If you're reading this, you're probably a technically inclined person.
And as a technically inclined person, you're probably used to standards wars. VHS vs. Beta is the most memorable, of course, but the electronic landscape is littered with forgotten technologies like VLB, HomeRF, and—well, it's almost depressing to list them all. The recordable DVD standards wars are perhaps the most frustrating because unlike previous skirmishes the different media are so similar. They're physically identical; they're used almost exactly the same way by the same programs; and the formats' names differ only by one character (the DVD Forum's DVD-R/RW versus the DVD+RW Alliance's DVD+R/RW). The practical differences between the "minus" and "plus" formats are so minor it's hard to say one is intrinsically superior to the other.
Add it all up and you've got the perfect recipe for consumer paralysis. Buy the wrong recordable drive, and you'll probably end up shelling out more dough for another drive when the dust settles—and having to recopy all your discs. And what happens if, say, the DVD+RW movie discs you burn work on your DVD player, but someone else's prefers DVD-RW? It just makes you want to reach for the extra-strength Motrin.
It's not surprising, then, that Sony's late-2002 announcement of its DRU-500A drive was like a thunderclap. Taking advantage of the fact that the different formats use the same form factor, it was the perfect hedge against obsolescence; it could write to any of the four recordable DVD formats—hence its designation as a DVD±RW drive. For good measure, it also burned CD-Rs and CD-RWs. That drive has now been succeeded by the DRU-500AX and the DRX-500ULX—internal and external models, respectively. What's more, the external model speaks both USB and iLink (Sony's name for IEEE 1394, or FireWire). About the only gap it doesn't bridge is in operating systems; Mac owners are out of luck.
I tried the DRX-500ULX, which was a piece of cake to install: after plugging in the USB connector and turning the drive on, Windows XP automatically detected it and was ready for action. I quickly verified that every DVD-burning program I had recognized the drive, then ran a series of tests for speed.
I created an image file that would completely fill a disc with data; to keep things as consistent as possible I standardized on Verbatim media rated for the drive's top speeds. (Both drives are rated at 4X for the write-once formats, and 2X and 2.4X for DVD-RW and DVD+RW, respectively. CD-R and CD-RW burning are at 24X and 10X, respectively.)
Using the USB 2.0 connection, I burned both recordable discs with Roxio Easy CD and DVD Creator 6 in twelve and a half minutes; the DVD+RW disc took 18 minutes, and the DVD-RW took 25 minutes. As expected, the FireWire connection slowed things down, but only a little: at most, it added a minute to burn times. (Just for fun, I also connected the drive to a USB 1.1 port; it took 78 minutes to burn a DVD+RW disc that way. It's a bit of a wait, it's still usable if you haven't yet upgraded to a higher-speed port.)
The DRX-500ULX is essentially a DRU-500AX in an external casing, which adds almost nothing to the height and width and a few centimeters to the depth, keeping the drive reasonably sleek. And unlike some other external drives I've used, it's remarkably quiet. Even while busily burning at 4X, I barely noticed the whirr of the mechanism.
The one flaw in the DVD±RW drives has nothing to do with the hardware itself;
it has to do with Sony. Although the first drive was announced late last year, finding one was nearly impossible. The current drives, though touted since January, didn't show up in stores until mid-April. Furthermore, by the time you read this, the DRU510A should have hit the shelves, with the DRX-510UL right around the corner. (The only difference is the ability to burn DVD+RW at 4X—if you can find capable media.)
Bewildered yet? There's more news, but not necessarily bad. A week before this writing, TDK announced their own multi-format drive, the internal Indi DVD. Though it doesn't match the newest Sony drives' 4X DVD+RW burning speed, it's an indicator that, at the very least, Sony has galvanized other companies, and that mutually exclusive "minus" and "plus" drives might soon become a thing of the past.