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Editor's Choice

Pioneer DVR-AO3 Combination DVD-R/CD-R Drive

Hugh Bennett

Pioneer DVR-AO3 Combination DVD-R/CD-R Drive
synopsis: After earning respect in the professional market, Pioneer is now pushing DVD-Recordable (DVD-R) into the mainstream with its new DVR-A03 recorder. With a $1,000 price point, the DVR-A03 offers a remarkably attractive combination of features by not only recording DVD-R and DVD-RW discs, but CD-R and CD-RW, as well. Already factory-integrated into Apple's 733mHz PowerMac G4 and Compaq's Presario 7000 computers–and soon to be available in numerous aftermarket kits–the Pioneer DVR-A03 is an outstanding recording device that should prove attractive for serious and entertainment applications alike.

price: $999

Pioneer New Media Technologies, Inc.
2265 E. 220th Street
Long Beach, CA 90810
800/527-3766, 310/952-2111
Fax 310/952-2990

June 2001 | After earning respect in the professional market, Pio- neer is now pushing DVD-Recordable (DVD-R) into the mainstream with its new DVR-A03 recorder. With a $1,000 price point, the DVR-A03 offers a remarkably attractive combination of features by not only recording DVD-R and DVD-RW discs, but CD-R and CD-RW, as well.

The DVR-A03 breaks new performance ground by being the first 2X Constant Linear Velocity (CLV) speed DVD-R recorder, making it now possible to write a full 4.7GB disc in roughly 30 minutes. Other important features include 1X CLV DVD-RW, 8X CLV CD-R, and 4X CD-RW recording speeds; lossless linking; Disc-At-Once (DAO) and incremental writing; an IDE/ATAPI interface; a 2MB buffer; flash firmware; and conventional 5.25-inch form factor. The promise of lower-priced blank media is equally as important as affordable hardware. Whereas blank discs for earlier DVD-R recorders still sell in the range of $20 to $30, media for the DVR-A03 sell for $10 to $15, each depending upon brand, quantity, packaging, and specialized features (e.g., printable surfaces). And prices are expected to fall later this year as competition and production increase.

DVD-R discs can be played back in most DVD-Video players and DVD-ROM drives, so there are many attractive possibilities for the DVR-A03. In addition to traditional professional prototyping duties, DVD-R will now find a home in data distribution and archiving applications where CD-R capacity is insufficient. Access to affordable DVD-Video authoring is more tantalizing from a corporate training and consumer perspective. VHS tapes can be converted to DVD-R for preservation, and camcorder material computer-edited and recorded for easy viewing. Those wishing to use these drives to copy commercial DVD movie titles, however, will be disappointed as DVD-R discs have their CSS decryption key area molded at the factory with dummy information to prevent direct digital duplication.

changes to specifications

In order to place DVD-R on a consumer footing, it was necessary for the DVD Forum to lay new foundations to allow manufacturers to create more reliable and lower-cost products. The change in direction was accomplished by switching from previous shorter wavelength 635nm laser technology to less expensive and more stable 650nm systems.

To accommodate the change, the DVD Forum issued specifications governing two different types of DVD-R products. The first specification, titled "DVD-R for Authoring," manages products that operate at 635nm wavelength. This includes Pioneer's first and second-generation DVR-S101 and DVR-S201 recorders and compatible media. The second specification, titled "DVD-R for General," regulates products using a 650nm wavelength. Pioneer's new DVR-A03 recorder, reviewed here, falls into this second category, as do the specialized DVD-R set-top video recorders currently available in Japan.

Even with the introduction of lower-cost General recorders and media, it's likely that the professional market for Authoring products will continue in the short term. This is because Pioneer's Authoring recorders still employ SCSI interfaces (important for duplication and custom disc production equipment) and can use 3.95GB media, which offer better playback compatibility with older DVD-Video players. Cutting Master Format (CMF), which stores Disc Description Protocol (DDP) header information on a disc, is also supported by 4.7GB Authoring media, thereby allowing its use in place of a DLT tape as an input source for industrial mastering systems. However, it shouldn't be long before DVD-R General products, such as Pioneer's DVR-A03, will be embraced by professionals and consumers alike.

all about blank discs

DVD-R Authoring and General products are incompatible with each other–a key point to remember. This means that the DVD-R Authoring discs used by Pioneer's older DVR-S101 and DVR-S201 recorders can't be written by the new DVR-A03, and DVD-R General discs used by the DVR-A03 recorder can't be written by the DVR-S101 and DVR-S201. However, it should be emphasized that the incompatibilities are recording-specific and have no impact on disc playback. Both written DVD-R Authoring and General discs have nearly identical signal characteristics, and can, therefore, be played back in most DVD devices.

