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Philips DVDRW208
Next up is the Philips drive. While it is a first generation part, I found it to be very reliable, though occasionally quirky. My first review sample didn't function properly, but based on the condition of the packaging when it arrived, I'm confident that its issues were due to damage incurred during shipping. The second sample unit performed flawlessly.


The DVDRW208 from the front and back

Unlike the DVD-R/RW format, DVD+RW has only rewriteable media at this time. The initial reasoning was that people would be interested in using the media not only in computer drives, but also in set-top boxes that would use DVD+RW discs to timeshift TV shows like a VCR. For this purpose, the rewriteablility of DVD+RW is obviously very important; not being able to record over a show that you only wanted to see once would result in a lot of useless discs. However, specifications for a write-once media were included in the DVD+RW spec, and rumor has it the companies behind DVD+RW are working on DVD+R media as I write this. There has been talk that first-generation drives like the DVDRW208 may be upgradeable to support DVD+R via firmware, but this hasn't been confirmed.

The DVDRW208, like the Pioneer DVR-A03, does more than simply write to recordable DVD media. It also reads pressed CDs and DVDs, and reads and writes CD-R, CD-RW and of course DVD+RW. Compared to the Pioneer, the DVDRW208 is a much better all-around drive, at least on paper. It reads DVDs at up to 8X and reads CD media at up to 32X. On the recording side, it will write DVD+RW at 2.5X, CD-R at 12X and CD-RW at 10X. While these speeds still aren't as good as a high-end CD-RW drive, they're respectable, and in some cases (CD-RW for example) they are substantially faster than the Pioneer.

Compared to the Pioneer, the DVDRW208's documentation is somewhat sparse. A folded cardboard strip doubles as a four-page-long installation "manual" (in six languages) and a holder for the installation CD. It is more confusing and difficult to read than the Pioneer's manual because of the much smaller print size and the organization of the contents. According to the face of the included CD, the actual manual is on the CD itself. Unfortunately, when I looked at this manual, a small note in the corner said: "Dear customer, the files contained in this manual, referring to DVD+RW use, are still under construction." That's right, everything in the manual pertained to a CD-RW drive; there was no mention whatsoever of DVD+RW.

While my previous experience with CD-RW drives enabled me to muddle through, ponder this: A casual computer user with an interest in archiving home movies goes to Best Buy and spends $499 on a DVD+RW drive, then gets it home and finds out that the manual CD (which has "DVD+RW & CD-R/RW Internal Drives" printed on it) has no content pertaining to his drive. He's on his own to figure it all out.

Thinking perhaps the manual had since been finished and was available online, I looked at the "Download" of the manual, which pointed to the same address (http://www.pcstuff.philips.com) for everything from "Firmware" to "Instructions For Use" to "Book." However, after navigating to the DVDRW208 section, all I found was a PDF of a specification sheet intended to advertise the drive. I'm mystified as to how the product was let out the door in this state.

The software bundle included with the Philips was considerably better than the Pioneer's, in my opinion. For writing data CDs and DVDs, an OEM version of Nero 5.5 was included. Nero is a very popular burner application, and for good reason; it combines a good user interface with plenty of powerful features, and is updated frequently. Additionally, the included Nero CD comes with InCD packet writing software. If you're interested in using packet writing, this is important, since you'll be forced to buy a separate package with the Pioneer.

I may be showing a bias towards Nero here, as I have much more experience with it than PrimoDVD, but I will say this: the first time I used Nero, I didn't have to refer to the manual to figure out how to work the software. I can't say the same for PrimoDVD.

Philips also includes MyDVD with their drive, but the Philips comes with version 3.0. On the MyDVD web site, under a section for v2.3 users, it says "NOTE: MyDVD 3.0 is very different from MyDVD 2.3." Yes, yes it is. This time, they decided to go with a Windows toolbar, Windows buttons and Windows menus. Thank God. MyDVD 3.0 is much easier to use than v2.3, and I vastly prefer it over the earlier version.

Philips packages PowerDVD 3.0 for playing back DVDs. This is the same program and version included with the Pioneer, so I won't comment further on it.

Cool! Can it copy DVDs?
By now I'm sure the question has popped into your head, so I'll deal with it now, in a couple of contexts: In theory? No. In practice? Probably, but that's assuming you'd want to.

Let's tackle those one at a time. First, both recordable DVD standards have implemented measures to make copying DVDs difficult if not impossible. In the case of DVD-R/RW, every disc is pre-embossed in one area, so the drive can't write to that particular spot. The catch? That's the spot that holds the encryption key on protected DVDs. As a result, a bit-by-bit copy of a DVD isn't possible, because you'd wind up with an encrypted disc that had no key.

The DVD+RW crowd is more ambiguous about how they do it, but the end result is the same. From DVDRW.org:

The DVD+RW format will not copy content with CSS protection. As a group, the DVD+RW Alliance fully supports the legal use of copy write content around the world and we recognize the rights of content owners. DVD+RW copy protection meets the requirements of industry accepted copy protection technologies.

Of course, those in the know realize CSS encryption has been cracked, and this fact changes things. The reality is that it should be possible to use DeCSS or similar software to decrypt the contents of a disc, and then burn the unencrypted version to a recordable DVD.

However, it's more complicated than that. Recordable DVD technologies are a single-sided, single-layer format that holds 4.7GB. I own a lot of DVD movies, and just about every movie in my collection uses one or more single-sided, dual-layer discs that hold 9.4GB each. There are exceptions; I have a few double-sided, single-layer discs that have a widescreen version on one side and a pan and scan on the other, but those are few and far between. I'm sure you can see the problem at this point. In the vast majority of cases, it's the 10-lbs.-of-crap/5-lb.-sack problem: it just won't fit.

I can hear your next question: But can't we just break the movie up onto multiple discs? Again, in theory, I'm sure it's possible. But at that point you're talking about completely redoing all the menus on the DVD, so each disc only has menu selections for the stuff on that disc. Can you say "time-consuming?"

Ignoring for a moment the moral and legal implications of stealing content, this is all a huge PITA, and would in all seriousness probably take several hours for a typical movie. Is it really worth it? A practical example: I just picked up "Jay And Silent Bob Strikes Back" (sure, it's no "Clerks" or "Dogma" but I'm a fan of Smith's work). It has two DVDs crammed full of stuff. While I haven't checked, they pretty much have to be dual layer, because otherwise, why not just issue one dual-layer disc?

So there's four recordable DVDs worth of content, and a ton of time spent recreating menus and splitting content out over four discs, not to mention the cost of the four recordable discs themselves. When you're done, you have to switch between four discs instead of two, and you navigate them using crappy homemade menu screens instead of the cool ones on the original discs. Know how much this movie cost me? $17.99.

For the love of God, people, just go buy the damn movie.