drive's write strategy for DVD+R, so it now writes in Partial Constant Angular Velocity (P-CAV) instead of Zoned Constant Linear Velocity (Z-CLV). This change generated a 22 percent improvement in performance over the drive's initial firmware--which we tested in our April roundup, and which proved sluggish enough to keep the drive off that month's chart.

ID Check, Please

The ID string for a DVD burner is the code that identifies the device to the operating system. You can see your drive's ID string in Windows' Device Manager.
The ID string for a DVD burner is the code that identifies the device to the operating system. You can see your drive's ID string in Windows' Device Manager.
Before you flash your DVD burner's firmware, make sure you've got the right firmware for the drive. We recommend using the firmware updater supplied via the drive's vendor. The only exception to that rule, as mentioned earlier, is if your burner clearly uses an OEM drive that has not been customized. If your drive vendor isn't on our list of companies that manufacture drives, check to see if the ID string is for a known OEM by going to Control Panel, System, Hardware, Device Manager to see how Windows recognizes the drive. If Device Manager sees your drive under a different name than the brand name on your retail package, it's probably the OEM's ID.

Sadly, even if you determine a rebadged drive's OEM--by going to an enthusiast site such as CDR-Info, for example--if the drive's ID string camouflages its true origin, you can't count on using that OEM's firmware updater. Typically, vendors that ask OEMs to adjust their ID string also have the OEM customize the firmware, so that the drive won't be recognized as being manufactured by, say, Lite-On.

For example, Plextor's first DVD burner, the PX-504A, was actually made by NEC. (This is a departure from the norm for Plextor, a company that currently manufactures its own drives.) Although Plextor's version was a single-format, 4X DVD+R/RW drive, the hardware was no different from competing models sold by other vendors as dual-format 4X DVD±RW models. But the Plextor firmware supported the single format only, and because of the way the drive was identified, you couldn't just take an NEC firmware update and flash the Plextor drive to add dual-format support. The NEC firmware updater wouldn't be able to find the drive, because it would be looking for an NEC model, not a Plextor.

A similar danger lurks if you've unwittingly bought a gray-market drive intended for sale outside the United States. For example, the Pioneer DVD-107DB, the version of the Pioneer DVR-A07 (number 10 on our chart at this writing) that Pioneer sells to other vendors for rebadging, is not recognized by the firmware updaters available domestically.

A Drive by any Other Name

If the vendor hasn't touched the drive's ID string, you should be able to flash the firmware using the OEM's upgrades without a problem. For example, Alera Technologies and Pacific Digital, which both use Lite-On drives in some DVD burner models, allow you to do this--a convenience if you want to keep up to date with the latest media offerings.

Bear in mind, however, that there's no guarantee your drive will work with anything but the firmware provided by the vendor you bought it from. Notes BenQ's Jessica Chou, vice president of optical storage: "In virtually all cases, there are no risks or compatibility issues that arise during the download process. However, the very nature of working in an OEM relationship means that a manufacturer may modify the firmware that BenQ provides to them. Depending on the scope and nature of those modifications, there is a very remote chance that compatibility issues may arise. But, there is always the risk of compatibility issues when dealing with hardware and software components."

To find the latest firmware for your DVD burner, visit your drive manufacturer's home page. I also recommend stopping by informed sites like CDR-Info, which, in spite of its name, covers all things CD and DVD, and maintains a list of firmware updates for a variety of vendors.

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