Return Of The “Combo” Drive
Optical drives that write to fewer formats than they read are nothing new. The early days of recordable DVDs greeted technophiles with DVD burners priced at over $200 and blank media at several dollars per disc. This was just about the time that CD-R media fell to 50¢ per disc, making it the format of choice, in spite of its relatively tiny capacity.
The technology that made DVD burners so much more expensive than CD burners was in the write head, hence DVD readers with CD-burning capabilities became the norm for mid-priced, single-drive systems. Two-drive combinations of a separate CD burner and DVD reader were also popular, but the “on-the-fly” copy option that this combination enabled resulted in buffer under-runs more often than not. While many of us have owned systems with two optical drives, most of us got in the habit of using only one of the two drives, and have since figured out that we really only need a single drive, so long as it has all of our required functions.
Blu-ray formats now face a similar cost situation, and several ~$100 combination Blu-ray-reader and DVD-writer drives have existed for over a year. Once again, we face a situation where having separate drives might make sense to some people because the fastest DVD writers have slightly higher burn speeds than available combo drives. But the practical matter of saving a few seconds on a burn is only really valuable for someone who uses the feature continuously. Rather than devote resources to improving DVD-writing speed, combo-drive manufacturers have focused recent improvements on Blu-ray reads, which, at the now-standard 8x speed, are fast enough to buffer several seconds of video for each second of play time. The added read speed is gratis thanks to competition between manufacturers, so we finally have a selection of combo drives with good enough performance to convince us to take the plunge.
You’ll probably notice that a few brands are missing, and for good reason. One long-time favorite enthusiast vendor is shifting entirely towards notebook-sized drives. Another is in the middle of a model update and couldn’t get us its newer part, and a third is dropping its combo drives early to focus on improved-value Blu-ray burners. That leaves us with two value brands and one premium brand vying for our best-value dollars.