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Formats War II: HD DVD Advances, Flying the Flag of NEC. But only in DVD-ROM.

April 24, 2006



The current abundance of optical media sometimes brings me back to the good old times, when there was actually one recordable media type (CD-R) and I didn't have to rack my brains over compatibility problems and torment myself over the choice of the most promising and suitable format. But as the ancients used to say, it's human to crave for bread and circuses, as much as possible and right away :). Well, a computer cannot offer your bread, but it may provide plenty of circuses to any liking. PC multimedia content has been growing in geometrical progression of late. Poor CD-R physically couldn't cope with such data volumes. There appeared a need for more capacious, but still cheap optical media. The existing DVD format was ideal for this purpose. Prior to that moment, the format was weakly represented on the computer market solely by DVD-ROM. That's when the first disagreements appeared. Large manufacturers decided to get profits from recordable DVDs alone, without sharing them with competitors. As a result, there appeared several formats of recordable DVDs threatening complete incompatibility of devices and data media of different formats. The war started rather aggressively, but it quickly ended in a natural way - absolutely all manufacturers adopted universal devices. Today we are on a brink of another turn of war. As in the previous case, it's a result of a constantly growing volume of multimedia content. To be more exact, this time the appearance of rival formats has been caused by mass spread of HD video, which provides high-quality audio and video content, which requires much more storage space. And optical media are still the cheapest and the most convenient storage media for large volumes of data. Capacities of the previously used red-spectrum laser (650nm) did not allow to cope with the task and manufacturers upgraded to the blue laser (405nm), hence significantly increasing data density.

Two formats are currently fighting for the blue laser market of optical storage drives - Blu-Ray and HD DVD. Each of them is backed up by large companies. I shall not analyze each format in detail. I'll just brief you on their current status from the point of view of manufacturers and customers: Blu-Ray demonstrates high storage capacity, but its manufacturing requires lots of investments to upgrade the existing facilities or to launch new ones. Hence a more expensive end product for a consumer. HD DVD - lower capacity of the media, but it can be manufactured in the existing facilities (only minimally modernized) so it's a potentially more popular and cheaper product. HD DVD was the first to find its way into our lab in the form of the HD DVD-ROM optical drive from NEC, HR-1100A model. The key differences of the new HD DVD format from the popular DVD can be seen in the specifications.

NEC HR-1100A

Specifications

  • Interface: IDE/ATAPI (PIO Mode 4/UDMA 33)
  • Read speed:
    • CD-ROM: 32x (4800 kB/s)
    • DVD-ROM: 8x (11000 kB/s)
    • DVD-RAM: 5x (6900 kB/s)
    • HD DVD: 2x (9349 kB/s)
  • Supported formats: HD DVD-ROM, HD DVD-R, HD DVD/DVD Twin disk, DVD-ROM, DVD-R(DL), DVD+R(DL), DVD-RW, DVD+RW, DVD-Video CD-ROM, CDROM XA, CD-Audio, CD-I, CD-Extra, CD-Text , Photo CD, Video CD, Hybrid CD
  • Access time:
    • CD: 150 ms
    • DVD: 160 ms
    • HD DVD: 500 ms
  • Buffer: 2 Mb
  • Dimensions: 148 x 42 x 190 mm
  • MTBF: 70,000 POH
  • Weight: 1.0 kg

Our lab got an OEM drive, bundled only with a demo HD DVD-ROM with high-quality demos. The drive is designed in a Spartan style, standard for NEC models. The front panel houses: one-color busy light, emergency eject hole, Open/Eject button. The tray is equipped with padding to reduce noise and dust penetration inside the device. The rear panel contains a digital output.

The label on the top panel provides information about the drive version as well as it manufacture place and time.

It's time we should look inside the drive and find out what chipset is used there. Let's appease our morbid curiosity :).

Here is the first surprise - the drive uses two different chipsets. To all appearances, one of them (D63400GM) is responsible for HD DVD support, while the other one is well known to our readers by the latest DVD recorders from NEC, it's D63645AGM.

As this DVD-ROM uses a chipset designed for DVD recorders, it suggests an idea that the recording part of this drive may be "revived" by flashing a different firmware version :). Of course, much depends on an optical head, which is quite an impressive device, but you always hope for the better.

And in conclusion we publish a photo of the actuator.

