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DVD+/-RW Drive Round-up 2007
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Date: Dec 20, 2007
Section:Storage
Author: Robert Maloney
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Introduction

  

While doing research for this review, we realized that we had to go back nearly three years - an eternity in the PC industry - to find the last HotHardware article on optical drives.  For a comparative look at technologies, back then we were using single core Pentium 4s in Intel 865/875 boards, GeForce 6800s and 1GB of blazing fast 533MHz RAM. One of the reasons for the lack of optical drives articles is that not much has rocked this area since that time.  There have been minor bumps in speed from 16x to 18x (and now 20x) and swapping of the interface from IDE to SATA, but nothing truly earth shattering has happened.  And until the next-gen HD optical format wars are settled and prices come down to reasonable levels, we wouldn't touch the current crop of recordable Blu-Ray or HD DVD drives with a stick.

This DVD burner round-up consists of some of the more well-known names out there: Plextor, Lite-On, and Asus, all of which have produced some fine drives over the years.  Plextor has been praised for their technological advancements in the area, Lite-On for their lower prices, and Asus for their quiet operation.  But, three years later, is there really any major difference between the three?  Is any one drive really that much better than any other?  With prices reaching all-time lows, we grabbed three of their latest models for some thorough testing to determine just how they stacked up.

Stacked Drives

Make/Model

Asus DRW-2014L1T 

 Lite-On LH-20A1H

 Plextor PX-810SA

Write Speed
(Max)

DVD+/-R:
DVD-RW:
DVD+RW:
DVD+/- (DL):
CD-R:
CD-RW:
DVD-RAM:



20X
6X
8X
8X
48X
32X
14X



20X
6X
8X
8X
48X
32X
12X



18X
6X
8X
10X
40X
32X
12X
Read Speed
(Max)

DVD-ROM:
DVD+/-R:
DVD+/-R (DL)
CD-ROM:
CD-R/RW

 

16X
16X
8X
40X
40X



16X
16X
8X
48X
48X
 


16X
16X
10X
40X
40X
Access Time

DVD / CD
 

140 ms / 150 ms
 

160 ms / 160 ms
 

130 ms / 120 ms
Lightscribe Labeling  1.6X     1.6X  N/A
O/S Compatibility Windows XP/NT/2K/Vista Windows XP/2K SP4 Windows XP/Vista
Interface SATA SATA SATA
Data Buffer 2MB 2MB 2MB
Writing
Formats:
DVD+/-R, DVD+/-RW, DVD-RAM, CD-R, CD-RW, Lightscribe DVD+/-R, DVD+/-RW, DVD-RAM, CD-R, CD-RW, Lightscribe DVD+/-R, DVD+/-RW, DVD-RAM, CD-R, CD-RW
Reading Formats: DVD-ROM, DVD±R/RW, Photo CD, Video CD, CD-DA, CD-Extra, CD-Text, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-RAM DVD-ROM, DVD±R/RW, Photo CD, Video CD, CD-DA, CD-Extra, CD-Text, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-RAM DVD-ROM, DVD±R/RW, Photo CD, Video CD, CD-DA, CD-Extra, CD-Text, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-RAM
Disc Diameter: 12 cm and 8 cm  12 cm and 8 cm  12 cm and 8 cm 
Dimensions: 148 x 42.3 x 172.4mm 145 x 41.3 x 170mm 146mm x 41.3mm x 180 mm
Weight: 690 g <900 g 900g



Looking at the specs from each drive, there really aren't any glaring omissions from any of the entries.  Each of them have 2MB of Cache, SATA interfaces, and the capability to write to just about all media types out there. Plextor's drive is the oldest of the three, bringing with it the slowest rated DVD and CD writing speeds at 18x and 40x, respectively, yet it also claims to have the quickest access times.  The PX-810SA also is the only one that doesn't support LightScribe, which allows the user to etch an image on the topside of the disc instead of affixing a label.  That may or may not be a huge-selling point for some buyers (we prefer printable discs ourselves over LightScribe).