When shopping for blank DVD-R discs, consider that while the DVR-A03 writes all brands of General media at 1X speed, the unit will only write Pioneer-approved media at 2X speed. The recorder accomplishes this by checking the manufacturer information encoded on each disc against a list of qualified companies contained in its firmware (currently Pioneer, Verbatim/Mitsubishi, TDK, Maxell, Mitsui, and Taiyo Yuden). Pioneer indicates that 2X qualification is an ongoing process with support for additional media manufacturers added through periodic updates to the DVR-A03's firmware.

Another point to remember: manufacturers state that blank DVD-R discs record 4.7GB of data, but the actual storage capacity is 4.49GB. The discrepancy arises from the DVD Forum's definition of a Gigabyte as 1 billion bytes, rather than the generally accepted computer convention. Semantics aside, in practical terms, a computer can only write 4.49GB to a blank disc.

system requirements and setup

Thanks to its IDE/ATAPI interface, setting up the DVR-A03 is simplicity itself, being the same as configuring any CD-R/RW drive. Because 2X DVD-R recording places higher demands upon a computer than does 16X CD-R recording, however, system expectations are somewhat higher. Therefore, realistic minimum system requirements for the DVR-A03 include a 300mHz Pentium II PC with 128MB RAM, Windows 98 or NT, and a 6GB hard disk capable of sustaining a 2.65MB/sec transfer rate. For this evaluation, the DVR-A03 was put through its paces using a 500mHz Pentium III PC with 128MB RAM running Windows 98 SE and a Western Digital 18GB Ultra ATA/66 EIDE hard disk drive.

While DVD hardware may be maturing at a rapid pace, the software controlling the action is still a work in progress. Disappointingly, an integrated package supporting all of the DVR-A03's many functions is not yet available. At the time of this review, Pioneer had not yet determined which software to bundle with the DVR-A03, but, because of the unit's broad range of capabilities, most users will have to rely on multiple applications. For example, an authoring package is required for creating DVD-Video titles from scratch, and separate recording programs are needed for writing data DVDs and the various CD formats. Sonic Solutions' DVDit! is the first consumer authoring product for the PC directly supporting the DVR-A03, while Veritas/ Prassi Europe's PrimoDVD provides CD and data DVD recording. On the Macintosh side, initial authoring tools include Apple's iDVD and DVD Studio Pro software. Roxio's Toast 5 Titanium now handles both CD and DVD-ROM writing functions. recording tests

The writing integrity of the DVR-A03 was assessed by recording at 2X speed 16 full DVD-R discs from four media manufacturers (five from TDK, four from Pioneer, four from Verbatim/Mitsubishi, and three Mitsui discs). Ten discs were recorded in DVD-Video format and played back in a handful of set-top Pioneer, Sony, Toshiba, and JVC DVD Video players, as well as a cross-section of DVD- ROM drives consisting of models from Sony, Hitachi, Pioneer, LG Electronics, and Matsushita. The remaining six discs were recorded from data files and compared byte-for-byte against the source using the same DVD-ROM drives. The recorder's CD-R and CD-RW capabilities were also assessed by writing ten full 650MB CD-R discs from five manufacturers (two each from Kodak, Verbatim/ Mitsubishi, Mitsui, TDK/Ritek, and Taiyo Yuden) and two CD-RW discs from Ricoh and Verbatim/Mitsubishi.

Generally speaking, the DVR-A03 performed up to high expectation by recording all of the discs without incident. However, at this relatively early stage, it's too much to hope that written disc compatibility would be perfect. Indeed, a couple of the discs from one manufacturer had problems playing back smoothly in one of the older DVD-Video players and one new DVD-ROM drive. Pioneer also confirms that there are known problems playing DVD-R discs in some DVD-Video players and DVD-ROM drives.

The history of CD-R has shown that physical and logical compatibility take time to refine and involves discs, software, recorders, and reading devices, so seamless DVD-R interchangeability should not yet be taken for granted. That said, the DVR-A03 performed remarkably well, and is a tremendously enabling device allowing affordable data and video authoring and distribution.

lossless linking

Since a uniform data transfer rate must be maintained when writing to DVD-R and DVD-RW discs, the DVR-A03 makes use of "lossless linking" technology to automatically stop and restart the recording process if an insufficient amount of data is available to the recorder. Lossless linking functions much like the buffer underrun prevention schemes currently employed in the latest generation of CD-R/RW recorders (e.g., BURN-Proof, JustLink, SeamlessLink, ExacLink, SuperLink). The DVR-A03 precisely suspends and resumes writing, creating only a minimal gap between the previously and newly recorded sections of the disc to assure seamless playback.