The installation caused no problems. Users have to go through a standard procedure, like that of an ordinary CD-ROM drive. The drive requires no special drivers. Now let's use various utilities to get some information on the drive. You can roughly find out supported formats and disc types using Nero Infotool.

As you can see on the screenshot, this drive is initially RPC-2, according to www.rpc1.com. There is no way to make it a multi-zone drive yet (RPC-1). It's not quite clear how to struggle against region coding in HD DVD Video discs. But let's hope that this problem will be solved soon

The data about its Audio CD capacities were obtained using the popular EAC program (EAC Configuration Wizard results).

Test Results

HD DVD Reading: Main Parameters

When you are to test a device that uses new technologies, the main problem is to find test programs that can adequately deal with it. Fortunately, popular Nero CD-DVD Speed easily detected the disc type and capacity. Thus, we'll get general information on how this drive reads a HD DVD-ROM disc using this program.

NEC HR-1100A 1-layer HD DVD (stamp)


Drive Average speed Random Seek Full Seek CPU usage SpinUp/Down Time Disc Recognition
NEC HR-1100A 2.00x CLV 267 ms 1469 ms 5 % 3.08/2.47 sec 21.47 sec

Unfortunately, disc rotational speed is not displayed, but according to the HD DVD specifications it amounts to 2200-5050 rpm for reading in 2x CLV mode. To get a complete picture, we carried out a simple test - copy HD DVD data to a hard disk. It took the drive 2 minutes 59 seconds to copy a 600Mb file, thus the average speed was ~3370 Kb/s.

The bundled demo HD DVD-ROM contained a test video clip, recorded with different bitrates. Sometimes my computer would play it too slow, which suggested a sad idea that my P4 2.8 reached its time of retirement. The drive and the demo disc were handed to Alexei Kudriavtsev, our DVD expert. Here is his brief summary of the new product.

"The drive comes shipped with a HD-DVD with several identical 1920x1080 WMV videos. Constant video bitrate - it varies from 8 to 16 Mbit/s. Video is encoded with one of the three approved HD-DVD codecs - VC-1 (WMV9 Pro actually) with Main and Advanced profiles. Audio - WMA9, CBR, 192 Kbit/s, stereo, 16 bit, 48 kHz or WMA9 Pro, CBR, 440 Kbit/s, 5.1, 16 bit, 48 kHz. Unfortunately, quality of these video fragments does not allow to enjoy all the charms of high resolution - the image is often very dark and noisy, you can often make out lens defects, a lot of frames with movement-blurred objects, there are just a few crisp and bright fragments with tiny details. This disc will only help you rate performance of your computer and understand whether it's sufficient for HD Video playback. In fact, you can watch HD Video on a with Pentium 4 2.8 GHz with Hyper Threading inside or with a similar processor from AMD, but it had better be faster. As the bundled disc is not HD-DVD Video, we still have some questions how this drive plays HD-DVD Movies, HD-DVD region coding in particular."

DVD Reading: Main Parameters

NEC HR-1100A 1-layer DVD (DVD-Data stamp)


Drive Average speed Random Seek Full Seek CPU usage SpinUp/Down Time Disc Recognition
NEC HR-1100A 5.93x CAV 163 ms 302 ms 7 % 2.31/2.12 sec 18.29 sec


NEC HR-1100A 2-layer DVD (DVD-Video stamp)


Drive Average speed Random Seek Full Seek CPU usage SpinUp/Down Time Disc Recognition
NEC HR-1100A 5.45 x CAV 168 ms 302 ms 7 % 2.36/2.15 sec 20.01 sec



Reading a low-quality DVD.

In this test we used a heavily scratched DVD, which data can be read completely by just a few drives.

NEC HR-1100A



Recordable DVD reading

Reading DVD+R/-R

NEC HR-1100A


Drive Average speed Random Seek Full Seek CPU usage Disc Recognition
NEC HR-1100A 5.98x CAV 158 ms 323 ms 7 % 19.01 sec



Reading DVD+R/-R DL

NEC HR-1100A


Drive Average speed Random Seek Full Seek CPU usage Disc Recognition
NEC HR-1100A 5.45x CAV 195 ms 340 ms 7 % 20.65 sec



Reading DVD+RW/-RW

NEC HR-1100A


Drive Average speed Random Seek Full Seek CPU usage Disc Recognition
NEC HR-1100A 5.99x CAV 157 ms 321 ms 7 % 19.83 sec



Reading DVD-RAM

NEC HR-1100A


Drive Average speed Random Seek Full Seek CPU usage Disc Recognition
NEC HR-1100A 2.00x CLV 257 ms 424 ms 7 % 24.38 sec

The drive failed to speed up to 5x (specified in the documentation) with various DVD-RAM discs.


