Forget about CD burners. Today's optical drive of choice is aDVD burner, which lets you create video discs that play in most consumer DVD players. With Mac OS X 10.1, you can also use your DVD burner to back up files through the Finder. And of course, you can burn CDs using CD-R or CD-RW media.
The DVD-burning trend began when Apple added the SuperDrive to its top-of-the-line Power Mac G4. Designed and built by Pioneer, the SuperDrive is included in the top two G4 system models.
But you don't have to buy a new desktop Mac to get a DVD burner. Several storage vendors now sell external drives that contain the same Pioneer mechanism and connect to a Mac or Windows computer via FireWire. Although they're not called SuperDrives, they are super drives.
Macworld Lab tested six exter-nal DVD burners: the DVD-R/RW+CD-RW FireWire Pro2, from APS Tech; the DVD Revo, from CD Cyclone; the ClubMac FireWire DVD-R/RW, from ClubMac; the Boa FireWire DVD-R/RW, from EZQuest; the LaCie DVD/CD Rewritable Drive, from LaCie; and the Que Fire DVDBurner Pro, from QPS. While our stopwatch says the drives are virtually identical, they differ in other ways, including price, case design, and bundled software (see "DVD Burners Compared"). The $699 QPS Que Fire DVDBurner Pro provides the best mix of value and design, while CD CyClone's $1,049 DVD Revo is overpriced and unable to play commercial DVD video discs.
We expected all six drives to perform similarly, and they did: in our tests, each drive turned in results that were within a few seconds of its competitors' (see "Benchmarked Burners").
The one exception was an original SuperDrive that we tested for comparison purposes. In DVD-burning tests, it was twice as slow as the newer units. The slowdown was due to the brand of media we used for testing. Early SuperDrives support double-speed DVD burning with only three brands of media: Apple, Pioneer, and Verbatim. With other brands--we used Mitsui--early SuperDrives downshift to single-speed DVD burning.
Pioneer has since addressed this issue, and mechanisms containing firmware version 1.44 or later support double-speed burning on a wide assortment of media brands. Alas, Apple has no plans to release a firmware update for its pioneering SuperDrive customers.
The Case for Good Design
Each DVD burner has a unique design, and some designs are better than others. The QPS Que Fire DVDBurner Pro takes the size prize--its case is only slightly larger than the drive mechanism itself, and because the drive uses an external power supply, the case lacks a noisy fan. The Que Fire drive also includes a padded carrier.
The DVD Revo drive also uses an external power supply, but the remaining four use internal supplies that contain fans. The quietest of these four fans is the one in EZQuest's Boa, which has a sturdy, silvery case. The FireWire Pro2 earns the ugly-duckling award for its basic beige case.
The ClubMac FireWire, Boa FireWire, and DVD Revo also include rear-panel audio-output jacks. While not necessary--sound also plays through the Mac's audio circuitry--audio jacks give you more flexibility when connecting to external speakers.
You Can Burn but Not AuthorAll of the drives we tested work with Apple's DVD Studio Pro and iTunes. We also burned DVDs with each drive using the Finder in Mac OS X 10.1.
All of the drives except the ClubMac model include bundled software for burning; however, the LaCie and the APS drives include only Windows software. The best bundle accompanies the DVD Revo, which includes Windows software and Roxio's Toast 5 Titanium. The Que Fire DVDBurner Pro includes Windows software and Toast 5 Lite.
To create DVDs that will play in a set-top player, you need authoring software for creating menus and encoding video into MPEG format. The Windows software that accompanies some drives includes simple authoring tools, but none of the drives include Mac authoring software. Unless Apple releases a stand-alone version of iDVD that supports third-party burners, you will have to use the $999 DVD Studio Pro for authoring.
The Pioneer mechanism in these drives is capable of playing back commercial DVDs. But CD CyClone's DVD Revo can't play DVDs that are encoded for specific geographic regions, as most commercial DVDs are. CD CyClone is planning a software update to address this problem.
Macworld's Buying Advice
The only drive we can't recommend is CD CyClone's DVD Revo--it's expensive and unable to play back commercial DVDs.
Of the remaining five, the QPS Que Fire DVDBurner Pro provides the best mix of value and performance. Its $699 price tag is the lowest of the bunch, its padded carrier is a nice plus, and its software bundle is good--although serious users will also want to spring for the full version of Toast 5 Titanium.Scores are in minutes:seconds. We tested with 256MB of RAM, Mac OS 9.2.1 installed, a default system-disk cache, and virtual memory enabled. DVD Studio Pro made a 979MB DVD movie that is 24 minutes long. Toast burned a 690MB folder using CD-R and DVD-R media. We tested MP3 encoding with an audio-CD track that was 9 minutes and 25 seconds long and converted it using iTunes' Better Quality setting of 160 Kbps.--Macworld Lab testing by Ulyssis Bravo