Spin City

SAN FRANCISCO (05/26/2000) - That old CD-ROM drive in your computer may soon look as antiquated as a 5.25-inch floppy drive: Just as the old flexy floppy disappeared when faster, higher-capacity 3.5-inch disks caught on, a potential CD-ROM replacement has already spun into view. DVD-ROM drives have fallen in price and soared in performance over the past year. But they may offer more speed than you'll ever need.

DVD-ROM's biggest appeal is its capacity: While a typical CD-ROM holds 650MB, a standard DVD holds 4.7GB. That's why DVDs can accommodate the overwhelming data mass of a full-length Hollywood film. As a result, DVD-Video players and DVD-ROM drives deliver images with clarity and detail far surpassing a VCR's output, making the discs a threat to videotape movies.

The DVD spec also lets you include extras that videotape can't, like subtitles in up to 32 languages and full soundtracks in up to 8. DVD-ROM is fast, too--so fast that it demands a new unit of measure. CD-ROM drive speeds are expressed as multiples of that format's original data transfer rate "X," which equals 150KB per second. So a 17X-40X CD-ROM drive reads data at a minimum 2.6 MBps (17 (sum) 150 KBps) to a maximum 6 MBps (40 (sum) 150 KBps). In the case of DVDs, however, X equals a blistering 1.38 MBps. So today's fastest DVD-ROM drives, rated at 16X, should (in theory) read at 16 (sum) 1.38 MBps--22 MBps.

Though big and swaggering, this younger technology does respect its optical elders. Today's DVD-ROM drives read all CD formats as fast as most CD-ROM drives can. That's a good thing, too, because few applications currently come on DVD--and nearly all of them are available on CD-ROM as well. According to Jim Taylor, author of DVD Demystified, there are only about 70 DVD software offerings, versus approximately 6500 film titles in that format.

What's It Good For?

For most people, there simply are no compelling reasons to abandon the old CD-ROM format, which plays in far more systems than DVD. And since DVD-ROM drives can read CD-ROMs, most companies avoid the extra expense of pressing products in both formats.

According to Microsoft Office product manager David Jaffe, "at this current time, given the broad usage of the product, the media it makes the most sense to deliver is CD-ROM." Likewise, Microsoft Corp. has no plans to release its Windows operating system on DVD. Meanwhile, sales of CD-Rewritable drives have skyrocketed in the past year (see "Hello, Get Me Rewrite!" www.pcworld.com/ mar00/cd-rw), giving a further boost to the CD-ROM format.

Though storage capacity is DVD's strength, the technology often loses out even in applications where storage is an issue. Most software vendors would rather put their product on multiple CDs if necessary than switch to DVD format. And many huge-database applications envisioned for DVD-ROM, like mapping software and national phone directories, have instead found homes on the Web.

Some useful titles have made the leap to DVD-ROM, however. DeLorme Software delivers its acclaimed Topo USA 2.0, XMap Business, and Eartha Global Explorer map and geography applications on both DVD and CD-ROM. The DVD edition of The Complete National Geographic (a compilation of every page of every issue of the magazine ever printed) occupies only 4 discs, whereas the CD-ROM version requires 31 discs. And Interplay Software offers many of its larger games, like Klingon Academy, in DVD format. The advantage is convenience: With DVD, you have fewer discs to juggle (and misplace).

Generating Spin

Though the benefits of DVD remain primarily theoretical, consumers and vendors are hedging their bets for the future and adopting the technology. After a tepid 1999, sales of DVD-ROM drives have warmed up and are expected to surpass CD-ROM drive sales by 2001, according to predictions by International Data Corporation. And because the latest DVD-ROM drives are faster, more versatile at reading various media, and less expensive than their predecessors, they now come standard on many desktop and notebook systems.

We tested ten DVD-ROM drives for this review--AOpen's $167 DVD-1040 Pro, CenDyne's $147 CDI CD 00042, Creative Labs Inc.s' $250 PC-DVD Encore 8X, Hitachi's $95 GD-5000, Hi-Val's $260 HDVD10AS-00R1, IBM's $169 8X Max Internal DVD-ROM, Panasonic's $125 SR-8585-B, Pioneer's $160 DVD-115, Toshiba Corp.'s $260 SD-M1402, and Utobia's $190 DVD-Motion. All are rated to read CD-ROMs at a maximum speed of 40X. And unlike first-generation DVD-ROM drives, they can read CD-R and CD-RW discs with aplomb.

Our Best Buy DVD-ROM drive is CenDyne's CDI CD 00042. Though it did not take top honors in any individual test or category, this 8X DVD/40X CD-ROM drive offers the best overall mix of affordability, performance, features, and support. The least-expensive drive in our review, Hitachi's 8X/40X GD-5000, comes in second mainly because it is a bare-bones unit with limited features and documentation. Hitachi concentrates on selling the GD-5000 to other vendors, which repackage it for consumers.

