February 2002 | "Incidental, but not integral," young-old Maude tells old-young Harold in Hal Ashby's 1971 film Harold and Maude, casually dismissing the cacophonous clutter of memorabilia and marginalia that adorns her train-car home. It's similarly more incidental than integral that a DVD-Recorder review would begin by invoking Harold and Maude; vastly more incidental than integral that the Harold and Maude DVD—a packed-to-the-gills 4.65GB DVD-5—might be illicitly copied in the course of DVD-R testing; and at least mildly more incidental than integral that a DVD-Recorder can be used for that purpose.
But just as CD-R drives make excellent vehicles for copying music for which the copier doesn't have the copyright, so do DVD-Recorders make suitable vessels for the misappropriation of DVD content. And as the economies of scale fall in line for the casual purchasing of DVD-R drives and media, and the sketchy morality of the likes of deCSS becomes another casualty of the moral relativism of the age, so too will casual copying of DVDs careen toward the commonplace. It's only incidentally analogous to, say, the eponymous Maude and Harold stealing a city-bound tree for replanting in the country (with a stolen shovel); but such an inevitability does leave the ethically inclined with little recourse than to follow Maude's own advice: "Aim above morality."
And if that doesn't work, stick to the integral. It's integral to QPS's new Que! DVD-Recorder that it's the first drive based on Pioneer's Editor's Choice-winning A03 to use a USB 2.0 interface, and that USB 2.0—whatever the shortcomings of its 1.1 predecessor—proves mightily up to the challenge at hand. It's also integral that that challenge entails writing DVD-R at 2X and CD-R/RW at 8X, like all A03 derivatives; incidentally, it burns the DVD-5 seams-bursting likes of Harold and Maude in under 29 minutes. The Que! drive also comes with a nifty software bundle, including PowerDVD for DVD playback, Easy CD Creator 5 (standard edition) for CD recording, and medioStream's neoDVD for entry-level DVD authoring and recording. Some bundles also include, for promotional purposes, an unidentified 2-port USB 2.0 PCI host adapter, though QPS says this inclusion isn't standard.
Miles from Nowhere
Finding the USB 2 host adapter in the Que! DVD Burner bundle is a little like finding a prize in a specially marked box of Kellogg's Raisin Bran, except the box isn't specially marked. In fact, it doesn't even come with any documentation on the card, which can prove problematic when it comes to installing drivers. It certainly did in my case, creating a system conflict with my host PC. I tested the Que! drive on a Dell Dimension 4300 Pentium IV, running Windows ME with a 1.4gHz processor, 256MB RAM, and a 16X/48X onboard LITEON DVD-ROM/CD-ROM drive. A more than adequate test bed to be sure, but somewhere between integral and incidental was the key nugget of knowledge that the default drivers on the included software disc were Windows 98SE only, and would create an immediate conflict with my pre-installed drivers that would make the drive invisible to the PC when attached to either of the USB 2.0 ports. After numerous rounds of re-installation, I switched the Que! to the onboard USB 1.1 port, and successfully recorded a CD-R at 4X—a nice, solid speed for USB 1.1, and definitely a good sign.
Choosing the last refuge of the scoundrel I gave in and called tech support, and the nice man on the other end of the line immediately ushered me into safe mode and led me to the Device Manager window where under USB host adapters I found the offending drivers: oddly enough, three guys named NEC. With these agitators expunged, after a quick restart (and boy does this PC restart quick), I was ready to roll.
Father and Son
One of the great advantages the Que! DVD Burner has in being based on the Pioneer DVR-A03 is its multiformat-writing capability. Unlike earlier DVD-R models, the A03 and its derivatives boast sound credentials in writing CD-R/RW discs, as well as DVD-R. The drive is also designed to work with rewritable DVD-RW media, although that doesn't seem to be happening yet.
Eight-speed recording isn't exactly state-of-the-art, with 32X CD recorders debuting at COMDEX, and although USB 1.1 can't handle it, 8X recording isn't even especially taxing on the USB 2.0 bus, which can toss off 24X writes like nobody's business. But 9-10 minutes to record a full 650MB or 700MB disc is certainly nothing to sneeze at, and it's all accomplished quite smoothly with the bundled Easy CD Creator 5 software. Of course, as in all CD-R packages that cast their lot with the Roxio tool, you don't get cool ancillary features like SoundStream for advanced audio features or VideoCD recording capabilities. Roxio is thoughtful enough to include Web site-launching buttons for upgrading to the Platinum edition, conveniently placed adjacent to the grayed out buttons for the not-included features.
