Those who care about optical storage have finally had the question answered on whether DVD’s replacement will be HD-DVD or Blu-ray. But what about those of us who couldn’t give a stuff? Well, rest assured, it’s still okay to buy a DVD drive for your PC.
Not only is DVD not dead yet, but it’s cheap – about a third of the price in some instances. And it stores plenty of data for people who don’t do anything uber-extravagant with their computers. You can get about 9GB on a double-layer DVD, which might not touch the 25GB you can get on a Blu-ray disc, but is still very decent.
With new formats in the shops, there is of course the little matter of DVD nearing the end of its life as far as manufacturers are concerned. They reckon it’ll be a ghost by 2012 – or possibly even as early as 2009. But when you consider that tape is still the cheapest storage option and CDs still haven’t been made redundant by DVDs – well it may be around a lot longer than they expect.
Their predictions seem to be based on Blu-ray going mainstream in 2009, with prices coming down to more reasonable levels. However, by 2012 we could be into the realms of sci-fi storage, such as holographic drives holding 500GB on a single layer.
Meanwhile, the manufacturers have squeezed about as much as they can from DVD. And there’s some debate whether they will bother to stretch the portable drives to work at speeds faster than 8x. You’ll certainly have trouble finding 20x blank media for the 20x drives featured in this review.
But if a portable drive is what you are after, then DVD is the thing to buy right now. Prices have come right down and – even if you can get your hands on a portable Blu-Ray drive – standard DVD makes better economic sense.
Why do these devices have such ridiculous names? Lite-On’s SSM-85H5SX is not a rare component from Radio Shack but a portable DVD drive, in case you were wondering. It’s a slim 8x external model that looks inconspicuously frumpy. And when it reads a DVD it sounds like a flying saucer at cruising speed.
Lite-On says it has been doing portable DVD drives longer than anyone and this model has been around a year or so. It was relaunched last Autumn, under the still-not-that-catchy-a-name DX8A1H. That was down to the fact that Lite-On has started making its DVD drives in a joint venture with Philips called PLDS. Yes, PLDS – it’s short for Philips Lite-on Digital Storage.
A brand new model is expected by the spring, when they’ll tart up the design, which is no great shakes at the moment. More welcome developments in the pipeline are perhaps a smaller chassis, a little more speed and a USB power cable so you don’t have to plug it into a wall to operate it. However, the drive worked well enough in its current format. As it stands, the device weighs 362.8g and it could slip into a satchel easily enough if it wasn’t for that power adapter.
Our tests had the SSM-85H5SX writing to DVD at about four and a half minutes per GB. It also comes with Lightscribe, which burns images onto the faces of the discs, so you can make nice pressies of them. If you can’t wait for the upgraded model this one will set you back £70, which isn’t that competitive given the other units on test here.
LG has only recently come to the business of portable DVD drives. The GSA-E50N went to market in October and it’s got some catching up to do if it wants to beat Lite-On, the old hand in this game. You can tell it’s trying real hard, though – perhaps a little bit too hard.
This slim, portable external 8x DVD drive looks fancier than the older Lite-On model. However, it performed half a minute slower in write tests than the Lite-On and made a little more noise, so looks aren’t everything.
On the plus side, LG has its own SecureDisc technology, which you can use to encrypt your data DVDs. That can be quite handy if you work at the HMRC and have been asked to send child benefit records in the post.
The E50N also gets its power from a second USB cable so you don’t have to lug around an adaptor and plug it into a wall to make it work. That makes it truly portable and ideal for people with the kind of tiny laptops that have skimped on DVD writers. This model will also cost you less than £50, making it very attractive.
Lite-On’s 20x external DVD is a functional slab of white plastic that is not dissimilar in style to the kind of Japanese robots that make great Christmas presents. It even sounded a bit like a droid in our read tests, making the kind of noise you’d expect from a portable hair dryer. It’s almost as if you can feel the power of the motors eking the most out of the disc technology and 20x is about as fast as you want this technology to go. But do you really want the desk to shake with the effort? Perhaps you do… But sometimes you get the feeling if it weren’t such a sturdy design the whole unit might pop a gasket.
And yet the DX-20A3P writes quietly enough. It wrote in tests at a little under three minutes a GB, which is perfectly adequate. It also comes with Lightscribe technology as standard. It costs just under £50.
LG’s fat desktop external 20x DVD player comes with SecureDisc technology, which means that it can encrypt the data you write so no-one else can read it. Let’s face it, external DVD drives don’t rate high in the most desired consumer electronics devices, but this has quite a nice draw action for this product sector. In fact it’s on a par with a reasonably-priced 1980s CD player, which will impress those with a fetish for that kind of thing. But we’ve said too much…
The GSA-E60L also plays quietly and confidently. It writes one GB in around three minutes, almost identical in speed to the Lite-On DX-20A3P. But the LG drive pips Lite-On because it is about 15 quid cheaper.
Samsung’s 20x external DVD writer is the wild card in the deck. And it’s not just wild, it’s downright ugly. But what it lacks in looks is more than covered over with a slapping of makeup when you realise it writes a gigabyte of data in about two minutes. In one of our tests it even came in at just one minute and 40 seconds.
Sadly, the SE-S204 has a preposterous 5-pin din plug as a power input. It’s reminds us of one of Frankenstein’s boots, except that it’s made of cheap plastic.
When the device is in action reading discs it sounds like a posh microwave oven. When it writes discs it sounds like a posh microwave oven on a much higher setting. Thankfully, it is at least quiet enough when it plays audio and video.
The Samsung software does automatic upgrades and it also comes with Lightscribe for burning pictures on your discs, which shows that this beast has a heart. Best of all, you’ll only need to hand over around £50 to get one.
You might think that the the driving factor in the decision of which device to buy is likely to be price, since many of the external devices look and perform in a similar way. However, Samsung’s SE-S204 drive was so much quicker than the others we can overlook its other flaws. Even though we handed the crown to the fastest unit in our test, LG and Lite-On do still impress with models that are cheaper but fast enough.
Lite-On might have expected to go ahead of the pack by including Lightscribe technology as standard, but Samsung stole its thunder by doing the same. Samsung has also put the most effort in with supporting manuals and other material.
What’s harder to decide on are the portable options. LG has a cheap, swish offering that draws its power from the USB port and updates its software automatically. Meanwhile, the Lite-On drive has none of those frills but is the cheapest at a little over £60. If you are tempted by the Lite-On it might be worth holding out until it upgrades its range. Either you’ll get better features for the same price, or you’ll get the existing model at a massive discount. Bargain!