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Asus DRW-2014L1T



     
     

Although the inner workings may change a bit here and there, the outside has generally not changed save for a few slot-loading drives that Plextor and Pioneer used a few years back.  Asus' logo is featured prominently on the drive door, with assorted other graphics that quickly list the drive's abilities: CD & DVD playback, reading, and writing capabilities, as well as Lightscribe.  A single eject button provides the only user input, and an access light the output.  Typically, an emergency eject pin-hole is found on optical drives, and Asus placed theirs just above the eject button.  Perhaps the only major change for those who haven't been down this road just yet, are the two SATA connections on the rear of the drive; one each for data and power. 

The DRW-2014L1T utiliizes some of Asus' own technologies to ensure the fastest operation at the quietest speeds including FlextraSpeed and Quiettrack.  Flextraspeed combines the word "flexible" with "strategic speed", and according to Asus it continuously monitors the media and sets the optimal writing speed to esnure a quality burn.  Running at optimal speeds leads to benefits such as lower noise and longer motor life, essentially protecting the drive over the long haul.  In addition to FlextraSpeed, the use of AFFM (Air Flow Field Modification) and AVRS (Auto Vibration Reducing System) techniques lead to a lower noise output.  AFFM distributes the airflow within the drive equally, keeping the rapidly rotating disc balanced properly, thus minimizing spindle noise.  AVRS also helps here by utilizing active ball-balancing to reduce vibrations caused by unbalanced discs.

Initially booting into Windows after installing the drive led to no issues; the drive was recognized in Explorer and showed up in the benchmark software.  However, after our attempt at reading a DVD+R disc, we heard some grinding noises and the drive failed to operate after that, sometimes preventing Windows from even booting, other times failing to read and/or burn DVDs of all varieties.  We received a new drive from Asus that resolved many of these issues, although the noise when recognizing a DVD still sounded like an uncomfortable clunking and grinding.  Oddly, other than this noise, reading and writing and using the drive was mostly a quiet affair.

   

Like most of the drives seen today, the Asus DRW-2014L1T ships with a black bezel, however it is the only drive in our round-up to also include an alternate white colored bezel as well.  It also included four small screws for installing the drive into a chassis.  The drop in prices, it seems, has also led to most manufacturers cutting back on accessories such as software and media, but Asus included NERO 7 Essentials which will at least get the user some functionality for their new drive with no added cost.  There's also a printed manual (in 33 languages!) for those that need additional help.


NERO INFOTOOL:


Using NERO Infotool, part of the NERO 8 Ultimate Suite, we can get a quick picture of what each drive can and can't do.  The latest version supports not only CD and DVD drives, but HD-DVD and Blu-Ray as well, as the latter drives will start to increase in popularity as prices continue to drop.  Shown in the screen capture above, the DRW-2014L1T is using the original version of the Firmware.  We checked Asus's website for any updates, but found that there were no later versions.  The buffer size is a mere 2MB, but this is the norm for most drives today.  It's actually easier to list the non-supported features here, as only writing to CD-Text, CD+G, C2Error and DVD-ROM are not capable with this drive.  The general features lists buffer underun protection, (what used to be called Flextralink) and LightScribe as additional capabilities.

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Lite-On LH-20A1L



     
     

The LH-20A1L is the only drive of the three that does not have a company logo on it - typical of most of Lite-On's products.  Instead, it prominently displays DVD Multi-Recorder, DVD-Read/Write, Compact Disc, and Lightscribe logos across the drive tray.  All dressed in black, it has a power eject button in the lower right with an emergency pinhole located on the left side nearby a drive access LED.  Although probably not too significant, the internals of the drive are beige, striking a contrast against the opened tray (the other drives are black throughout).  SATA data and power connectors are placed on the rear of the drive as expected.

Lite-On may not have the flashier names for their technologies that their counterparts use, but essentially it all comes down to the same idea.  SMART-BURN and SMART-WRITE avoid buffer underruns by automatically adjusting the writing speed to provide the best burning quality.  SMART-X adjusts CD-DA/VCD/DVD data extraction to allow the fastest allowable speed while maintaining quality ripping and the ABS system helps reduce vibration and noise while recording and reading.  The LH-20A1L is also one of the two drives that supports the LightScribe technology.

