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Pioneer DVD-304S

  September 7, 2000 Author: Tim Zakharov  
Special thanks to Hypermicro.com* for providing the evaluation unit.

* Remember, mention StorageReview.com when ordering from HyperMicro and receive FREE shipping!


Introduction

Pioneer New Media Technologies, Inc., founded in 1993, has been one of the premier manufacturers of DVD-ROM drives over the past few years. Their first DVD drives, SCSI and ATAPI 1X units, began shipping in early 1997, around the same time competitor Toshiba entered the DVD-ROM market. At present, Toshiba and Pioneer are still the two main forces in the manufacture DVD-ROMs. Case in point: the DVD-304S has only a single direct competitor, the Toshiba SD-M1401. What does set this unit apart from Toshiba, though, is the slot-loading mechanism, a feature Pioneer has been offering on their optical units for quite awhile now.

Obtaining a spec sheet for the DVD-304S was no easy task. At present, only Pioneer's Australian site has a DVD-304S spec sheet posted (presumably because the drive is so new). This 10X DVD reader/40X CD reader has a specified random access time of 80ms with CDs (100ms for DVDs), comes with 512kb of buffer, and includes only an analog CD audio-out. The drive is protected by a 1-year warranty. Our review sample came with firmware revision 1.03; our searches of both the Australian and American sites could not find any newer revisions.

When it comes to heat and noise, our DVD-304S evaluation unit trails Toshiba's model slightly. Noise levels during full-rpm operation were about average for a 40X reader, while the drive did heat up appreciably during our stress testing. Neither are cause for concern in our opinion, but we did appreciate the additional silence offered in Toshiba's unit. As availability of the DVD-304S increases, we expect prices to drop from the $155 average we gleened from the few vendor sites where the unit was offered.

Come with us now as we examine how Pioneer's latest performs as a CD reader!

For an overview on methodology, click here.

CD-ROM Performance Results

Low-Level Measurements

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Looking at the sequential transfer rate (STR) numbers, we see the DVD-304S falls right in line with the other 40X readers, with 19.9X speeds at the inner tracks and 41X speeds at the outer tracks.

Interestingly, all three Pioneer drives in our comparison have specified random access times of 80ms, and all three produce measured results between 87 and 88ms. The DVD-304S comes in fourth place in our comparison, at 87.2ms. Let's see how this affects our CD-ROM Winmark results.

CD-ROM Winmark 99

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Despite identical specifications in both transfer rates and access times, Pioneer's DVD-304S finishes 8% behind its ATAPI brother in the CD-ROM Winmark test. Remember, though, the DVD-115 weighs in at 9-10% faster in measured transfer rates. With nearly identical measured access times, the 8% Winmark margin is most likely attributed to faster transfer abilities.

A comparison with the Pioneer's direct competition shows the DVD-304S finishing 11% ahead of Toshiba's SD-M1401 in this test, despite a disadvantage in measured access times. While the Toshiba's scores varied significantly between the four test CDs, the DVD-304S recorded very similar scores across the four discs, showing perhaps better consistency when faced with a variety of CDs.

Next, we test the DVD-304S in our own file and disc copy tests.

File and Disc Copy

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In our file copy test, which is purely sequential in nature, the DVD-304S is the slowest of the 40X units (remember, the DVD-115 is actually a 44X reader, hence its quicker times). Only the two 32X drives finish slower in our comparison. However, with differences of less than 3% between the SD-M1401 and DVD-304S, it's nearly a toss-up.

In the disc copy test, which includes random accesses in addition to sequential transfers, we see the DVD-304S move up in the ranks, 11.6 seconds behind its ATAPI brother. This time it is the DVD-304S that is less than 3% faster than the SD-M1401, despite slower measured access times. Again, the results are so close as to be considered a wash.

Let's now move to digital audio extraction results.

Digital Audio Extraction

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You may recall in our review of the Pioneer DVD-115 that not only were measured extraction speeds higher than the specified 12X CLV (constant linear velocity), but there were potential quality issues as well. In our first review of a Pioneer drive, however, the DVD-303S did not stray from its 12X CLV-rated extraction rates. Unfortunately, the DVD-304S appears to take more after its older ATAPI brother than its SCSI sibling. Once again, despite impressive single-session extraction rates (extracting individual tracks kept the DAE at 12X CLV), we encountered dips in the extraction rate graph that corresponded to quality issues in the extracted files. Where the two dips in the graph appear, we found very faint pops and clicks. In fact, they were faint enough that we had to confirm with back-to-back comparisons with the original. We even recruited another set of ears to help determine just how noticeable the pops were. The verdict? Noticeable, but just barely, and not a big deal. However, those who take their audio extraction seriously may beg to differ.

It should be emphasized that this phenomenon only occurred when extracting a CD-DA in its entirety, at full speed. According to our testing, those who extract individual tracks at a time, or who duplicate audio CDs on the fly should not encounter any problems because extraction rates will not stray beyond 12X in these scenarios.

