Review of the DRX-500ULX:

A Firewire All-Format DVD Burner

by Roger MacBride Allen

www.rmallen.net

rmallen@attglobal.net

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  •  Price from Amazon.com: $391.99 as of 16 July 2003

Use this link to order this unit from Amazon.com

Well, I guess my timing was just a teeny trifle off. I was more or less hoping to avoid being an early-adopter on DVD-burning, but I didn't wait quite long enough. The hardware I purchased (A Sony DRX-500ULX DVD, if you must know) seems all grown up -- but the software that ships with it, and the software I have tried out for a test drive still shows signs of adolescence -- signs every bit as attractive as acne.

The short form on the Sony burner: I like it. It can play any kind of DVD or CD you'd care to throw at it. It's an external unit, and you can use either Firewire (also know as IEEE 1394 or Ilink) cables or a USB-2 hookup to hook up to your computer. I have taken advantage of its two Firewire ports to daisy-chain it in with my existing Firewire drive and my Firewire-equipped Sony video camera.

The unit is sold as being for Windows only, but the word on the web is that you can hook it up very neatly, sweetly, and completely to a Macintosh, and I'll bet there are dweezely little developers writing and tweaking drivers for Linux even as I type. (I just checked, and you betcha. I quote one report: "...dvd+rwutils 5.3 did work, growfs specifically." And no, growfs isn't a typo. The term is used again in the same post. I am quietly proud that my new Sony drive growfs specifically. I'd hate for it to generalize.)

Installation could not have been simpler: I plugged in the Firewire cables, plugged in the power supply, and fired her up. It worked. (Subject to the caveats below.)

There is a similar unit that is an internal drive, that plugs into an IDE connector. The external unit I purchased cost about $80 more, but I believe it will be worth it. I can move it from machine to machine to do software and data backups, and transport it by itself without having to schlep my whole computer in order to use it. I hope to upgrade my video editing to a slicker computer system some day. Going with the Firewire external hookup will allow me to trot this one unit back and forth as needed, without having to pop the case and fiddle with cables, etc.

The other nifty feature of this unit is that it deals with all the DVD formats except DVD-RAM, and DVD-RAM isn't really for DVD video anyway. It handles playing plain old DVDs, and reads and writes DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW and DVD+RW, plus CD-R and CD-RWs.

So what? Well, here's the deal. There is at present a very dull battle in progress about what DVD recordable format will win out. The above variations to the DVD standard are all very slightly incompatible with each other. A standalong DVD player might be able to read DVD-R disks, but not DVD+R/W, and vice versa, or whatever variant you need. Sooner or later one of the aforementions bits of alphabet soup will win out. (Unless they all hang in there, which seems increasingly possible.) My Sony DVD burner will deal with all the variants, so, whatever the outcome, or for whonever you're burning a disk for, you'll be all right.

In the meantime, I have various relatives with various types of DVD players hooked up to their TVs. Some have players that will read DVD-R, some will read DVD+R, and so on. I now have at least a fighting chance of burning disks that all of them can read, so they can all be bored by my home movies of my son.

So that sums up the burner: it works beautifully. It reads CD-ROMs, burns to DVDs, and makes no fuss about it.

I'm not going to bother reporting on the software that shipped with my unit, as there have probably been a couple of changes in the lineup since then. The combination of programmed bundled with a given piece of hardware can change more frequently than some people change their underwear. See authoring-progs.html for a discussion of  software that was of interest to me.

I have not been able to get the unit to play CD music disks, but I rarely do that through my computer, and when I do, I have a CD drive that does that job just fine. I am sure the DVD burn can be made to do it, but I don't want to break what's working just to fire up a feature I don't need. The "documentation" on this point reads, in full, as follows:

   Q: How do I output audio to the computer's speakers?
   A: Configure Windows or the software you are using for digital sound playback.

Boy, that's helpful. For the record, the sound from DVDs played back fine with no muss or full from all the software I tried without any adjustment.

Annoying caveats to the hardware burner itself: I it bought in June 2003, with firmware 2.0C installed. Out of the box, this caused problems with the software that shipped with the burner. We'll discuss this in relentless detail below.