Our initial installation of the LH-20A1L caused Windows XP to fail to boot - never a good sign.  We shut down the system, checked the connections, and re-booted with success.  Windows XP recognized the drive within 30 seconds, dropped it, and then found it again successfully.  We suspect there may have been some oxidation or something else that initally caused a bad connection, and that re-seating all the cables solved the problem.  Although not overly loud once it started working, we noticed a decent humming noise from the drive during the audio ripping and media writing tests.

NOTE:  The Lite-On LH-20A1L we received was an OEM version, and as such, did not arrive with any supporting media or paperwork.  From what we could ascertain, retail versions should arrive with an alternate face-plate, SATA cable, manual and NERO Essentials 7 CD-ROM, making this bundle the most complete of our round-up.


NERO INFOTOOL:


Running NERO InfoTool on the Lite-On LH-20A1L shows few differences from the Asus DRW-2014.  The Firmware Version is BL05, which is also the latest and supposedly helps out with crashing and freezing of Windows while burning DVDs.  Buffer size is again shown to be 2MB.  Almost all CD and DVD formats are supported, with reading CD+G the only format lacking that the Asus drive had featured. 

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Plextor PX-810SA



     
     

Plextor's PX-810SA is the final black beauty in our round-up.  It's both the longest and heaviest of the three drives, although not enough of either to make much of a difference when installing into cramped quarters such as in a Small Form Factor PC.  The tray is graced by the company logo and model number, making it easy to identify which drive is installed - something we believe only Plextor does, but even then sporadically.  The drives features are laid out graphically in a row with the power eject button and busy LED.  As with the others, a small pinhole for manually ejecting a disc is placed towards the left side of the front plate.

The top of the drive has an odd sort of dimpling, that may have something to do with stablilizing a disc from above.  If so, it is the only drive to have this kind of construction.  Of course, it also has the connectors on the back of the drive for both SATA power and data cables, with an additional set of pins reserved for a future, yet unknown purpose. Terms such as PowerRec, GigaRec, and all other "REC"s have been dropped from documentation for the current line of Plextor's drives although Buffer Underrun Proof is still listed as being used to prevent buffer underrun errors.  Lossless linking for DVD+R and Zero linking for DVD-R provide better compatibility for burned discs when using them in DVD-ROM players.  Finally, the PX-810SA also supports Content Protection for Recordable Media, allowing users to play CPRM controlled media.

For whatever reason, it took nearly two full minutes for Windows XP to recognize that the PX-810SA was installed, but after it appeared as a DVD-RAM drive in Explorer, we had no other headaches during any of the testing.  Ripping audio to MP3 produced a decent level of humming from the drive while DVD playback was almost silent.

  

Arriving in a white box with large numerals, the PX-810SA is not shy about advertising the top writing speeds for DVD+/-R and DVD-RAM media.  The only problem is finding these discs for retail.  Gone are the PlexTools CDs that typically accompanied their drives.  Instead we've got a disc with Easy Media Creator 9, a PDF version of the setup manual and an installation file for Adobe Reader 7.  There's also a quick installation guide and four screws, but no usuable media so make sure you purchase a spindle with that new drive.


NERO INFOTOOL:

 

Looking at NERO InfoTool one last time, we notice that the list of features is the same as the Lite-On drive with the sole exception of support for LightScribe.  Even though the drive was released back in June of this year, there have been no Firmware revisions, which may be a good thing, as it might point to few known issues with burning or stability.   

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Test System and SANDRA Benchmarks

 
How we configured our test system:
When configuring our test system for benchmarking these DVD+/-RW drives, we first entered the BIOS for our MSI P6N Diamond and chose its "Optimized Default Settings".  We saved the settings, re-entered the BIOS a second time, and manually set memory timings for DDR2-800 at 4-4-4-12 1T latency.  The RAID array was then formatted, and Windows XP Professional SP2 was installed. When the Windows installation was complete, we installed the drivers necessary for our components, and removed Windows Messenger from the system. Auto-Updating and System Restore were then disabled, and we set up a 768MB permanent page file on the same partition as the Windows installation. Lastly, we installed all of our benchmarking software, defragged the hard drives, and ran all of the tests.  To remain consistent, each drive was installed individually, using the same SATA cable and port.

