As far as external hard drives go, we're bullish on the eSATA interface. Short of adding a Mini-SAS
controller, eSATA is the highest-bandwidth port you'll find on the outside of a mainstream computer worth
your time to consider buying. This is the primary reason we jumped at the chance to review Other World
Computing's (OWC to their friends) Mercury Pro Blu-ray Disc burner. It's a quad-interface unit, featuring
USB, FireWire 400, FireWire 800 and eSATA ports, and is the first non-hard drive or non-SSD device that
we've seen that includes an eSATA port.
So, is it worth it? Let's dig a little deeper and find out.
The drive is thoughtfully packaged with one of each type of interface cable used by the drive. Also included
are two blank single-layer BD-R discs in jewel boxes (ours were Memorex, but yours could be made by
someone else). The drive is backed by OWC's 1-year warranty.
We experienced no trouble at all using the drive for day-to-day operation. We connected the drive to a workstation via FireWire 400 and seamlessly
burned a project from Adobe Encore. We then moved the FireWire cable to a MacBook with a dying optical drive to do a reinstall of Mac OS X,
where it performed not only more reliably, but also much more quickly than the Apple-supplied internal drive. A small muffin fan is built into the
case as well, and it spins whenever the drive is powered on. The underlying drive mechanism is Pioneer's BDR-203, and the unit's bridge chip is
Oxford's 934DSB. These are good choices for these particular components, though there are certainly numerous Blu-ray Disc burners on the market
that could be integrated into this product. Oxford's bridge chips have become a de facto standard for external optical drives, though other bridge
chips certainly exist.
We performed speed testing with two handy utilities: Lightning UK!'s Imgburn (free,
www.imgburn.com) and Nic Wilson's DVDINFOPro ($30, www.dvdinfopro.com).
Imgburn's Discovery function allows you to fill up a disc to test many characteristics of an
optical drive. We created Discovery discs in CD-R, DVD+R and BD-R formats and then
speed tested the drive with DVDINFOPro.
The scores for CD and DVD were roughly the same across all three interfaces we tested
(USB 2.0, FireWire 400 and eSATA), yielding average read speeds of 23.7x for CD-R and
8.75x for DVD+R. Curiously, while Blu-ray Disc performance was close between USB
2.0 (4.15x) and FireWire 400 (4.42x), eSATA performance for BD was strikingly poor by
comparison at only 3.09x. We aren't certain as to why this is the case, particularly since
the CD and DVD scores matched the scores attained through the USB 2.0 and FireWire
400 interfaces. Therefore, the data acquired through this test shows that eSATA adds no
benefit for external optical drives. FireWire 400 offers a very slight advantage over USB
2.0 but the performance is reasonably close.
As a means of comparison, we also benchmarked the internal optical drives installed in the
Polywell system that we reviewed a few issues back. Its Lite-On ATAPI DVD burner
scored 34.83x for CD and 11.38x for DVD. Its LG SATA Blu-ray Disc burner scored 29.85x for CD, 8.67x for DVD and 3.59x for BD. With this
range of scores, and never getting to a point where any of the interfaces being tested were completely saturated, we believe our testing methodology
for optical drives transcends interfaces and gets right to the meat and potatoes, i.e. the drive mechanism. (Interface saturation is much more common
when testing hard drives over USB 2.0 and FireWire 400 interfaces in particular, hence, why eSATA's bandwidth makes it such a good choice for
external hard drives.)
What Have We Learned?
Our eSATA evangelism reaches its end point when it comes to optical drives. We really
dig this drive, but we would connect it via FireWire or USB 2.0 and save our eSATA ports
for hard drives. But we had to give it a whirl.
OWC also offers a number of other Mercury Pro Blu-ray Disc burners in its arsenal,
including the popular LG drive that can also read HD DVDs. If you only need to read
Blu-ray Disc but still burn DVDs and CDs, you're covered for $199. Some models are also
available with Roxio Toast 10, if you're needing a Mac burning solution.
Drive firmware version tested: 1.05
Interface: USB 2.0, FireWire 400, FireWire
Buffer size 4MB
Includes cables and two blank BD-Rs