Pioneer DVR-A03

(03/12/2001) – Every so often, a product like Pioneer Corp.’s DVR-A03 DVD-R/CD-RW burner comes along and makes a host of high-cost computing tasks suddenly affordable. The CDN$1495 device and its $15 media, scheduled to ship in May, will let more of us create our own DVD home movies–which will play on our living-room DVD players–and DVD-R data discs that mimic DVD-ROMs, a blessing for those who work with space-hogging digital video or audio.

Previously, both DVD-R writers and their capacious 4.7GB, DVD-R media were prohibitively expensive, costing $7500 or more for a writer and $60 for each disc. Pioneer unveiled the drive last year.

But archiving home movies and massive amounts of data and transferring video from your old VHS tapes aren’t the only activities likely to drive the DVR-A03’s popularity. The dirty little not-so-secret about DVD-R is that it can be used to violate copyright law and illegally record commercial DVD movies.

The copy protection scheme used to guard DVD movies (CSS, or Content Scrambling System) was broken long ago. Despite legal action, programs for copying the contents of a DVD onto your hard drive–sans protection–remain rife (DVD-R media prevents direct copying of CSS-encrypted content). Hollywood execs get headaches at the mere mention of the DVR-A03 (or SuperDrive, as Apple users know it). It also ships in some Compaq Computer Corp. Presarios.

Initial Tests Find Compelling Results

The preproduction DVR-A03 I tested looks like a typical IDE DVD-ROM drive. It’s a combo unit, capable of handling both DVD and CD media. Pioneer rates the drive to write CD-R at 8X, CD-RW at 4X, and DVD-R at 2X. One caveat: Like many 4X CD-RW drives, the DVR-A03 won’t write to 10X-rated CD-RW discs. The drive is also rated to read CD-ROMs at 24X, CD-RW at 16X, and DVD-ROM discs at 4X.

In my informal tests, CD reads came in at 11.6X and DVD reads at 1.9X, but the drive is certainly adequate. Write speeds were just about at 8X for CD-R and nearly 4X for CD-RW. The DVR-A03 may not be lightning-fast with older optical media, but its backward compatibility is a major perk; I’d want one even if it were a one-trick pony.

That’s because writing DVD-R is such a compelling trick. The DVR-A03 takes a mere 28 minutes or so to burn a full 4.7GB DVD-R disc–the equivalent of writing seven CD-R discs in four minutes apiece, but without the hassle of disc swapping. There’s another upside to the DVR-A03: The drive can read and write rewritable DVD-RW media (see glossary below), though according to the company these discs will cost about twice as much as DVD-R discs.

Whether you want to store high-quality digital video or archive data, the DVR-A03 is likely to change the face of computing–and possibly the entertainment industry.

A DVD Glossary

Staying on top of the DVD acronym alphabet is a challenge, let alone tracking the ongoing standards issues. Here’s a quick primer:

DVD-RAM: Format developed by Panasonic, Toshiba, and Hitachi. Randomly rewritable, 4.7GB per side, incompatible with current commercial DVD movie players and most DVD-ROM drives. Recorders and drives currently available.

DVD-RW: Rewritable format, 4.7GB per side, compatible with some (but not all) current DVD movie players. Consumer recorders due out this summer in the United States.

DVD+RW: A long-promised, 4.7GB per side rewritable format, supposedly compatible with practically all DVD movie players and DVD-ROM drives on the market. Supporters, including HP and Philips, promise drives and recorders by fall.

Prices listed are in Cdn currency.

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