DVD Burners: The Right Time to Buy?

Two rewritable DVD drives from HP and Sony perform impressively

By Jon L. Jacobi

So you want to burn your home movies to DVD. You've patiently waited for drives capable of doing that to reach a price you can stomach--but now that they're hovering around a more affordable $500 you still have to worry about sorting through a confusing standards conflict. When you see a promising deal, you may wonder, "Will this drive burn DVDs that play in my old player? Should I go with a DVD-RW/R or a DVD+RW/R drive? And what is the difference between them, anyhow?"

Take your time. I looked at shipping second-generation HP Dvd200i DVD+RW/+R and Sony DRU-120A drives, both priced at $499--the same as the competing Pioneer DVR-A04 DVD-R/RW drive that we tested last month (see "New DVD Burner Spins for Less"). My evaluations suggest that you may want to steer clear of the contest a bit longer. And if you're confused by the alphabet soup of formats, you're not alone (see the chart "DVD as Easy as A-B-C").

Before testing, my hopes for the HP and Sony drives were sky high. Their ability to write to DVD+R media--billed as a potent combination of DVD+RW speed and DVD-R compatibility--was supposed to end the standards debate.

The drives performed impressively. Both the HP and the Sony units burned DVD+RW and DVD+R at a blazing 2.4X (3.324 MBps), CD-R at 12X, and CD-RW at 10X--significantly faster than most of the speeds the rival Pioneer drive offers, though the latter's all-important DVD-R write speed is comparable, at 2.77 MBps. The DVD+RW drives also support background DVD+RW formatting in hardware to save CPU cycles, and both DVD+RW/R discs take less time than DVD-RW/R discs to finalize when small amounts of data are written.

The chief differences between the new HP and Sony drives involve their outward appearance and their software bundles. Otherwise, both units have the same controls, back plate, and performance. The Dvd200i and the DRU-120A also share the ability to read both -R and -RW discs in addition to their native +R/+RW formats. You'll find this kind of bet-hedging throughout the DVD universe, as numerous drives and players play media that they don't officially claim to have compatibility with.


  HP bundles the easy-to-use but somewhat limited RecordNow software for mastering data DVDs and CDs, and DLA (Drive Letter Access) for packet writing, both from Veritas; Sonic Solutions' MyDVD for movie authoring; ArcSoft's ShowBiz video editor; HP's Simple Backup for backing up data; and CyberLink's PowerDVD for DVD movie playback. Sony offers BHA's B's Recorder Gold for mastering DVDs and CDs, and B's Clip for background packet writing; MedioStream's NeoDVD standard for authoring DVD movies; Dantz's Retrospect Express for backup; and CyberLink's PowerDVD for playing DVD movies. Sony's bundle is a bit stronger than HP's, but Sony doesn't offer an equivalent to the ShowBiz program for video editing, so the contest really is a toss-up. Got a Match?

If you buy a DVD recordable drive to burn DVD movies, you'll want your recordings to play in as many drives and players as possible. In my first round of informal compatibility tests with 20 currently available DVD players, DVD-R looked stronger--my DVD+R media didn't play in a significant number of current DVD players. However, I discovered that a default on the pre-shipping software I used to create my test media resulted in discs that were not filled out to the mark required for maximum compatibility. (At least 520.9MB is needed, so be careful if you're burning small amounts of video.) After I created discs that reached the correct mark, DVD+R media proved fully compatible with all 20 players.

I also tested every legacy drive and player I could find, and DVD+R discs played in a surprising number of drives and players manufactured in 2000 or before.

And DVD+RW write times on the HP and the Sony drives were about twice as fast as DVD-RW write times on Pioneer's DVR-A04; CD-R/RW write times were also considerably quicker on the HP and the Sony than on the Pioneer. DVD+R write times were slightly quicker than DVD-R write times, except on extremely small projects: The DVD+RW and DVD+R discs I burned using the disc-at-once method finalized more quickly when only small amounts of data had to be written. Game Summary

Unless you're in a supreme rush to preserve some decaying videotapes, I recommend maintaining a wait-and-see strategy. Faster DVD-RW/R drives, as well as drives that write all four formats, are sure to come down the pike. If you're committed to buying now, I recommend choosing between the Sony or the HP drives by considering which software package best suits your needs, since the hardware is so similar.

If backing up data is your only concern, a DVD+RW/R drive's superior speed makes it an excellent choice. At about $7 each, however, DVD+R discs are significantly more expensive than DVD-R media, which currently run about $2 to $3 apiece.

From the July 2002 issue of PC World magazine

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