CD-R Media Compatibility and Performance

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As has typified the vast majority of our optical reviews thus far, the DVD-304S had no issues with CD-R media, even copying the entire contents of our 80 minute, 701MB test CD-R to hard disk with no problems. Read speeds were identical to its pressed CD performance. Access times were measured at less than 79ms, actually under Pioneer's 80ms spec and significantly better than its pressed CD results.

CD-RW Media Compatibility and Performance

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However, we came across a serious issue with reading CD-RWs that was not apparent at first. Our transfer rate test completed successfully and at speeds higher than we'd ever seen before with CD-RW media-41X! Essentially, this drive read all media thrown at it at its maximum-rated speeds; quite impressive indeed. Once we'd begun access time testing, however, we discovered a serious issue. The testbed would crash to a blue screen proclaiming read errors every time we attempted to run the access time test. We tried two other brands of CD-RW media with the same result. We tried copying files from our CD-RW discs to our hard drive and got the same crashes. Clearly, sequential reads worked fine (as evidenced by the transfer rate graph), but once random accesses were attempted, the problem would manifest itself.

Communications with Pioneer led to their suggestion that the drive might be defective. However, as of press time, we've been unable to get a second unit from them for comparison. Based on the available evidence, though, we'd be surprised if our review unit was in fact defective. Consider that the problem appears to be isolated to random accesses, but only with CD-RW media. Random accesses perform normally with pressed CDs, CD-DAs, CD-Rs, DVD-Videos, and data DVDs. Although the possibility remains that our unit had some sort of defect, we wouldn't be surprised if this was an issue fixable through a firmware update. One way or the other, we hope to be able to find a definitive answer to this problem shortly.

Come with us now as we see how the DVD-304S performs with DVD media.

DVD-ROM Performance Results

Low-Level Measurements

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Looking at the numbers, the DVD-304S appears to be a huge underperformer in DVD transfer rates. Speeds at the end of our test DVD (Twister) only reach 6.6X-well under its 10X rating. However, a look at the transfer rate graph shows a CAV(constant angular velocity) line beginning at 4X and heading towards 10X before inexplicably topping out at 8X, beginning a descent, and finally leveling off at just under 7X. We tested with a few more DVD-Video discs, and also with a newly acquired data DVD disc (the game Lightbringer), but this same basic pattern persisted. So the recorded numbers are a bit deceptive, as the maximum transfer rate actually broke 8X-still 20% below its rated maximum.

Cpu utilization at 1X as recorded by DVDSpeed99 checks in at 10%. For reference, Toshiba's SD-M1401 got 9% and the two ATAPI drives in our comparison get 6-7%.

Subjective Playback Observations

In watching portions of two movies (Twister and The Matrix), we found no quality issues during playback. Remember, DVD movies play at 1X, so just about any modern DVD-ROM drive will do a good job playing movies, provided it is installed in a system with decent cpu speeds (greater than 300mhz) and sufficient memory (at least 64MB, preferably 128MB). Systems with hardware-based DVD decoders can get away with slower cpu speeds.

Conclusion

The Pioneer DVD-304S is designed for a very specific market segment. Being a SCSI device by definition makes it less accessible to the masses. DVD-ROM drives, regardless of interface, have also been slow to become integrated in home systems. Combine the two and you're left with only two drives competing for this segment-the Pioneer and Toshiba's SD-M1401. The only other SCSI DVD-ROMs are previous-generation units 6X and slower, most no longer available new. So if you're looking for one of these, it comes down to Pioneer vs. Toshiba.

For reading pressed data CDs, the Pioneer has the slight edge by virtue of its superior and more consistent CD-ROM Winmark scores. The two virtually tie in the other pressed CD areas, with Toshiba's better access times not helping in the application-level tests.

With pressed CD-DAs, the Pioneer strays from its 12X CLV rating in certain situations, contributing to potential quality issues that certainly would not be acceptable to audiophiles, but most likely would be tolerated by casual music listeners. The Toshiba, on the other hand, extracts audio more slowly, but avoids any quality issues in our testing. We aren't completely satisfied with either, but would prefer the more stable output the Toshiba provides.

CD-RW media readability is a serious issue with our Pioneer evaluation unit. Despite the nice sequential transfer rate graphs we produced from it, it was essentially useless reading CD-RWs. We unsuccessfully tried Verbatim, Sony, and Memorex media. Toshiba, though, had no issues with CD-RWs that we could find. Sequential reads with the -RWs were on the slow side, but reliability was consistent with all three brands we tried with it: another point for Toshiba.

Finally, the Pioneer failed to reach 10X DVD sequential transfer rates in our testing, while the Toshiba did not. For some reason, the Pioneer would top out at 8X, then reduce speeds at the outermost portion of our test DVDs. Those who own data DVD applications will appreciate the higher speeds Toshiba offers.

We have a hard time recommending the Pioneer based on the trouble spots we just outlined. Whether the issues are firmware-related, or specific to our evaluation unit, we cannot be certain...we would have loved to receive a second sample to compare with, but we could not get one without significantly delaying this article. If we are able to find a resolution to these issues one way or the other, StorageReview.com readers will be the first to know.


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