Panasonic LF-D311

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Panasonic LF-D311

The wait for affordable DVD burners is over, and hot on the heels of Pioneer's well-hyped offering comes a considerably cheaper option from Panasonic. Has the Holy Grail finally been unearthed?

Panasonic was the first company to launch mainstream storage solutions bearing the DVD logo, offering writers that use its own DVD-RAM format. Most DVD-RAM discs are housed in a protective plastic case and, even though some can be removed and used as stand-alone discs, they have been found to be incompatible with most stand-alone DVD video players. Thus, although DVD-RAM is a versatile and cost-effective way of storing large quantities of data, it doesn't meet the needs of video makers, intent on producing their own DVD video discs.
Other companies might have stubbornly pushed their own format above all others, but Panasonic has taken a far more constructive approach, by adopting Pioneer's new DVD-R for General Use format, and combining this with DVD-RAM capabilities, providing a springboard to promote its own format to a wider world.
Although a set-top DVD-R/DVD-RAM video recorder is on the horizon, Panasonic's first dual-format device is the LF-D311 DVD Burner - a 5.25in drive for use in Mac and Windows PCs (although the review sample we received only contained software for Windows). Unlike previous internal DVD-RAM drives, this one uses an IDE interface rather than SCSI, and supports DVD-R General Use discs as well as Panasonic's own DVD-RAM.
When we first heard about this drive, we were told it would sell at a mere £412 inc VAT - a price that very nearly made us drool. Since then, however, we have been told that the launch price has been upped to a slightly grander £494. While that's nearly £100 more than we'd been lead to believe, it's still well below the cost of the Pioneer A03.

Being an IDE drive, the D311 is a breeze to install for anyone happy to open up a computer. First, jumpers must be set on the back of the drive to identify it as master or slave, after which it's a simple task to connect the IDE data cable and the power lead, and screw the drive in place. If there's no other CD or DVD drive on the system, an audio cable can be linked from the drive to the system's sound card. Aside from the need to enable DMA in Windows Device Manager, that would be the end of the story for most IDE drives, but the D311 requires drivers to be installed, too. Fortunately, the drivers install quickly and easily, though require the computer to be rebooted. Afterwards, the drive is recognised as two devices by Windows - a DVD-R drive (seen as a CD-ROM drive) and a Removable Disk drive (the DVD-RAM drive).
There are also two software applications to install. Prassi PrimoDVD is similar in many ways to basic CD burning software, but allows users to make data-based DVD-ROMs. For video enthusiasts, there's Sonic Solution's DVDit 2.3 LE - enabling the creation of basic DVD video discs.
RAM it!
While DVD-RAM is nothing like as widespread as floppy disc or Iomega's Zip format, it's capacity is huge in comparison, and it can be very useful for backing up large files. When you consider that a double-sided disc can store up to 9.4GByte of data (8.5GByte formatted), and comes in at around £33, it really can't be ignored. In theory, a formatted 9.4GByte disc could be used to back up around 40 minutes of DV video - not as cheap as DV tape, but far better for instant access by a computer, and more secure - considering that the discs have error correction features which are missing from FireWire transfer.
Backing up data to a DVD-RAM disc couldn't be simpler. It's read in exactly the same way as a hard drive or floppy, allowing files and folders to be dragged directly onto it. Unlike CD and DVD-R, with DVD-RAM there's no need for dedicated authoring programs to do the job for you, and the contents can be amended and deleted at any point without any difficulty. That's the theory, anyway, and we found it to be correct to a certain extent.
The disc requires formatting first, so the supplied 4.7GByte disc actually holds around 4.2GByte of data. Formatting only takes a few seconds, and from there it's extremely easy to use. Most of the files we sent to DVD-RAM moved without complaint, with 50MByte files taking about 75 seconds to copy over. Problems arose when we tried to copy a 1.7GByte MPEG file - we received an error message, telling us to check that the drive wasn't full or copy protected. It was neither, nor was the file in question in use by another application. We found this to be a problem with all files above 100MByte in size.
After chatting to a friendly technobod at Panasonic and investigating further, it turned out that Windows had formatted the disc as FAT 16, rather than FAT 32. Reformatting with the correct settings solved the problem, and we found that all files up to 2GByte in size would copy over without complaint. For reference, a 1.7GByte file (a DV AVI of about eight minutes' duration) took 27 minutes to copy to DVD-RAM.

On the whole, we're very positive about the Panasonic LF-D311 DVD Burner. Its sub-£500 price is very welcome, and it performed extremely well. The drive itself seems very sturdy, and is simple to install and use (as long as users ensure that DMA is turned on in Device Manager, and that DVD-RAM discs are formatted as FAT 32). Supplied software is easy to use, and - aside from the absence of a program to encode videos as DVD-compliant MPEG-2 streams - should cause the novice very few problems.
The buying decision between this drive and the Pioneer DVR-AO3 is likely to be a tough one. While the Pioneer drive also acts as a CD burner, we think this should be a secondary consideration, as CD-RW drives are now so cheap, and we'd question whether it's a good idea to be using an expensive DVD burner for everything. The Pioneer drive also supports DVD-RW, and while the Panasonic doesn't, it does have what could be a trump card - DVD-RAM, a robust format with high capacities and that's very easy to use. There's also a good £150 price difference between the two drives which, we feel is sure to swing the vote with many people.
The bottom line is that the Panasonic is an excellent drive, and performs very well at a relatively low cost.

For the full review, see the August 2001 issue of Computer Video.

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