HotHardware's Test System
Intel Inside

TEST SYSTEM:

Intel Core 2 Duo E6300
(1.86 GHz)

MSI P6N Diamond (NVIDIA 680i Chipset)

2 x 512MB Corsair PC2-6400
CL 4-4-4-12-1T - DDR2-800

MSI GeForce 7900 GT

On-Board X-Fi Xtreme Audio
Creative Labs X-Fi Fatal1ty Audio Card

2 x 250GB Western Digital SE16
7,200 RPM SATA 3.0 GB/s in RAID 0

Windows XP Pro SP2
Intel INF 8.1.1.1010
Intel Matrix Storage Manager 6.2.1
DirectX 9.0c
NVIDIA nForce 9.53
NVIDIA Forceware 163.71

 

DRIVES TESTED:

Asus DRW-2014L1T
Lite-On LH-20A1L
Plextor PX-810SA

BENCHMARKS USED:

NERO InfoTool 5
NERO DiscSpeed 4
SiSoft SANDRA XII

MEDIA USED:

Taiyo Yuden 16X DVD+R
Sony 16X DVD+R
Memorex 16X DVD-R
Ridata 16X DVD-R
Memorex 52x CD-R
Philips 52X CD-R with LightScribe

Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA XII
Synthetic Benchmarks

We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran the CD-ROM and DVD Benchmark using a test DVD+R comprised of both large and small files. Although we will ultimately compare the drives against each other, we also had the opportunity to view results from four other drives in SANDRA's database.


Asus DRW-2014L1T


Lite-On LH-20A1L


Plextor PX-810SA


Although the graphs don't seem to tell us the story we were expecting, SANDRA was perfect for comparing our three drives in relation to the Drive Index (measured in MB/s) and Access Time (in milliseconds).  Even though the Asus and Lite-On drives are considered the faster drives, able to read DVD+R discs at 20x, and the Plextor at 18X, the Drive Index shows that the Lite-On drive solely occupied the top spot, measured at 13 MB/s or 9.5X speed.  The Asus and Plextor match up more as equals with a Drive Index score of 10MB/s or a 7.7X speed.  As far as Access Times go, the Lite-On drive again pulls away from the other two drives with a speedy 8ms random access time.  Asus was in second at 23ms, and the Plextor drive well in the distance at a disappointing 107ms.  Although not shown in the screen captures, but shown in the results, SANDRA also records what it determines as the maximum read and write speeds.  We take these numbers with a grain of salt, as they are synthetic results, but the Asus DRW-2014L1T was shown to only have a 16X max DVD writing speed, whereas the Lite-On and Plextor drives were rated at 18x each.

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NERO DiscSpeed Read Tests



CD/DVD Read Performance Testing
Reading is Fundamental

We continued our testing of the trio of burners using NERO's DiscSpeed 4.  This is an exceptionally versatile tool that allows us to peer into the drive's behavior during various operations.  We ran several read tests on each drive using various types of media.  Please note that in each test, the Green line represents Rotation Speed while the Yellow Line represents the drive's progress. 

Nero DiscSpeed 4 - CD Read Test:

With our first test we inserted a CD-R with a single 677MB AVI file and initiated the read test.

ASUS DRW-2014L1T
Lite-On LH-20A1L
Plextor PX-810SA

Although not discussed as fervently as in days past, reading CDs is still the number one priority for the majority of drives.  Speeds have actually been dropped from highs of 52x and 56x typically to somewhere in the 40s.  Of the three drives in our round-up, the Lite-On has the fastest CD-R read speed at 48x, and not surprisingly leads the other two drives in average read speed, topping out at 49.21x.  It also posted the lowest random access time at 2ms, although the Plextor was right behind at 3ms.  The slowest times overall were found on the Asus DRW-2014L1T, however, this drive also posted the lowest CPU usage.

Nero DiscSpeed 4 - DVD+R Read Test:

In our next test we inserted a DVD+R full of both large and small files to test DVD data read rates.