DVD-RAM: Large and Looming

In addition to examining DVD-ROM products, we looked at five first-generation DVD-RAM drives, the rewritable kin of DVD-ROM. (A competing standard, DVD+RW, has thus far failed to materialize; the prospect of a standards war initially hindered growth in the writable DVD market, but DVD-RAM now rules the field.) DVD-RAM drives can read DVD-ROM, CD-ROM, CD-R, and CD-RW discs, and they write to their own proprietary 2.6GB-per-side discs. A double-sided (5.2GB) DVD-RAM disc can hold as much data as six or seven CD-ROMs.

Nevertheless, beware of inflated performance claims. Manufacturers advertise a 1X (1.38 MBps) transfer rate, but our testing shows that drives generally write at approximately a third of their claimed speed. This is due in part to a function known as write verification: Unlike CD-RW units, a typical DVD-RAM drive checks every bit of copied data against the original file to ensure that the information has been faithfully reproduced. As a result, the drive spends half the write cycle verifying data integrity.

Interestingly, the QPS Que drive ships with verification disabled, helping it post faster write times than all the other drives we tested, which had verification enabled by default. QPS representatives claim that verification is unnecessary, but Panasonic and other vendors we asked disagree. They point out that the exposure to outside elements can damage the media, and they fear that the budding technology's credibility could be harmed if customers doubt its reliability. Our take: If you plan to use DVD-RAM to store critical data, write verification will ensure that your files are faithfully recorded.

First-generation DVD-RAM drives read discs relatively slowly, in part because the laser must both read and write--sacrificing optimum read performance for versatility. These drives move data from DVDs at 1.38 or 2.8 MBps (1X or 2X, expressed as a DVD X rating), and from CD-ROMs at relatively poky transfer speeds of 2.4 or 3.6 MBps (16X or 24X, in CD-ROM's X rating parlance).

Media compatibility is one problem with DVD-RAM. The discs come packaged in protective cartridges called Type 1 or Type 2. The Type 1 cartridges--which include all double-sided, 5.2GB discs--are sealed and work in DVD-RAM drives only. Type 2 cartridges are more flexible: You can take out the single-sided, 2.6GB disc and run it in a compatible DVD-ROM drive. Unfortunately, of the DVD-ROM drives we reviewed, only the Hitachi and the CenDyne (which uses a Hitachi mechanism) had the capacity to read Type 2 discs.

Power users who intend to install DVD-RAM and CD-RW drives may run into difficulties. Adaptec's Easy CD Creator 4.0x, DirectCD 2.5, and DirectCD 3 behaved erratically on systems that had Write DVD installed as well. An Adaptec representative told us that the company is working on the problem.

Another drawback of DVD-RAM is the price: Four of the five drives we tested cost at least $400: Hitachi's $400 GF-1000, Panasonic's $699 DVD-RAM LF-D102U, Pinnacle's $699 Micro Flex Cinema PC DVD-RAM kit, and QPS's $689 Que DVD-RAM.

The lone exception: Creative Labs' PC-DVD RAM 5.2GB, which costs only $300 and captured our Best Buy.

DVD-RAM technology is developing quickly, however. By this July or August, manufacturers expect to ship backward-compatible, second-generation DVD-RAM drives, priced at around $700, that will double their predecessors' performance--writing at speeds of 2X to faster discs that hold 4.7GB per side.

Unfortunately, the current batch of DVD-ROM and 1X-DVD RAM drives cannot read the new media.

In-Drive Movie

DVD-video movies are stored on discs in MPEG-2 format, with a built-in compression scheme that retains high visual quality but still demands relatively large files. To play a DVD film, your DVD-ROM drive needs to have either a software MPEG-2 decoder or an expansion card that includes an MPEG-2 decoder chip. The Toshiba SD-M1402 and Utobia DVD-Motion DVD-ROM drives, along with the Pinnacle Micro Flex Cinema PC DVD-RAM drive, offer versions of Sigma Designs' Realmagic Hollywood Plus card (www.sigmadesigns.com). Creative Labs' PC-DVD Encore 8X comes equipped with Creative's own proprietary Dxr3 card.

MPEG-2 decoder cards take over rendering duties from the CPU, helping movies play more smoothly on slower (under 350-MHz) systems, especially if you're working simultaneously in other applications. Try that using a processor-taxing software decoder, and you may encounter choppy playback. Decoder cards also provide audio and video output jacks for your stereo and television. The Hollywood Plus and Dxr3 cards supply outputs for analog stereo, S/PDIF digital audio (for Dolby Digital receivers), composite video and S-Video.

