External DVD-R drives

Introduction

Apple's digital-hub strategy has made the DVD burner - with its ability to play movies, back-up more than 4.5GB of data, and create movies that your friends can play on their home DVD players - a highly sought-after system component. But if you haven't the money to upgrade to a new Mac with a SuperDrive, or don't have the option (or inclination) to install one, you can still join the digital revolution by purchasing an external DVD-R drive. The same Pioneer SuperDrive included in the newest desktop Macs is now available as an external FireWire drive from a variety of companies. And thanks to a hardware upgrade, this new crop of drives can burn a DVD twice as fast as the previous models could. The bad news is that you'll miss out on some basic functionality: external DVD-R drives can't play commercial DVDs unless your Mac already has a DVD drive built in, and you won't be able to use iDVD, Apple's free DVD-authoring software, at all (although some external drives do come with iDVD alternatives). But if you're willing to live with these compromises, an external DVD-R drive offers an excellent - and fairly inexpensive - way to add DVD-burning capabilities to a Mac. Macworld Labs rounded up Five of the newest external FireWire DVD burners: Cyclone's DVD Revo FireWire SuperDrive 4x, EZQuest's Boa FireWire DVD-RW, Formac's Devideon, Ikebana's 4x FireWire DVD- R/RW Drive, and LaCie's d2 FireWire DVD-Rewritable Drive. We found that while they all performed almost identically, only two drives, the £304 LaCie and the £304 Formac, included Mac-compatible DVD-authoring software in the box. Of those, the LaCie's great case design and included media edged it into the lead. In an attempt to disguise the plain, beige appearance of the Pioneer mechanism, two of the drives, the Formac and the EZQuest, opted for bulky, completely enclosed, silver case designs. The cases hide the device's true colour, as well as the headphone jack and the drive activity lights. The GVP's white case with silver details features an outer door. But since there are no buttons on the front, you must flip it down to access the eject button. Despite their less-hip appearance, we prefer the open-face design of the remaining drives. The best case design is LaCie's, which not only was the slimmest of the lot but also was easily stackable. Speed burners
All the DVD-R drives we tested feature the new Pioneer A05 mechanism. This model doubles each of the speed ratings for the A04 mechanism used in the previous preinstalled desktop SuperDrives. Apple now includes the faster A05 mechanism in its desktop systems. That means the A05 can burn a DVD at 4x, a DVD-RW at 2x, a CD-R at 16x, and a CD-RW at 8x and can read data from a CD at 32x. Of course, to burn DVDs at these faster speeds, you need properly rated media. At the time of this testing, 4x DVD-R media was scarce and fairly expensive (averaging about £2.50 a pop); however, supply should soon catch up with demand. But before you go out and buy 4x media for all DVD-R drives, note that using this 4x media can be problematic - or even destructive - on older drives. A03 and A04 models require a firmware update before they can recognise the newer media (see Apple's Web site at www.apple.com for more information). Even after the update, these drives will burn DVDs at only 1x speed on 4x media. Burning to DVD
To see how the drives compared with each other, we connected each to a dual-1GHz Power Mac G4 (DDR) running OS X 10.2.3 with 512MB of RAM, and recorded how long it took the drives to complete common tasks. We also compared the results with those of that G4's internal Pioneer A04 SuperDrive. As you might expect from five nearly identical drives, the performance times were extremely close. When burning a DVD from a 4.2GB disk image using Apple's Disk Copy, times ranged from 26 minutes and 58 seconds for the LaCie and Ikebana drives to 28 minutes and 39 seconds for the EZQuest drive. The Mac's older internal drive completed the task in 54 minutes and 10 seconds. Although none of the drives work with Apple's free iDVD software, each drive is compatible with Apple's DVD Studio Pro 1.5.2. We tested how long it took to burn a movie from DVD Studio Pro by performing a Build And Format of the program's tutorial files. Each drive com-pleted the task in less than 5 minutes, with the LaCie finishing first at 4 minutes and 37 seconds. By comparison, the internal drive took nearly 11 minutes - although remember that the latest SuperDrives in Power Macs will be faster. All of the DVD-R and DVD-RW discs created by the external drives mounted and played in the home DVD players of several Macworld staff members. Burning to CD
Although the DVD-burning speeds for the A05 drives are much improved over those of the previous models, CD-burning times still have far to go to catch up to the powerful 52x CD-R drives now on the market. When burning a 560MB iTunes playlist to CD-R media, the external burners - all rated as 16x CD-Rs - finished the task in a virtual dead heat. The LaCie finished first, clocking in at 4 minutes and 18 seconds, while the Ikebana pulled up the rear only 7 seconds later. The 8x-rated internal drive finished the burn in just over 8 minutes. Still, none came close to matching the 44x-rated Yamaha CRW-F1 drive, which finished the iTunes burn in just over 3 minutes. Bundles of joy
What really sets these drives apart are the bundled software and media. This can make the difference between putting a burner to use immediately and having to go back to the shop for extra equipment. Only two of the drives, the Formac and the LaCie, include Mac-compatible software for authoring DVDs. This is significant for anyone who wants to create video DVDs without shelling out for DVD Studio Pro (see 'iDVD Alternatives Arrive'). LaCie also throws in one piece each of DVD-R and CD-R media. Formac leaves it to you to supply the media. Although they don't ship with authoring software, the Cyclone, EZQuest, and Ikebana drives do all include software for burning data DVDs and CDs. The Cyclone and Ikebana drives come with Roxio's Toast Lite software. While this version of Toast lets you complete some simple burning tasks, for more-advanced features, such as burning VideoCDs, you'll need to spend £59 to upgrade to Toast Titanium. The Ikebana also includes two pieces of blank DVD-R and one piece of DVD-RW media, as well as a handy faux-leather carrying case for easy portability. The Cyclone drive includes one piece each of DVD-R and CD-R media. The EZQuest drive comes with the full version of Charismac's Discribe software. EZQuest throws in a single piece of DVD-R media. iDVD alternatives arrive
One of the features missing from most external DVD burners is the ability to create DVD movies easily and inexpensively. Because of licensing issues, Apple?s iDVD software doesn?t work with FireWire drives, which means your only other option when buying a DVD-R/RW has been to also buy software such as Apple?s £829 (including VAT) DVD Studio Pro ? neither simple nor cheap. But this limitation is changing as other companies begin to offer iDVD alternatives. LaCie recently began shipping Pixela?s CaptyDVD software with its d2 FireWire DVD-Rewritable drives. (Other Mac users can purchase it separately for around £94.) This Mac-compatible DVD-authoring software includes many themes and button designs ? as well as an application for making your own buttons ? and can create both DVDs and VideoCDs with QuickTime files (not just DV files). The application also lets you create chapter markers and scene-selection menus (similar to those in iDVD 3), and allows you to preview your disc from within the program. Although you can choose to use either PCM or MPEG audio and determine the bit rate, your options for controlling video-compression rates are less advanced ? you pick between high (8Mbps), normal (6Mbps), and low (4Mbps) qualities. We found the program?s encoding speed to be very slow. Formac also recently released DVD-authoring software, Devideon 2.0, which is available only with the purchase of the company?s Devideon drive. In addition to features you?d find in Apple?s iDVD 3, such as customizable backgrounds and music, Devideon 2.0 includes more-advanced features. For instance, you can create both DVDs and Super VideoCDs, use QuickTime files for your movies, choose encoding settings as you would with DVD Studio Pro, and run it on a G3 Mac. However, it lacks the ability to add chapter markers, use themes, or create nested menus.
Jonathan Seff
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