Lite-On LH-20A1L
Plextor PX-810SA


Try as we might, we could not get the Asus DRW-2014L1T to read any of our test DVD+Rs.  Each attempt was met with DiscSpeed crashing to the tune of "Logical Unit Communication CRC Errors".  Without the Asus drive in the hunt, the Lite-On LH-20A1L dominated the Plextor PX-810SA in average speed, top speed, and burst rate.  We did notice, however, that CPU usage was pretty high with the Lite-On, starting at 25% at 1x and moving upward.

Nero DiscSpeed 4 - DVD-R Read Test:

We tried another round of read tests using a DVD-R full of average size MP3s.

Asus DRW-2014L1T
Lite-On LH-20A1L
Plextor PX-810SA

Although the graph of the DVD-R read performance for the Lite-On drive was all over the place, overall it managed to produce a higher average speed at 10.67x compared to the low 9s for the Plextor and Asus drives, and a top speed that just bested the Asus DRW-2014 at 12.28x to 12.11x.  Access times for the Asus burner continue to be poor, always in double digits, whilst the other two typically come in at 2-3ms.

Nero DiscSpeed 4 - DVD-ROM Read Test:

Finally, we popped in a copy of BloodRayne, a dual-layer DVD-ROM, to see how the drives performed.

Asus DRW-2014L1T
Lite-On LH-20A1L
Plextor PX-810SA

In DVD-ROM read performance, the Plextor PX-810SA garnered the highest average speed and top speed, just outpacing the Lite-On drive in both categories.  Possibly in order to maintain its lower noise output, the Asus drive uses slower rotational speeds throughout the test, not even eclipsing 8X at its highest point.

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NERO DiscSpeed Write Tests

 

CD/DVD Write Performance Testing
Sometimes we don't know our write from wrong

Nero DiscSpeed 4 - CD-R Write Test:

ASUS DRW-2014L1T
Lite-On LH-20A1L
Plextor PX-810SA

CD-R writing has become a low-cost method of transferring or backing up files, and last we checked a full CD of 700MB only took the user 2-3 minutes to complete.  We'd expect that nothing here has changed much, if at all, and each of the drives in our round-up came very close to their rated speeds - 48x for the Asus and Lite-On drives, and 40x for the Plextor.

Nero DiscSpeed 4 - DVD+R Write Test:

ASUS DRW-2014L1T
Lite-On LH-20A1L
Plextor PX-810SA


After the troubles reading DVD+Rs, we didn't know what to expect with the Asus DRW-2014L1T.  We were able to complete a few burns using Sony 16X media, although there were spikes every 500MB or so into writing to disc.  Drives from Lite-On and Plextor were more stable burns, each peaking around 18X, 2X faster than the rated speed of the media.

Nero DiscSpeed 4 - DVD-R Write Test:

Asus DRW-2014L1T
Lite-On LH-20A1L
Plextor PX-810SA

The graphs for the DVD-R write tests were quite similar to the DVD+R write results, although the speed drops for the Asus DRW-2014L1T were a bit more pronounced.  All drives, however, basically performed along the same levels, reaching average speeds around 12X and maximum speeds of 16X.

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Real World Tests - Disc Recognition and Audio Ripping

For our final tests, we threw in some "real-world" tests.  That is, we timed some ordinary activities such as ripping an audio CD to MP3 or burned full discs to various media.

Disc Recognition Timings
Patience sometimes is a virtue

 
That's not a mistake you see there, nor is it an anomaly.  With both Asus drives we received for testing, the average speed for inserting and recognizing a DVD-ROM came out to 49.57 seconds.  That means you're waiting nearly a minute before you can access data or watch a movie.  In today's world, that's just not acceptable.  Opening a CD was much faster, beating out the Plextor drive at least.  Neither drive really held a candle to the Lite-On LH-20A1L, which posted the quickest times for recognizing CDs and DVDs.

CD Audio to MP3 Ripping
Play that funky music, white boy

 

We grabbed a full-length compact disc off our shelves, which just happened to be the soundtrack for Attack of the Clones (don't ask), and ripped it to 192kbps MP3s using Windows Media Player.  The total time from the conversion of the first track to last was a clean 2 minutes and 10 seconds for the Lite-On LH-20A1L, nearly six seconds faster than the closest drive, being the Asus DRW-2014L1T.   Plextor's PX-810SA fell into last place in this category, almost 10 seconds slower than Lite-On's drive and 4 seconds slower than the Asus drive. 

