Review: Sony DRU-700A DVD Recorder
Posted May 30, 2004

Synopsis: The legend of DVD+R DL becomes fact: Sony's DRU-700A ($199), the first shipping dual layer-capable DVD recorder, performs mostly as advertised, easily accomplishing 6 and 7GB DVD-Video burns with the bundled Nero software on several Verbatim DL discs provided for testing. Playback compatibility was mixed, however, with a 43% success rate on 70 set-top players, portables, ROM drives, and burners.

In John Ford's great western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, newspaperman Maxwell Scott says, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Here in EMedia we printed the legend of dual/double-layer DVD recording before there was any fact to speak of; when my article "Building and Burning Dual-Layer DVD" ( ran in April 2004, neither camp—"plus" or "dash"—had product to ship. I'd never seen a dual-layer recordable disc nor a recorder, but it seemed important to do what I could to build the legend all the same. As I noted in that article, DVD+R DL, the first incarnation of two-layer recordable DVD (a -R version should appear some time in the next 6-12 months), is the most important development in DVD recording since the debut of the Pioneer A03, the first half-height, internal DVD recorder, and the first aimed at the mass PC and Mac market with sub-$1000 pricing and support for CD-R and CD-RW.

DVD+R DL's immediate impact should happen in the pro authoring market, where I imagine authors of DVD-9 titles are salivating over the prospect of one-offing their dual-layer projects to a single writable disc for immediate reference-checking in the various DVD players stockpiled in their studios. At $10-12 a disc, that's as far as DVD+R DL may penetrate for a while, but that's a big breakthrough nonetheless. Desktop producers of commercial DVD titles will follow shortly thereafter, and finally the vast consumer market of hobbyists and personal videographers and quality-conscious home DVD dupers will get into the game shortly after that, for the sheer thrill of stuffing more high bit-rate video into their personal creations.

But that's the legend, not the fact. Even though Sony showed demo drives at NAB in April, where my article also appeared, we had no real-world confirmation that these drives performed as advertised, and dual/double-layer DVD recording remained a dream deferred.

Perhaps because Sony's Bob DeMoulin and I go back to the days when reliable and affordable CD recording was itself a dream deferred, I was fortunate enough to get an early look at Sony's first double-layer DVD recorder, the internal ATAPI DRU-700A, shortly after NAB and well-before its projected "late Q2" shipping date. The drive also showed up with two pieces of sample Sony-branded, Verbatim-manufactured DVD+R DL media (followed by several Verbatim-branded DL discs), and a brand new DL-capable version of Ahead's Nero CD/DVD creation software.

But the question remained: when the first DL drive hit the EMedia offices in Madison, Wisconsin, would legend become fact?

How Green was My Valley?
At the time that this review was written, there were three significant players in DVD+R DL: Verbatim, who makes the media; Sony, who makes the first shipping drive; and Ahead, who supplies the software for that drive. More manufacturers have announced drives, but for now, that's the landscape. 

The drive installed without incident (nothing to add to the legend there), as did the software, a rich assortment of Ahead's Nero tools including the full-featured recording application Nero Burning ROM SE 6, the entry-level DVD authoring and video editing tool Nero VisionExpress 2, InCD 4 for variable-length packet writing, ShowTime for DVD-Video and MPEG-4 playback, BackItUp for PC backup, ImageDrive for setting up a virtual CD/DVD-ROM drive, the estimable consumer audio editor Wave Editor (long a favorite in these parts), Nero Cover Designer for disc labeling, and the always-appreciated Nero Toolkit for speed-testing CD and DVD drives. 

But plumbing the depths of Nero was not really our goal here. Sony sent me this drive to make fact of legend, and I immediately set about building and burning a double-layer disc. In the words of lifelong John Ford fan Bob Dylan, "To live outside the law you must be honest." So in the interest of full disclosure, I'll concede that the first thing I did with the Sony DRU-700A was violate the DMCA. I popped the recently released Kill Bill DVD into the drive, ripped its entire 7.1GB to the hard drive of my 2.66gHz Pentium 4, XP-running test-bed Compaq PC, and loaded the entire contents of the resulting VIDEO_TS folder into the DVD-Video files compilation window of Nero Express.