Although the value of lossless linking is most apparent when encoding variable bit rate video on-the-fly and writing to disc, the technology also provides a necessary safeguard for all manner of recording given the unpredictable nature of computer I/O performance. As with all CD and DVD recorders, there are limits to how much the DVR-A03's buffer can compensate for variations in the data transfer rate. Wild fluctuations can come from slow hard drives and interfaces, improperly configured systems, multitasking, network interference, or even operating system efficiency. Keeping in mind that sustained data transfer rates of 1.32MB/sec and 2.65MB/sec are required for 1X and 2X recording respectively, lossless linking provides useful protection from buffer underruns.

Testing confirmed the impressive stability of the technology. It proved impossible to generate buffer underruns even when recording using extremely slow data sources, including 4X CD-ROM drives and hard disks accessed over a 10 Base-T network. When using the DVR-A03, remember that lossless linking functions auto- matically, and, as a result, recording may take longer than expected. For example, if the DVR-A03 is connected to a computer sustaining only a 1X transfer rate, it's still possible to select 2X recording speed in the premastering software. But it will take an hour to record a full disc, rather than the 30 minutes that the recorder would achieve at a consistent 2X clip.

reading tests

In addition to its impressive multi-format writing abilities, the DVR-A03 is also a respectable CD and DVD reader. Advertised data transfer rates include 2X to 4X CAV (2.65 to 5.28MB/sec) for prerecorded DVD-5/10, 2X CLV (2.65MB/sec) for DVD-R, DVD-RW, and DVD-9, as well as 10X to 24X CAV (1.47 to 3.52MB/sec) for prerecorded CD, CD-R, and CD-RW discs. Random access times clock in at 200ms for DVDs and 180ms for CDs.
Benchmark testing with the latest versions of CD and DVD Tach software confirmed Pioneer's claims and CD Speed 99 verified accurate 8X CLV (1.17MB/sec) Digital Audio Extraction (DAE) speed. While the DVR-A03's reading performance is by no means earth-shattering, realistically, it's good enough for most applications. Thrill seekers and those wanting to perform disc-to-disc copying will still want to pair the recorder with a separate DVD-ROM drive such as Pioneer's 16X max unit.

the bottom line

Already factory-integrated into Apple's 733mHz PowerMac G4 and Compaq's Presario 7000 computers–and soon to be available in numerous aftermarket kits (Alera Technologies, CD Cyclone, etc.)–the Pioneer DVR-A03 is an outstanding recording device that should prove attractive for serious and entertainment applications alike.

Companies Mentioned in This Article

Alera Technologies, LLC
7949 Woodley Avenue, Van Nuys, CA 91406; 818/442-9989; Fax 818/475-5201; http://www.aleratec.com

Apple Computer, Inc.
1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA 95014; 408/996-1010; 2http://www.applecomputer.com">http://www.applecomputer.com

CD CyClone Duplication, LLC
20472 Crescent Bay Dr., Unit 108, Lake Forest, CA 92630; 949/470-4795; Fax 949/470-4796; 2http://www.cdcyclone.com">http://www.cdcyclone.com

Compaq Computer Corporation
P.O. Box 692000, Houston, TX 77269-2000; 281/514-0484; Fax 281/514-4583; http://www.compaq.com

Maxell Corporation
22-08 Route 208, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410; 800/533-2836, 201/794-5922; Fax 201/796-8790; http://www.maxell.com

Mitsui Advanced Media, Inc.
2500 Westchester Avenue, Suite 110, Purchase, NY 10577; 914/251-4216; Fax 914/253-8623; http://www.mitsuicdr.com

Roxio, Inc.
451 S. Milpitas Boulevard, Milpitas, CA 95035; 408/945-8600; Fax 408/957-4544; 2http://www.roxio.com">http://www.roxio.com

Sonic Solutions
101 Rowland Way, Novato, CA 94945; 888/766-4248, 415/893-8000; Fax 415/893-8008; http://www.sonic.com

Taiyo Yuden USA, Inc.
Arlington Center, 714 West Algonquin Road, Arlington Heights, IL 60005; 800/368-2496; Fax 847/925-0899; http://www.t-yuden.com

TDK Electronics Corporation
12 Harbor Park Drive, Port Washington, NY 11050; 516/625-0100; Fax 516/625-0100; http://www.tdk.com

Verbatim Corporation
1200 W.T. Harris Boulevard, Charlotte, NC 28262; 800/421-4188, 704/547-6500; Fax 704/547-6609; http://www.verbatim.com

VERITAS Software
400 International Parkway, Heathrow, FL 32746; 407/531-7360; Fax 407/531-7670; http://www.veritas.com

Hugh Bennett (hugh_bennett@compuserve.com), an EMedia contributing editor and columnist for THE CD WRITER, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems (www.forgetmenot.on.ca), a reseller, systems integrator, and industry consultant based in London, Ontario, Canada.

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