But all the basic audio features (extraction, track listing, and DAO and TAO recording) and essential data functions (multisession writing, bootable CD creation, volume recording, etc.) are here in the "Standard" version. Since you have to pay for the Platinum upgrade anyway, if you're looking to expand your CD recording repertoire, be sure to comparison shop with other CD-R tools like ahead's Nero, Veritas' PrimoCD, and NTI's CD Maker.
As a CD recorder, the Que! Burner proved compatible with a variety of media, including discs from Imation, Sony, Verbatim, TDK, and Mitsui. One advantage of working with a recorder that's just behind the times in the CD-R sense is that just about any media on the market should be able to handle its top 8X speed.
On the Road to Find Out
All that CD-R stuff is great, and anyone to whom that backward-write-compatibility seemed at worst pointlessly nostalgic and at best incidental on buying the drive will surely find it integral at some point, since CD-R is pretty much integral to just about any professional or hobbyist computing activity today. But truth be told, you didn't fork over $699 for an 8X CD recorder that you could snatch up on the Web for under $100. You bought it so you could record DVDs.
One of the key, if consternating, facts of life with DVD-R is that there are two kinds of DVD-R media: Authoring and General Use. Playback-wise, the discs are interchangeable. Application-wise, Authoring discs have one significant, if niche, advantage that pertains to encryption and thus their suitability for commercial distribution and submission to replicators. General Use discs have the advantage of being a good bit cheaper, generally sold for $6-$10 whereas Authoring discs go for $15-$20. The other key difference is where they are written: DVR-A03 drives and their derivatives, like the Que! DVD Burner, write only General Use discs. This is especially good news since QPS only gives you one disc gratis, and you'll be happy not to have to pay $17 a disc after you blow through (or, like me, simply blow) the first disc and have to go shopping for more.
The Que! DVD Burner worked well with a variety of media, excluding the QPS-branded disc that shipped with it. I enjoyed multiple successful burns on Verbatim, Mitsui, and the oddly controversial Apple media, which worked every time and proved playback-compatible (like the Verbatim and Mitsui discs) in the Que drive, the TestPC's LITEON DVD-ROM, and three DVD-Video players.
But the drive can't take all the credit. The bundled medioStream neoDVD (standard) software is a modern marvel, a prime example of a new wave of DVD authoring software products (Sonic's MyDVD3 and Apple's iDVD are other examples) that have effectively taken the authoring out of DVD authoring. It's more like what we once called, in regard to CD-R, premastering, although that term was more applicable when CD-Rs were essentially a step in the mastering process. But it applies in the sense that although you can take it farther than this, and bring some creativity to your DVD "design" (especially when you upgrade to the "plus" version), you can also do as little as set yourself up to burn and go. Or slightly more involved, it's capture-convert-burn.
The program is remarkably simple to use. The opening screen gives you three options: Transfer video from DV camcorder into DVD format for storage on HDD, CD, VCD, or DVD, represented by a camcorder icon; convert video files from AVI, QT, DV, MPEG-1, or MPEG-2 to DVD-ready VOB for storage on HDD, CD, VCD, or DVD, represented by a folder icon; or copy DVD or VCD disc or file, represented by a double-disc icon. You click on one of these options, and in the subsequent screen, choose your file source, and that's essentially all there is to it.
Copying DVD files worked like a charm every time, taking 25-28 minutes for typical DVD-5-sized filesets. Add to that roughly 12 minutes of DeCSS-fueled "ripping" mayhem via a program that dares not speak its name and you are looking at less than three-quarters of an hour to dupe a DVD.
Conversion and recording to VCD also proved successful with various source files and filetypes. And it was all achieved remarkably easily considering the complexity of what was going on behind the scenes, and how deeply you once had to enmesh yourself in all that stuff to make it happen.
Where do the Children Play?
"Here today, gone tomorrow, so why get attached to things?" Maude tells Harold, miracle of miracles, with exactly the same wry smile, pixel for pixel, on DVD-R as on pressed DVD-5. "Isn't ownership a little absurd?" Harold absorbs these words as revelation; in the context of unauthorized duplication, and writing about it with empathy for the content creators you're writing for, resignation seems more to suit.
Aiming above morality, or outside it, just for a moment, it's worth stepping back from ethical and fair use considerations just to admire what the technology can do. Long way or wrong way—with the likes of the A03, the Que! DVD Burner, the many other variations, and simpatico software—DVD recording has arrived.