I then loaded a DVD+R DL disc in the drive, and Nero immediately recognized the capacity of the disc as something beyond 8GB. It also deemed my 7.1GB (engineering) project DL-worthy (you have to burn something on both Layer 0, the first layer written, and Layer 1, the second layer written), but well within the disc's comfort zone. There was nothing left to do but advance to the recording screen and click Burn.  

The burning process took roughly 47 minutes for the 7.1GB disc. The Sony drive, which records, quite effectively, at 8X to single-layer DVD±R media, burns DVD+R DL at 2.4X. The status window reported both Layer 0 and Layer 1 progress (even though Nero calls the Layers 1 and 2, 0 and 1 are the proper terms). Using the Opposite Track method, the drive burns Layer 0 in the hub-to-edge direction until it reaches the layer break, then the laser refocuses and burns Layer 1 edge-to-hubward, beginning at the same radial distance from the inner hub as the layer break on Layer 0.

Long Voyage Home
With more DL discs to burn, I had another test to try: burning an original bigger-than-4.7GB DVD and seeing where Nero and Sony put the layer break, and how it played back once burned.

I pulled out my old two-disc wedding DVD and set about converting it to a single DL disc. This process required several steps: "capturing" the video title sets on both discs to MPEG-2 files using Roxio Media Creator 7, quickly re-authoring the disc in Nero Vision Express, and finally burning it all onto a single DL disc.

I imported the MPEG files into Nero and used the simple and fluid authoring GUI to restore chapter points and create a basic menu. Nero alerted me immediately that the fileset I'd created (at the bit rate captured) was too big for a single-layer DVD±R, but would fit on a "DVD-9." The software also offered to recompress the files to make everything fit. Good to know, and not a problem in this case. I even jacked up the audio from AC-3 to LPCM, a needless luxury, but one that would push the project even further into DL territory.

Not much else to it; Nero didn't prompt me to choose a layer-break point, and I couldn't find the option anywhere (just as well—I'm not a Scenarist-level user and neither is the target audience for the Sony/Nero bundle, which means we have no business fiddling with layer breaks before ROM burns). The burn went smoothly as ever, clocking in around 40 minutes for the 6GB+ project. Granted, that's significantly longer than two SL burns, but if your goal is to get a contiguous >4.7GB image on a single disc, there's no point whatsoever in comparing the speeds, because you simply can't do it in the SL world.

The Searchers
Following the completion of multiple successful DL burns, I moved on to the real test of burning success: playback compatibility. Results were mixed, posing a real threat to the DVD+R DL legend. The disc played back perfectly with InterVideo WinDVD 5 and Nero ShowTime in the Sony recorder, leaving no question that the burned disc was, indeed, a DVD-Video, logically speaking.

But that says nothing for its physical compatibility beyond the drive in which it was burned; you can burn a DVD-Video image onto DVD-RAM, but that doesn't mean you can play it in any drive that doesn't recognize DVD-RAM media. Interestingly enough, the disc I burned failed to play in most of the other drives in the office. Tested on the on-board Toshiba DVD-ROM in the testbed PC, two Apple SuperDrives (Pioneer A04 and A06D models), and an NEC ND-1300A DVD±R/RW model, the disc didn't show up at all. The discs did play, however, in an A04 drive in a Sony VAIO, as well as a Toshiba DVD-ROM in the same PC.

Of course, DVD-Video's legend is built on playback in TV-attached set-top players, and in practical terms—for its value as a disc-checking mechanisms—DVD+R DL's success hinges on same. I first tried the DL discs in the two DVD players I have at home. Results were mixed: both discs played beautifully in my trusty old Pioneer DV-414 (bought in 1999), but a brand new Sony DVP-NS425P wouldn't play either disc, delivering the error message "The disc is dirty" on each attempt.

