SAN FRANCISCO (09/22/2003) - Until recently, the DVD drive was the most overrated PC component. Drives cost a bundle, software titles were scarce, and movies looked bumpy when played on low-end systems. Besides, who really wants to watch a movie on a PC monitor?
Now software is more plentiful, average PCs play MPEG2 video with no problem, and rewritable DVD drives cost from US$200 to $300. If you need to store gigabytes of data, or if you create lots of digital videos, upgrade to rewritable DVD. On a single disc, DVD burners can pack 4.37GB of data (or more, in the case of DVD-RAM), compared to the relatively paltry 700MB capacity of a CD-R disc.
Even so, you might want to postpone your move to DVD. With 8X-speed drives on the horizon--they're due by the end of the year from a handful of vendors--prices will probably drop even further. DVD discs and drives aren't standardized yet, so a disc recorded on one drive may be unreadable by a DVD-recordable drive from another vendor.
All five DVD formats generate discs that most DVD-ROM drives and stand-alone DVD players can read (the exception: DVD-RAM, which is less interchangeable than the DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW formats). The DVD drive format you choose is becoming less of an issue as DVD drive makers increasingly support multiple formats. For example, Pioneer Electronics inc. makes a DVD drive that supports DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW (but notably, not DVD-RAM). LG Electronics Inc.'s GSA-4040B and Iomega's Super DVD Drive both support all of the DVD formats, while so-called DVD "dual" drives such as Sony Electronics Inc.'s DRU-510A (priced at $279 last summer) and Pioneer's DVR-A06 (available for $280 last month) support DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW. Single-format drives will be sold through the end of the year at least, and typically cost less than their multiformat counterparts.
DVD-RAM: The oldest rewritable DVD format is supported by Hitachi-LG, Iomega, Panasonic, Toshiba Corp., and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. DVD-RAM discs are available in several capacities (most commonly as 4.7GB or 9.4GB double-sided media) as either bare discs or cartridges. The format's large capacity, superior error correction, and longevity (it can be rewritten more than 100,000 times) make DVD-RAM a good choice for frequent data backups. However, few DVD-ROM drives and stand-alone set-top DVD players can read DVD-RAM media.
DVD-R/RW: The DVD-R write-once format burns at up to 4X. Its primary backer is the DVD Forum, which originated the DVD-Video format for movie discs. Many older DVD players and DVD-ROM drives can recognize DVD-R media. The DVD-RW rewritable format is compatible with more existing drives than DVD-RAM, but with fewer write-once media types. Like CD-RW media, DVD-RW discs support just 1000 rewrites. At 2X, DVD-RW drives are slower than DVD+RW drives.
DVD+R/RW: These latest entrants into the DVD market originally tended to be incompatible with older DVD players and DVD-ROM drives, but now they're supported by HP, Philips, Sony, and other industry players. DVD+RW drives are faster than their DVD-RW counterparts, and they offer timesaving on-the-fly formatting, so you can format a new disc while data is being burned to it.
DVD Speed Trap
Advertisements for DVD drives list lots of X speed ratings, but what do they mean? CD-RW drives have three X ratings: the read speed, the CD-R write speed, and the CD-RW write speed. For CD-RW drives, 1X represents a transfer rate of 150KB, which means very little to most PC users. Here's a rule of thumb: A CD-RW drive running at 8X burns a full 650MB CD-R in about 9 minutes.
DVD drives have similar speed ratings, except that a 1X DVD drive is about eight times faster than a 1X CD-RW drive in absolute terms. Since the average DVD holds 4.37GB (versus a CD's capacity of 650MB), a 4X DVD drive burns a full DVD in approximately 15 minutes.
Most DVD-RW drives now record on rewritable media at a speed of 2X, while DVD+RW drives write at either 2.4X or 4X. The latest DVD drives write to DVD-R and DVD+R discs at 4X, and faster speeds loom in the not-too-distant future.
When evaluating a DVD drive, check how quickly it burns CD-R and CD-RW discs. (You may want to record data for people who still use a CD drive.) DVD drives record at speeds of 24X for CD-R and 10X for CD-RW, but some support only 12X or 16X for writing to CD-R discs.
Most currently available drives don't support the Mt. Rainier standard--also known as EasyWrite--but drives that do are slowly appearing. Mt. Rainier's biggest initial benefit will be its added layer of error correction, dubbed defect management, to protect data written to DVD+RW and CD-RW discs. And its packet-writing standard lets you move data to and from CD-RW and DVD+RW media via drag-and-drop in Windows Explorer, just as you do with floppy disks.
The catch: This is possible only if the operating system supports Mt. Rainier; and currently, no version of Windows does. Microsoft has said that Longhorn, the successor to Windows XP, will support Mt. Rainier, but that new OS is still more than a year away. Watch for XP drivers for Mt. Rainier to be available earlier.
Freshen Your Firmware
You may be able to improve the performance of your current DVD or CD-RW drive or to give it some new features by updating the device's firmware. This is the control software stored on a chip in the drive itself, much as your PC's BIOS is stored on the motherboard.
Firmware updates usually involve simply downloading and installing a program from your drive manufacturer's Web site. Follow installation instructions to the letter. And as with your PC's BIOS, don't update your DVD's firmware unless you have a good reason to. Check the vendor's Web site for information on the update's benefits.
To find the right firmware version for your DVD drive in Windows 2000 and Windows XP, open Control Panel, click or double-click Administrative Tools, and click or double-click Computer Management. In the left pane, double-click Removable Storage, and double-click the Libraries folder (Physical Locations in Windows 2000). Right-click your drive and select Properties. You'll find the version listed on the Device Information tab.
In Windows 98 and Me, right-click My Computer, select Properties, choose Device Manager, and then double-click your DVD drive. You'll find its firmware version listed under the Settings tab. Eric Matson, New York
Pack Less Power
I just packed for a business trip with stops in Asia, Europe, and the United States. I needed an entire bag for the AC power adapters and other paraphernalia required by my notebook, PDA, cell phone, and digital camera. Couldn't I use my PC's AC adapter for all the devices?
Eric Matson, New York
Generally speaking, no. The DC power voltage that an electronic gadget requires from its AC adapter varies from device to device. Charging a notebook or digital camera with an AC adapter that produces the wrong voltage can damage or destroy the device's delicate circuits.
Universal power supplies work with many different devices. IGo makes the $120 Juice 70, a product not much bigger than a cell phone. The Juice uses tiny plugs (or tips) to connect to many different notebooks, cell phones, and PDAs (though some tips cost extra).
If the Juice can't support one of your devices, try the $80 Targus 70-watt Universal AC Adapter. The Targus product can recharge an even wider selection of devices than the Juice 70, including PDAs, digital cameras, printers, and portable DVD players.
Okay, so you're a bit paranoid. That doesn't mean someone isn't playing around with your PC when you're not there. To ease your mind (or confirm your worst fears), install Keyboard Logger, a small utility that records every keystroke made on your keyboard. The results are stored on your hard drive in an easy-to-access text file. The program doubles as a backup tool for documents and other typed-in data. Keyboard Logger is free to try and $20 to keep. Go to Pantera Soft for your copy.