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 don’t have the money to upgrade to a new Mac with a built-in 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 your Mac.
Macworld Lab rounded up seven of the newest external FireWire DVD burners: Cyclone’s DVD Revo FireWire SuperDrive 4x, EZQuest’s Boa FireWire DVD-RW, Formac’s Devideon, GVP’s DVD-R/RW 4x FireWire Drive, Ikebana’s 4x FireWire DVD-R/RW Drive, LaCie’s d2 FireWire DVD-Rewritable Drive, and Other World Computing’s (OWC) Mercury DVR-105. We found that while they all performed almost identically, only two drives, the $379 LaCie and the $399 Formac, included Mac-compatible DVD-authoring software in the box. Of those two, the LaCie drive’s great case design and included media edged it into the lead.
At First Glance
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 color, as well as the headphone jack and the drive activity lights. The GVP’s white case with silver details also features an outer door. But since there are no buttons on the front, you must flip down the door to access the eject button.
Despite their less hip appearance, we prefer the open-face design of the remaining four drives. The best case design belongs to the LaCie drive, which not only was the slimmest of the lot, but also was easily stackable.
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 most current preinstalled desktop SuperDrives at the time of testing. (Apple should be including the faster A05 mechanism in its desktop systems by the time you read this.) 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 $4 a pop); however, supply should soon catch up with demand.
But before you go out and buy 4x media for all your DVD-R drives, you should note that using this 4x media can be problematic — if not downright destructive — on older DVD-R drives. A03 and A04 models require a firmware update before they can properly recognize 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 the G4’s internal Pioneer A04 SuperDrive, the most current model available at the time of testing.
As you might expect from seven 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 55 seconds for the OWC drive to 28 minutes and 39 seconds for the EZQuest drive. The Mac’s 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 $999 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 completed 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.
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, the CD-burning times still have a ways 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.
As we tested, we ran into a couple of problems with bad drives. Our original OWC drive had trouble recognizing blank DVD media. The GVP drive also gave us some trouble; our Mac occasionally failed to recognize the drive. In this case, turning the drive on and off a few times fixed the problem. When we reported the trouble, both companies sent replacement drives that worked without these problems.
Bundles of Joy
What really sets these drives apart from one another is what software and types of media the companies decide to include in the box. This can make the difference between putting your burner to use immediately and having to make another run to the store 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 $999 for DVD Studio Pro. In addition to the DVD-authoring software, LaCie also throws in one piece each of DVD-R and CD-R media. Formac, on the other hand, leaves it to you to supply the media.
Although they don’t ship with authoring software, the Cyclone, EZQuest, Ikebana, and OWC 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 $79 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.
Both the EZQuest and the OWC drives come with the full version of Charismac’s Discribe software (mmmh; Reviews, May 2002). EZQuest throws in a single piece of DVD-R media, while OWC includes by far the biggest goody bag of blank media — 5 blank DVD-Rs and a whopping 25 blank CD-Rs.
Taking a minimalist approach, GVP bundles no software or blank media with its drive, although the company told us it plans to begin tossing a blank DVD-R disc into the box in the near future.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
To take full advantage of a DVD-R drive, your best bet is to install it internally into your system. If you don’t have that option, any of these external drives would be a great addition. Just plug them into your FireWire port and you’re ready to go. Both the Formac Devideon and the LaCie d2 include Mac-compatible DVD-authoring software, giving them a clear advantage over the rest. In addition, the LaCie drive comes with spare media and features a more practical case design.