Software MPEG-2 decoders such as CyberLink's PowerDVD 2.55 (www.cyberlink-usa.com) and InterVideo's WinDVD 2000 (www.intervideo.com) rendered movies on our 400-MHz Celeron test system as successfully as their hardware counterparts did, without tying up a card slot or an IRQ number.

Read speed isn't critical to DVD movie playback. Films are recorded to play at 1X, and the drives we tested can read at much higher rates. The speed potential of these drives (up to 16X for the Pioneer DVD-115) is irrelevant to normal playback, although higher read speeds do allow for smoother fast-forwarding.

Spin Doctoring

The actual speed attained by the DVD-ROM drives we tested depended on what part of the disc they were reading. Most of them spin the disc at a constant angular velocity, maintaining the same rotational speed no matter where the read head is positioned. Consequently, these drives transfer data faster from the outer part of the disc than from the inner part ( most CD-ROM drives are CAV mechanisms, too). Many manufacturers list only the unit's swiftest DVD-ROM speed. The Panasonic SR-8585-B was unique among the ten DVD-ROM units we tested in using constant linear velocity, an arrangement in which the drive varies the disc's rotation speed according to the position of the read head, so the device maintains a constant data transfer rate.

We ran several tests to gauge the real-world performance of the drives in this review. Since people often use DVD-ROM drives to play CD-ROMs, we examined how the drives handled several relevant tasks: copying a file from inside and outside portions of a CD, installing Microsoft Office 2000, and displaying a slide show on Corel Professional Photo. We also tested DVD-ROM performance by measuring how long the drives took to map a trip using DeLorme's Eartha Global Explorer. We ran the same five read tests on the DVD-RAM drives, and we also measured the time each drive took to write and rewrite a 100MB file.

The X-Philes

It's cool to own the newest, fastest, most powerful device on the market. But how much does state of the art matter with DVD? Our read tests revealed that as with CD-ROM drives, DVD drives with larger X-ratings don't always out-perform the competition. Rated at a maximum speed of 16X DVD-ROM/40X CD-ROM, the Pioneer DVD-115 was the fastest drive overall, with top finishes in copying a file from the inside portion of a CD-R disc (just over 32 seconds) and installing Microsoft Office 2000 from CD-ROM (a scant 3 minutes 49 seconds--17 seconds faster than its nearest competitor). The DVD-115 also completed our DeLorme Eartha Global Explorer DVD-ROM test in a scorching 2 minutes 22 seconds, though the 10X-rated Hi-Val drive was just as fast in that test.

Among DVD-RAM drives, the 2X/20X-rated Panasonic LF-D102U and the 2X/20X-rated Hitachi GF-1000 traded first- and second-place finishes in our two file copy tests. The Panasonic took 65 seconds to copy 100MB from the inside track of a CD and 36.5 seconds from the outside track. The Hitachi's times were 66 seconds and 35 seconds for inside and outside reads. The same units also shared top honors in the Microsoft Office 2000 install (5 minutes 16 seconds for the Panasonic and 5 minutes 46 seconds for the Hitachi). At the other extreme, the Pinnacle and QPS drives posted slow Microsoft Office 2000 install times of 10 minutes 15 seconds and 8 minutes 43 seconds, respectively. The Creative Labs PC-DVD RAM 5.2GB was swiftest at displaying a Corel Professional Photo slide show, finishing in less than 62 seconds--almost 4 seconds better than the Hitachi and almost 11 seconds ahead of the Panasonic. But the latter two returned to the top on our DeLorme Eartha Global Explorer test, with times of 2 minutes 24 seconds for the Panasonic and 2 minutes 43 seconds for the Hitachi.

Most of the drives turned in similar DVD-RAM write performance. The exception was the QPS Que DVD-RAM. It wrote our 100MB test folder in only 2 minutes 29 seconds, while Pinnacle's Micro Flex Cinema PC DVD-RAM took a whopping 4 minutes 13 seconds--that's 672 KBps to only 395 KBps. But as noted earlier, the Que is the only drive we reviewed that came with write verification disabled.

When we switched verification on, the QPS performed approximately the same as the other drives--writing a 100MB file in 4 minutes and 15 seconds.

Creature Comforts

All of the dvd-rom drives we tested are solidly built devices with IDE interfaces, but we saw some notable differences in their features. For example, the AOpen DVD-1040 Pro and the Utobia DVD-Motion are both slot-fed drives, which gently pull in the discs when you insert them. We liked the servo-operated slot feeds, with their disc-cleaning pads, and admired the drives' ability to operate in any orientation. We missed the emergency eject machinery (basically a small hole into which you can poke a straightened paper clip or similar object to eject the disc in case of drive failure) that most tray-loading drives provide, however. All of the eight other DVD-ROM drives in this roundup use tray mechanisms with emergency eject.