Pretty much by the time I had the burner out of the box, the driver firmware was up to 2.0F, which meant I had to go through the slightly unnerving procedure of upgrading the firmware. All went well, and the upgrade was smooth, easy, and free -- but screw up a firmware upgrade, and your nice new whatever-it-is that needed the upgrade may well be converted into a doorstop. (Sometimes you can recover from a firmware upgrade failure -- other times, it's dead, Jim, and that's it.)

Second annoying caveat: the extremely minimal documentation warned me that, because I had Windows98se, I would have to drill down to about four layers on the software DVD that came with it in order to extract the driver I needed to get the damned thing to talk to my Win98 machine properly via Firewire. So in other words, I had to get a file off the DVD before I could read anything off the DVD. Brilliant. (Fortunately, my brother has a DVD reader, and I was able to copy the file by putting the disk in his machine. However, the file refused to install from a floppy. Go figure. It will install if it is first copied to the hard drive.)

Even better, the documentation gave the wrong name for the file. (The Sony "documentation" variously said the file would be called "english.exe" or "XXX.exe," neither of which was very helpful, given the file name that I found there was called 242975usa8.exe.)

As best I can tell, what this driver basically does is allow Windows 98se to deal with things gracefully if you turn the drive on or off during a session, or try to eject a disk. As it happened, I had installed a working version of this file already, (to deal with my existing external Firewire hard drive) so I was okay.

As noted, the driver install file in question is 242975usa8.exe, and there are versions for various other countries, with countrie-codes in the file names, ie, substituting "ita" for "usa" for the Italian version. The working version I downloaded from the Microsoft website. I am not about to go uninstalling things, breaking what I just fixed, to try the experiment, but I think that the Sony driver will work at least somewhat without this driver installed, so you could hook it up, drill down the DVD, get the software, run it, reboot, and then be okay. Still, what the hell is the point of putting the install software on a DVD you can't read until you install the software? I got away with it, but I can easily imagine users who either can't through this bit of Catch-22ing, or else give up and don't try because they *think* they won't be able to get the thing to work.

Further annoyance: DVD-ROMs and CD-ROMs are essentially identical in appearance, and therefore I loaded the software DVD into a CD-ROM player and had just about convinced myself that the disk was no good -- and then the light dawned that the disk was a DVD. Sure enough, it was so labeled on the disk -- in smallish print -- but nothing in the documentation said it was a DVD -- and I at first took the disk labeling simply to mean it was a CD-ROM that came with a DVD burner

Weirdly enough, Sony does it both ways. I quote from a FAQ page found at sony.storagesupport.com:

    Q. What is the difference between the DRU500A and DRU500AX and the DRX500UL 
and DRX500ULX?
    A. The hardware is identical. The software that comes with the 
DRU500A and DRX500UL is on a CD-ROM disc and you will need
to download the latest updates to the software from the Internet.
The DRU500AX and DRX500ULX comes on a DVD-ROM disc and has all the
latest software updates included. Both drives can be updated to the
same, latest firmware.

So in other words, the big improvement is that they put slightly more current software on a DVD instead of a CD. Big whoop -- especially if your system can't read the DVD -- and the DVD software is itself dated.

All of the above comes down to documentation problems. If the documentation was accurate regarding the name of the driver file, that would help. It would also be nice if the documentation said something to the effect that "Note: the disk shipped with this drive is a DVD-ROM and cannot be read in a CD-ROM drive" and (assuming the following is true) "the drive will function with some limitations before the driver is installed, but will have the ability to read the driver install file. Install the driver, then reboot your machine, and your DVD-writer should be fully functional."

Even more idiotic, the USB driver installation instructions specifically say you have to "insert the supplied [DVD] software disc into a drive other than this drive." The problem is obvious. I hope. But then, it wasn't to the hotshots at Sony -- and that ain't just a documentation glitch if you have no way to get at the drivers.

For the record, you can download the current drivers at http://sony.storagesupport.com/dvdrw/downloads.htm and go from there. But why invent such headaches for the customer?

The closest thing to any explanation for all this that I can find is that the software takes up too much room to fit on one CD-ROM. I guess Sony saved 2.3 cents per unit sale by putting the software on one DVD-ROM instead of two or three CD-ROMs.

Once I had the aforementioned unsnarled, all was lovely in the garden -- at least so far as the hardware was concerned. The DVD Authoring software morass lay dead ahead. Learn more at this page: authoring-progs.html