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Real World Tests - Burning Discs and Lightscribe

Disc Burning Speed Tests
Burn, baby, burn

 

Probably the most important metric when comparing burners would be how fast they complete the act of copying files to different kinds of media.  We used Nero DiscSpeed to fill each disc and timed the process from start to finish.  Once again, the Lite-On LH-20A1L outperformed the other two drives, although, to be fair, the Asus and Lite-On drives burn CDs at a max speed of 48x, Plextor at 40x.  Plextor's 18x PX-810SA, however, turned the tables on the "faster" 20x drives by producing the quickest burns on both DVD+R and DVD-R media.

Lightscribe Burning Timings
Labels?  We don't need no stinkin' labels!

 

We kind of threw this one in here just to show how long it actually takes to burn an image to disc using the LightScribe software.  Almost brings back memories of burning CDs using a 2x CD-RW drive over a decade ago, doesn't it?  Not to mention that this is the default setting for the LightScribe software, as there is an option to create a darker burn with the caveat that burning times will be even longer.

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Performance Summary and our Conclusion

 

Performance Summary:  Admittedly, the Plextor PX-810SA would seem to be at a disadvantage when going head-to-head with the other drives, as both DVD and CD writing speeds are rated slightly lower than the newer Asus and Lite-On Models.  As it turns out, the PX-810SA not only held its own, but outperformed the Asus DRW-2014L1T and Lite-On LH-20A1L in most DVD burning benchmarks.  The LH-20A1L showed its strengths in much of the rest of the testing, as it had the lowest access times, highest burn speeds, and fastest audio ripping times.  


Asus DRW-2014L1T:  Asus' entry in this three way round-up leaves us a bit perplexed.  Although the box clearly states that it is a "20x" drive, in truth, we never came close to this touted speed.  As we pointed out in the SANDRA testing, this benchmark software warned us that everything might not appear to be what it seems, and it pegged it at a lower speed for DVD burning than the other drives.  In the real-world section of our review, we noted that the burn times were slower in CD-R and DVD-R burns when directly compared to the other 20x drive from Lite-On, although it did beat the same drive in DVD+R writing.  That last fact is almost ironic, as we had numerous issues reading and/or writing to DVD+R media during our few weeks of testing.  The Asus DRW-2014L1T retails at a low price, but it's worth spending a few more buck to get one of the faster drives.

  • Mostly quiet operation 
  • Cheap, capable drive
  • LightScribe support 
  • Problems with DVD+R media
  • Not the fastest drive 

Lite-On LH-20A1L:  Lite-On is a brand that many enthusiasts have typically chosen for the price vs. performance ratio they deliver, and the LH-20A1L really delivers here as well.  In almost all of the synthetic benchmarks, we found the Lite-On model leading the way with some of the lowest access times (typically single digits), highest average and top reading and writing speeds, and moderate CPU usage.  We also found that it had the quickest recognition of media times and ripping speeds.  Ironically, however, these "victories" didn't translate into the best burning performance.  True, it did put in the fastest CD-R burn time at 2:35, but DVD burning is where it's at, and the Lite-On finished second to the final drive in our conclusion.

  • Speedy Access Times
  • Overall fastest drive 
  • Price/performance ratio
  • Average DVD write performance
  • A little noisy when ripping 
  • LightScribe is slow

Plextor PX-810SA:  For what should be the slowest drive in the round-up, as far as rated speeds go, the Plextor PX-810SA pleasantly surprised us with the fastest DVD burning times.  That was the high point of the testing as in other areas, performance wasn't as hot.  Ripping audio and recognizing various types of media were the slowest on this drive, with the sole exception being the DVD recognition of the Asus DRW-2014L1T.  But also note, the Plextor PX-810SA is easily the most expensive drive in the group at more than double the cost of the others, while also being the oldest.  It's this mixed bag of results that makes it hard to determine whether this drive or the Lite-On LH-20A1L is the better buy, but with the huge price difference we're going to go with the latter.

  • Fastest DVD burning times 
  • Held its own against "faster" drives
  • Middling performance with CD media
  • Highest priced drive 
  • No Lightscribe support

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