Burning Questions: Burners that do more

Let's face it: DVD burners are now ubiquitous, and it's harder than ever to tell internal drives apart. But by their very nature, external drives have always had a little more room for differentiation. And the latest crop of external models to cross my desk is no exception.

Two recent drives from LG Electronics and Sony share the ability to capture video as well as to burn standard data and video discs. A third drive, from Lite-On, offers unique buttons for dubbing data to disc, rather than relying solely on burning software to do the job as conventional models do. The idea of adding video inputs to a burner isn't new -- Hewlett-Packard, Iomega, and Sony have all released drives that do this. The new LG and Sony models, however, show a new attention to design and function that represents a clear evolution from those earlier attempts. Plus, prices are now significantly lower.

The advantage to buying an external drive that can do more than just burn discs is obvious: After all, as much as any number of vendors would be happy to sell you a USB-based box with video inputs, why would you want one when you can get those capabilities built into your disc burner?

Lite-On Ez-Dub

Lite-On's US$119 USB DVD burner Ez-Dub (model SOHW-1673SU) offers the standard specs: 16X DVDA‚±R, 8X DVD+R double-layer and 4X DVD-R dual-layer write speeds, and 8X DVD+RW and 6X DVD-RW rewrite speeds. The software bundle is also pretty ordinary: CyberLink PowerDVD 5 and Nero Express 6.6, which includes NeroBackItUp and NeroVision Express 3.

What's out of the ordinary are the two buttons on top of the unit. One is labeled Dub, the other, File. With these buttons, and the Ez-Dub software designed by Lite-On and Ulead, this drive enters another realm of convenience.

The Dub button is intended for easy, one-touch disc copying. Simply place the source disc into the drive, press the Dub button, and when the drive ejects the source disc, replace it with a blank. The drive then completes the copying process.

The File button breaks down on-the-fly file backup into a three-step process -- and all three steps originate from your PC's desktop. In other words, you don't have to first launch a disc mastering package such as Nero's Nero Express 6.6 or Roxio's Easy Media Creator 8. The design of Ez-Dub's interface is mildly reminiscent of a convenient, albeit short-lived, burning application from Oak Technology called SimpliCD (circa 2001). Drag and drop files from Windows Explorer or your desktop into an ever-present desktop container; insert a blank disc into the drive; and press the File button to initiate the burn.

This approach isn't for everyone, but it can be convenient: If you're looking through a directory in Windows Explorer when you remember you wanted to copy some of its files to disc, you can just grab them then and there -- you don't have to launch your disc mastering software and navigate back to the folder where the files are located.

LG Electronics' GSA-5169D

In sleek, brushed silver, and of a lighter weight than competing models, LG's US$179 External GSA-5169D Super-Multi Drive (shipping soon) comes with a well-rounded software bundle that offers some new twists on one-touch audiovisual capture. A drive like this comes in particularly handy if you want to convert VHS video to DVD format, and your PC doesn't already have AV inputs or a dedicated TV tuner or AV input box that connects via USB.

Like the Lite-On drive, LG's GSA-5169D has standard specs: 16X DVDA‚A±R, 8X DVD+R double layer, 4X DVD-R dual layer, 8X DVD+RW, 6X DVD-RW, and 5X DVD-RAM. A button on the front initiates one-touch video capture and burning to CD or DVD. The unit connects via USB and has standard composite audio and video and S-Video ports on the back for capturing video from a TV, VCR, or even a digital camera, for example. However, the drive lacks a digital video input, so you can't use it to capture video from a digital camcorder.

The GSA-5169D comes with CyberLink's PowerDVD 5 and PowerProducer 2 Gold, as well as Nero's Nero Express 6.6. The bonus addition to this software bundle, though, is its One-Touch DVD software, which was designed for LG by Honest Technology. This software enables simple, wizard-driven video capture, and makes it easy to edit and author movies, offering a preview window so you can adjust the start of the video you're converting to disc.

Unlike other software I've seen bundled with video capture drives, One-Touch DVD will grow with you as your recording needs evolve; it's easy enough for novices to use, but has enough advanced features to please more-experienced users. One-Touch DVD has an advanced user mode that gives you more control over your output format (Video CD, DVD); it also lets you select the image quality, choose a split point for large movie files, select the video type (NTSC or PAL), and program in the recording time. While the software is rough around the edges, its user interface isn't nearly as unfriendly as that of other packages and burning utilities I've seen.

Sony's DVDirect VRD-MC1

Sony's latest iteration of its DVDirect costs more than either of the other models in this group: At $300, it's substantially more expensive. But you're getting notably more functionality for the money, even though the specs for this drive are very similar to those of the others I looked at for this column (16X DVDA‚A±R, 8X DVD+R double layer, 4X DVD-R dual layer, 8X DVD+RW, and 6X DVD-RW).

For starters, this is the only external drive I've seen to date that's intended for use in stand-alone mode, independent of a PC. It's also the only drive of the bunch with a digital video input as well as composite audiovisual and S-Video connectors. And it has memory card slots for reading and dubbing direct to disc from Memory Stick Duo, Memory Stick, Secure Digital, xD Picture Card, and CompactFlash media. The DVDirect VRD-MC1 can create photo slide shows on DVD-R media from images on a flash card; it can also output images to a PictBridge-compatible printer connected to the unit via USB.

The DVDirect VRD-MC1 is the only drive in this group with a 2-inch color LCD screen, located on top. The display is especially convenient for previewing the beginning or end of the video you're recording, be it from live TV (broadcast or cable) or from a VCR or camcorder.

The DVDirect VRD-MC1's one weakness is its lack of a video output for playing back captured video or digital images on a TV. Another nit to pick: Sony placed the video inputs along the left side of the front panel, which simplifies access to cables, but also makes for a messy appearance if you keep those cables plugged in all the time.

My favorite

Personally, I like the Sony DVDirect VRD-MC1 the best. Yes, it's the most expensive of the bunch, but you're getting a fair amount of added functionality packed in there -- functionality that goes above and beyond a garden-variety DVD burner.

The LG Electronics GSA-5169D is a close second. I really like how its connectors elegantly flow out the back of the unit (unlike the DVDirect VRD-MC1's, which jut out the right side). And the bundled software is especially useful if you want to convert analog video to DVD.

The Lite-On Ez-Dub drive is interesting. I think the desktop "container" Ez-Dub software is a good idea, but I find the buttons to be a bit limiting. After all, having buttons on the top of the unit means I have to keep it within easy reach -- which rules out sticking it on top of my mid-tower chassis, which sits on a shelf under my desk.

It's clear that the external DVD burner is evolving, and it's nice to have these choices.

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