Two other basic features on almost every DVD-ROM drive are a volume control and a mini-stereo headphone jack. Alas, both are absent from the Creative Labs PC-DVD RAM 5.2GB, the Panasonic DVD-RAM LF-102U, and Toshiba SD-M1402 DVD-ROM.

And surprisingly, the newest DVD-ROM drive--Pioneer's DVD-115--omits the digital output that other drives use to send direct signals to the computer's sound card or to a set of digital speakers.

An important distinction among the DVD-RAM drives is how they connect to your computer. Three (Panasonic's DVD-RAM LF-D102U, Pinnacle's Micro Flex Cinema PC DVD-RAM, and QPS's Que DVD-RAM) are external SCSI units. Creative Labs' PC-DVD RAM 5.2GB uses an internal SCSI connection, and the Hitachi GF-1000 connects via an IDE interface. (Only the QPS kit supplies a SCSI card.) The best drive for you may depend on how much space you have inside your PC--or next to it.

Spinning Into The Future

CenDyne's CDI CD 00042 is our top overall pick among DVD-ROM drives, although every model we reviewed has the speed and features to satisfy you for years to come. On the DVD-RAM front, Creative Labs' $300 PC-DVD RAM is a bargain among first-generation drives. But if you crave speed--and are willing to pay for it--you may do better to save your money for the coming second-generation DVD-RAM drives.

Best Buys

We tapped the CenDyne CDI CD 00042 (on top at left) as our Best Buy among DVD-ROM drives. Though not the fastest unit we tested, it offers quick enough performance to support the most common uses of DVD technology, and it balances that with useful features and an attractive $147 price. Our Best Buy DVD-RAM drive, Creative Labs' PC-DVD RAM 5.2GB, carries a surprisingly low price tag of $300. Though it's slower than some other drives on certain tests, it costs only about half as much.

DVD on Your TV

Though DVD-Video movies can look great on a high-quality computer monitor, you might long to watch them from something more comfy than a desk chair. So why not use your computer--or a stand-alone DVD-Video player--to send signals to your television? With its lower resolution, a TV screen won't usually produce as sharp a picture as a computer monitor, but its larger size will let you sit back and enjoy the show.

A stand-alone player is easy to connect to a TV. But hooking up your computer can be trickier. If your graphics card doesn't already provide TV output, a $50 to $100 hardware decoder is the simplest solution. The cards bundled with our review drives provided composite and S-Video output, plus Dolby Digital and analog audio output for a stereo or home theater system.

Getting Hitched

Are the hookup hassles worth it? To find out, we sent signals to a 27-inch TV from two hardware decoder cards (Sigma Designs' $68 Realmagic Hollywood Plus and Creative Labs' $80 Dxr3); from two software decoders (Cyberlink's $50 PowerDVD 2.55 and InterVideo's $30 WinDVD 2000, using a Matrox Marvel G400-TV card for TV output); and from a stand-alone $399 Toshiba SD-1200 DVD player.

After tweaking brightness and contrast, we could scarcely distinguish between drives with software or hardware decoding and the stand-alone player.

In the end, though, we kicked back on the couch with the Toshiba stand-alone player and its remote control--a passive tool for passive entertainment. If your computer is already located near the TV, by all means employ it as a DVD player. Otherwise, the convenience, portability, and easy installation of a stand-alone player make it your best bet.

DVD for Notebooks

The in-flight movie has never been a grand cinematic experience. A typical offering is a small screen five rows distant, with sound piped through hollow tubes. And you're stuck watching whatever movie the airline got a good deal on.

The remedy for frequent fliers: Watch movies on your notebook computer.

If your notebook lacks a built-in DVD-ROM drive--and the manufacturer doesn't offer one--you'll need an external model. We tested three drives with easy-to-install PC Card interfaces: the $379 Addonics 4X/24X PocketDVD (www.addonics.com), the $335 EXP 2X/16X DVD Traveler (www.expnet.com), and the $399 Port-NoteWorthy Slimline 4X/24X (www.port.com). The Port-Noteworthy and Addonics drives played movies smoothly, but the EXP dropped almost as many frames as it rendered on our IBM ThinkPad I Series 1480; the company's tech support personnel could offer no solution. We also tried EXP's $549 DVD Traveler Plus--which comes standard with a Margi PC Card hardware MPEG-2 decoder--and obtained fine results.

A Noteworthy Choice

The port-noteworthy, our favorite drive, comes with a coupon for a MediaMatics software decoder. When you order the decoder, you may want to get a backup notebook battery, too, because playing DVD movies on any external drive drains power quickly. Mileage varies by notebook, but our ThinkPad's 4-hour run time dropped to 1.5 hours in DVD play. Still, if you spend much time in the air, DVD movies may be worth the investment.

San Francisco-based freelance writer Jon L. Jacobi contributes regularly to PC World. Elliott Kirschling and John Tjon, PC World Test Center performance analysts, conducted all performance tests.

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