Rather than declare my tests inconclusive, I knew I had to take the show on the road and see how the discs played in Peoria--or the next best thing, my local Circuit City, Best Buy, and CompUSA. I found 21 up-and-running set-top DVD players at those stores from manufacturers such as Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, JVC, Zenith, Polaroid, Magnavox, and GoVideo. Playback was all over the map: 13 players played the discs immediately and without difficuly, while 8 refused to recognize the discs at all. (I didn't test for sustained playback on any but the players I had at home.) I also tried the DL discs on six portable players, none of which recognized them.

I did additional testing with a smaller group of ROM drives and recorders. ROM drive results were pretty good (3 out of 5 played the discs), which the DL media went 2-for-7 in tested RW drives (one of which was the 700A). I also sent one of my test discs to EMedia Contributing Editor and CD Writer columnist Hugh Bennett to test in his London, Ontario lab. Working with 30-odd players, ROM drives, and recorders, Bennett's results were comparable: about a 45 percent success rate overall. (For a complete table of testing results, see Pages 4 and 5)

The Quiet Man
It's hard to know how to read these results at this point, or what exactly to say about them. Although they fall well shy of the 90% compatibility rate we expected, every testing environment is different, and can yield different conclusions. It's also hard to know where to pin the blame, if anywhere--media, recorder, or software, or simply the fact that the player matrix is way too big by now to allow any kind of realistic compatibility assessment. (Admittedly, I didn't go out and pick the 30 most popular or widely installed players to test; I just tried what was available.)

One way in which I'd have to qualify my results is to acknowledge that I couldn't figure out how to change the Book Type in the Nero software from the default "DVD+R9" to something more familiar to existing playback devices like "DVD-ROM." (It was through similar a Book Type trick that the DVD+RW camp was able to achieve its surprisingly good out-of-the-gate media/player compatibility.) Changing the Book Type could go a long way in fostering compatibility. Nero should be able to address this in a simple software patch, and other DL-capable recording software may not ship initially with this preset.

Where the issue is perfectly physical, or related to a disc ID issue, it can be addressed in some playback devices; ROM and RW are firmware-upgradable, by and large. They all have the essential optics to read dual-layer pressed discs, so if they don't read DL discs now, there's a chance they will in the future (although RW drives may always spit the discs out because of ID issues). As for increasing compatibility among existing set-top and portable devices, that burden sits squarely on the shoulders of the media and recording software makers.

All that said, the main purpose of these discs and these drives at this juncture is authoring-house disc-checking: making sure that a legal DVD-Video image has been created, and ensuring that all the menu links work as fluidly as possible. In other words, it's for burning test discs that play an essential role in title development, but rarely leave the studio, and certainly don't get tossed into the void of end-user distribution. Which means compatibility isn't, arguably, as consequential with the firs run of DL discs and drives as it is with today's single-layer DVD±R discs, which are omni-purpose products. (Once mass-production of DL discs begins in 2005, if compatibility remains under 50%, the gloves will come off.) But for now, basically, if a DVD authoring house has one player in which they can determine the logical and aesthetic merits of a premastered project, the physical compatibility of the one-off check disc with players outside that studio really doesn't matter. So, given how early adopters will use this technology--DVD-9 reference checking--broad compatibility isn't as important as freeing DVD-9 authors from the disc-check prison of single-layer DVD±R. And that it does.

So has legend become fact? Not entirely. But that doesn't mean the legend doesn't live. For now, I'll stick with the legend until the facts get better.

Companies Mentioned in this Review
Ahead Software

Sony Electronics

Verbatim Corporation

Thanks to Hugh Bennett for his assistance with the compatibility testing for this review.

DVD+R DL Compatibility Testing Results: Stephen Nathans, Madison, Wisconsin

Key: ST=set-top DVD player; PP=portable DVD player; ROM=DVD-ROM drive; RW=DVD recorder

HPDVD Writer 400CRWNo
PioneerDVR-A04 (VAIO)RWYes
PioneerDVR-A04 (G4)RWNo
PioneerDVR-A06D (G5)RWNo

DVD+R DL Compatibility Testing Results: Hugh Bennett, Forget Me Not Information Systems, London, Ontario 

Key: ST=set-top DVD player; PP=portable DVD player; ROM=DVD-ROM drive; RW=DVD recorder

PioneerDVR-A05 (G4)RWNo