Maybe it's your media that's junk? I haven't had any drive just fail on me and they're all different brands. I have an old cd-rom writer from like 1997 still running. Personally, I would advise an LG just because I've never had ANY problems with that brand whatsoever. As for the S-ATA question, why not? If your motherboard supports S-ATA, and you have XP SP2 or Vista, go for it. All it does is save wire space to make your cases appear cleaner
What exactly do you mean by cheap anyway? Do you mean that it won't function as advertised after a few months, or what?
About the only problem I've had with different DVD writers is that each seems to have their preferred media. Media that works fine in one writer is not necessarily the best media to use with a different one.
My current favorite combination is one of the Pioneer writers (DVR-115D, DVR-1810, DVR-1910 - all IDE, or DVR-215D, DVR-2810, DVR-2910 - all SATA) and Verbatim media.
This particular combination is the only one I've found that reliably burns dual-layer media that can be read on almost any set-top DVD player.