I'd always regretted not having specified a DVD-Writer in my Dell Inspiron 1200 laptop when I got it three years ago. In an effort to keep the price under £400 (and what a chuckle that seems to be today with better laptops at £299), what I ended up with was a so-called 'combo' unit, i.e. a DVD player and a CD writer.
One reason I now miss the functionality of a full DVD-writer is that the laptop is the only computer I can position anywhere near my Freeview PVR with a view to pulling off the recorded files from its hard drive later making them into DVDs.
One option open to me was to upgrade the existing 'combo' unit with a reasonably-priced replacement at under £30.
However, as I've stated the laptop is already three years old, ominously several months into its 'life without a warranty' or 'borrowed time' as it's sometimes known, so spending even a modest thirty quid on it seems like courting disaster.
Now then, by way of contrast, an 'outboard' USB DVD-writer is another kettle o' fish altogether. Not only would this achieve my goal, but it would be usable on whatever comes my way next, and seeing that laptops are getting thinner and lighter, some 'net-books' with no rotating drives at all, this approach seemed the most useful.
Some outboard DVD-Drives are just straight lifts of full-sized 5.25 inch drives as found in desk-tops put in a case, so any pretensions to being a laptop accessory look a bit off-colour.
Fortunately, in trawling www.dabs.com for a 'laptop DVD writer', it also found me the LiteOn Slim 8-speed Lightscribe* USB drive, which unlike its desktop counterpart, uses the slim-line drive for a laptop and sticks it in a box the size of a slim paperback. It can also run with the 5 volts supplied by the USB port, and so only needs one connecting cable and no bloody mains adapter under normal conditions, thus making it suitable for putting into one of those side pockets of a laptop's carrying case.
(*Luke Skywalker's pen?)
THERE'S A LITEON BUT............
One minor advantage to buying LiteOn DVD drives is the fact that some nerd has written a little utility for them called LTNRPC.exe. "Whoopee-doo!" I hear you cry. Well, you may or may not know that Windows only allows for 5 switches of DVD movie region before it locks to the last one. This means that anyone with a 'transatlantic' DVD collection of Regions 1 and 2 had better not use their PC to watch movies otherwise, as my Mum used to say, 'you'll get stuck like that!"
The LTNRPC utility allows for this '5-strikes-and-you're-out' counter to be reset to zero, by addressing the firmware in the drive. If you've got to buy a budget-priced drive from the Far East's 'also ran' brands, then this seems like as good a reason as any to stick with LiteOn.
Even so, fifty quid-odd still seemed like a lot for something that would have been half that price as a laptop internal upgrade, until I read up on 'Lightscribe', a facility I'd not taken much notice of before. Like a lot of people, I've always 'labelled' my burned CDs and DVDs with a special felt pen, the neatness of which was inversely proportional to my sobriety at the shime of witing shumshing on it. 'Great', I thought, 'this means I can buy even cheaper media with only a shiny upper side to it!'
Nice thought but no, Chris. You have to buy specific 'Lightscribe-compatible' disks. Not a show-stopper, since they can still be had in DVD-R format for around 28p each, but dearer than my usual 17p jobs.
Using the Lightscribe software which anyone is free to download, you make can basic labels with only a neat title, and subtitle, or you can use a whole raft of templates for something fancier, even importing your own graphics.
The actual process couldn't be any easier. Having chosen your text, you merely insert the disk wrong-side up, and let it get on with it. These are not paper labels - these are laser-etched and take around 23 minutes to complete. The results, being as they are on a metallic matte surface, are a bit faint. Care needs to be taken when pasting a colour photo file and combining it with text.
There are only black fonts to play with and frequent use of the 'preview' facility needs to be made if your text is to be in a readable section of the picture, bearing in mind that the result is monochrome. I've opted for rescaling any pictures into the upper 75% of the disk, leaving room for a legible title beneath.
The results, as I've said are a trifle faint, reminiscent of early 'daguerreotypes' but they are a damned sight neater than my shaky felt tip attempts, giving the disk the air of something worth archiving!
As I said earlier it is possible to run this beast without its mains adapter. To make doubly sure that the USB connection is 'up to it', it actually has two plugs using, you guessed it two USB sockets.
As with any mass storage device connected thus, it needs no installation per se, since Windows, and no doubt Apple OS detect it without further ado.
To make ordinary DVD copies, I've had no problem just powering it from the laptop, admittedly connected to the mains via its own charger. I do know however, that owing to the extra current required to physically etch the disks, the mains adapter is a must during 'Lightscribe' activity.
If you're not sure whether your laptop can handle the power drain, there's a utility you can download from the LiteOn site to check. Look for www.liteonit.com/global/download.html . This not only lets you check the validity of your USB power outlets, but also allows you to switch the writer to a power saving mode, presumably taking longer to write, but without totally overloading your laptop.
I tend to stick to DVD-R format disks for my own purposes (archiving TV programmes from my set-top box), although a whole gamut of single and dual-layered DVD- and DVD+ disks are usable, and unusually, DVD-RAM, a largely Panasonic format now more or less disbanded.
Likewise, I don't spend much on my disks, so its tolerance to cheap media is also beyond doubt.
The recordings it makes seem to be wholly compatible with my DVD player.
Not a show-stopper I know, but mine came in a natty metallic maroon casing with a kind of rubberised feel to it, giving an impression of being quite tough. There's a bracket to enable it to be stood on end if you want but I never like the feel of trying to load something vertically that's plainly been designed to lie flat. There are also four non-slip feet to stop it sliding all over the dining room table.
As well as the essentials, like the mains adapter and the double USB cord, you really only get an instruction sheet in several languages, and a CD of DVD-writing software, in this case, Nero* v7. Frankly, I've got all the disk writing software I can handle, and I particularly avoid the later versions of Nero since they seem to introduce a whole load of clutter-ware to my PC. Nero 5 will do me fine. Even then, I can't remember the last time I used that either. My Freeview-to-DVD software (VideoReDo) does the lot including trimming out the ads and burning the disk.
(*Nero? Didn't he fiddle while CD-ROMe burned?)
If the portability appeals, this is a good little bit of kit. Larger 5.25" drives may have faster write-speeds, but they are cumbersome add-ons especially for a laptop.
The Lightscribe feature is a 'nice to have' which adds a further string to my bow.
As it can be shifted from one PC to another, it doesn't feel like money down the drain in the same way that upgrading an existing PC does.
Not a bad 50 quid's worth if you ask me.