DVD Video copying with Smart Ripper

Drive Average speed
NEC HR-1100A 4.6 x

CD Reading: Main Parameters

CDWinBench 99 test results

Drive Winmark Inside transfer Outside transfer CPU Utilization Access Time
NEC HR-1100A 2370 3320 Kb/s 6570 Kb/s 2.9 % 78.9 ms

NERO CD Speed Results

CD reading graphs

NEC HR-1100A


Drive Average speed Random Seek Full Seek CPU usage SpinUp/Down Time Disc Recognition
NEC HR-1100A 25.97x 143 ms 277 ms 5 % 3.40/2.54 sec 12.76 sec



CD-ROM Drive Analyzer

Reading CD-R
NEC HR-1100A

Reading CD-RW
NEC HR-1100A

Reading a "low grade" CD.
NEC HR-1100A

Extracting sound tracks from audio CDs (CDDAE 99, EAC)

Drive CDDAE (Burst mode) Number of errors EAC (Secure mode) Number of errors
NEC HR-1100A 18.4x 0.00% 11.2x 0.00%



Advanced DAE Quality (Nero CD-Speed)

Testing NEC HR-1100A

You can read a detailed description of the tested parameters in the help file to Nero CD Speed. If you don't want to download this utility, we have published its HTML help here.

DAE Quality (EAC)

This test (DAE Quality) is written by the EAC author, its description is published here. In short, this test measures the audio data extraction quality and the quality of processing C2 errors with a special test disc.

Testing NEC HR-1100A


    NEC HR-1100A
  • Errors total Num : 47762180
  • Errors (Loudness) Num : 273002 - Avg : -29.5 dB(A) - Max : -5.6 dB(A)
  • Error Muting Num : 20715 - Avg : 1405.9 Samples - Max : 3584 Samples
  • Skips Num : 143 - Avg : 38.1 Samples - Max : 600 Samples
  • Total Test Result : 49.7 points (of 100.0 maximum)
  • C2 Accuracy : 50.6 %

Fateful figures

We also tested how this drive reads a file, which data contain a signature - sequence of the data duplicating Sync Header. We analyzed this problem in detail in this article. The drive failed to read the test files.

Direct data copy from 832 MB (92 min) CD-R, 5000 files to HDD

Testing NEC HR-1100A

The time spent on this operation:

Drive Copy time
NEC HR-1100A 8 min 19 sec

Physical characteristics of the drive

Noise

Drive Tray CD-Seek CD total DVD-Seek DVD total
NEC HR-1100A 7/10 7/10 8/10 7/10 8/10

The noise level when working with various optical media is low. Users don't need to lock the read speed to a lower level.

Thermal conditions

Drive T inside PC case, °C T of the upper surface, °C T of the lower surface, °C
NEC HR-1100A 36 degrees. 48 degrees. 48 degrees.

The drive heats moderately when used for a long time.

Vibration in case of unbalanced CDs

The drive fights well its vibrations. When working with an unbalanced CD, vibrations in the drive were on a permissible level.

Conclusions

It's time we should draw conclusions on our tests. But I don't want to finish this article with usual "hardware" phrases. This device suggests gloomy thoughts about an inevitable upgrade. We are again forced to wait until there appear all-in-one drives, which can read all formats.

OK, enough of melancholy. Let's sum up what we've got. NEC HR-1100A is a universal optical storage device, it will do for those who choose HD DVD, as a potentially cheaper and more popular format for high-quality video. However, the cost of universality of this drive is unstable reading of damaged as well as low-quality CDs and DVDs. But ours is just the first sample, production-line drives may have these drawbacks fixed. Unfortunately, as we had no HD DVD-Video disc, we had no opportunity to find out how protected content will be played back on a computer and what else may be required from a user to watch such content.





Roman Shelepov(srl@ixbt.com)
April 24, 2006

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