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Pioneer DVD-115

  July 17, 2000 Author: Tim Zakharov  
Special thanks to* for providing the evaluation unit.

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


In our recently published DVD-ROM comparison between Toshiba's SD-M1212 and Pioneer's DVD-303S, we covered many of the issues that are questioned when buyers seek to purchase a DVD-ROM drive for their computer. To summarize, DVD-ROM drives today are most commonly used as CD-ROM drives and DVD-Video players. DVD-Videos play back at only 1X speeds, so the extra speeds offered by drives such as Pioneer's 16X are only realized if you spend a lot of time searching and scanning in your movies. The added speed also helps in computer software applications on DVD-ROM, but at present the titles are quite few and far between.

So, in examining Pioneer's new 16X ATAPI DVD-ROM drive, much of our focus will be on its CD-ROM performance. Presently, though, we have no other 40X ATAPI drives with which to compare, so for this article we chose to include two 48X ATAPI and two 40X SCSI drives from our database. This will give an idea of where the DVD-115 falls in terms of its CD-ROM performance.

When judging the Pioneer as a DVD reader, though, we currently have two drives with which to compare it. As we build up our database, more appropriate comparisons will become available. Don't forget, you can use the database to create your own comparisons!

Let us now examine the DVD-115's specifications and environmental characteristics. Pioneer indicates a rated access time of 80ms for the DVD-115, along with a fairly large 512kb buffer and a standard one-year warranty. Our test unit arrived with firmware revision 108. A check of Pioneer's driver/firmware page prior to testing indicated no firmware updates for the DVD-115 or its slot-loading sibling, the DVD-105S. However, their spec sheet indicates the slot-loading model includes a digital audio output. Our tray-loading evaluation unit has only a standard 4-pin analog audio out. We're not sure of the reasoning behind this...the slot-loader is a love-it-or-hate-it option, so folks who want the digital audio connector, but don't care of a slot-loading drive may be forced to look elsewhere.

When it comes to acoustics, the DVD-115 is not lacking. It's far from the loudest optical drives we've tested, yet still can get fairly noisy during full-rpm operation. Seeks, however, are low and muted. After extended operation during stress testing, the Pioneer got quite warm to the touch. It never got too hot to keep our hand on, but did come close to approaching this plateau. Although we've yet to come across an optical drive that we felt required additional cooling for reliable performance, if you're one who's worked hard to keep your system temperature cool, you may want to consider what the heat output of the DVD-115 might do to your overall case temperature.

Finally, we found the average street price for the DVD-115 to be in the $150-$160 range, about $50 higher than previous-generation ATAPI DVD-ROM drives, and equal to Pioneer's own SCSI 6X DVD-ROM drive

Now then, how does the Pioneer perform as a CD reader? We are about to find out!

For an overview on methodology, click here.

CD-ROM Performance Results

Low-Level Measurements

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As a CD-ROM reader, the DVD-115 is a middle-of-the-pack performer in our low-level measures. Although Pioneer specifies an access time of 80ms, our test unit could manage only 86.9ms in our measures, placing it between the Delta and Plextor.

According to CD Winbench 99, the DVD-115 transfers at 44X speeds at the outer tracks, nearly 12% faster than Pioneer specifies. This lands it squarely between the 48X and 40X drives. In the end, we see the Pioneer underachieving in access times and overachieving in transfer rates. Let's see how the Winmark test interprets these low-level results.

CD-ROM Winmark 99

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We see the DVD-115 doing surprisingly well in the CD-ROM Winmark, again performing between the 48X ATAPI and 40X SCSI drives. This time, however, it is much closer to the 48X units. A comparison with all-time Winmark leader Toshiba shows Pioneer's drive to be only 10% back, and only 1% behind the Delta. Conversely, the faster of the two 40X drives, Toshiba's 6401B SCSI unit, lags behind the DVD-115 by 10%. Considering the Pioneer's fourth place finish in access times, this is an impressive feat.

With nearly 48X performance in the Winmarks, the Pioneer thus far is shaping up to be quite a performer. Can it keep up in the file and disc copy tests? Let's find out.

File and Disc Copy

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In our sequential file copy test, the DVD-115 again posts very competitive results. Less than 4 seconds behind the Delta, Pioneer's drive finishes a solid 2nd place, well ahead of the 3rd place Plextor.

We see similar results in the disc copy test. This time the Pioneer overtakes the Delta, trailing Toshiba's ATAPI unit by a mere 3%. Considering the Pioneer's low-level results, we find its application-level performance quite impressive. We may be seeing the result of top-notch firmware programming.

Can the Pioneer keep up the pace in our audio extraction tests? Continue reading to find out.

Digital Audio Extraction

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In their product brochure, Pioneer specifies 12X CLV read speeds with CD-DA media. Our testing, however, indicates the DVD-115 is capable of much faster extraction speeds. CDSpeed99 shows the drive does indeed start out at 12X at the inner tracks, but then continues in a CAV fashion, rather than Pioneer's claimed CLV. Examining the extraction rate graph, though, we see that approximately 30 minutes into the extraction process the Pioneer peaks at 20X, then drops suddenly back to 12X. It then resumes the process at a CAV pace, finishing at 17X by the outer edge of our CD-DA. CDSpeed99 rates extraction quality as perfect, with no differences found in a sector-to-sector comparison. Despite this, however, there may be quality issues to contend with.

Others have duplicated this very odd-looking DAE graph. An astute reader in our own BBS brought up a concern with extraction quality related to the issue. We investigated this matter and did find a potential problem. Using CDDAE99, we experimented with extraction methods in an effort to duplicate the problem. Sure enough, after extracting our audio CD in its entirety to the test partition on our testbed's hard disk, we found a short, but definite popping sound at approximately the same position the DAE graph dips from 20X to 12X. Unfortunately, though, we were unable to repeat this consistently. We extracted the entire CD-DA four more times in an effort to duplicate the error, but only managed to repeat it once more. In addition, we tried extracting the track the popping sound occurred in by itself, and again could not repeat the issue. If we extract track 7 individually, it tops out at about 12X. In fact, we extracted each track of our test CD-DA individually and discovered that each averaged about 12X. It's only when we select all 14 tracks of our test CD-DA to extract in a single session that we see the extraction speeds break away from the 12X CLV mold... and we see the extraction issue arise.

Despite the intermittent nature of this problem, we can't help but be leery of using the DVD-115 as an audio extractor. If Pioneer stuck to the 12X CLV specification, there is a good chance this would not even be an issue. However, perhaps Pioneer will address this in a future firmware update. It's better to extract properly at specified speeds then to risk DAE problems by pushing the envelope too far. We did attempt to contact Pioneer via their 800 number to ask about this issue, but a voicemail message left with an optical engineer went unreturned. We attempted to reach the appropriate person via email as well, but we could not find any email addresses on Pioneer's 800 number is the only means of communication that we could find. Ideally, we'd like to reserve judgment until hearing from the horse's mouth, but in this case it was not possible.

Moving beyond the DAE issue, let us now see how the DVD-115 does when reading CD-Rs and CD-RWs.

CD-R Media Compatibility and Performance

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We see the DVD-115 exhibit what's now become familiar behavior when reading CD-Rs-read speeds are ever so slightly faster than they are with our pressed CD test disc. This lands the Pioneer squarely between the 48X and 40X drives in our comparison. We had absolutely no problems reading our TDK test media at full speed.

CD-RW Media Compatibility and Performance

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It's with our Verbatim CDRW that the DVD-115 truly shines. Second only to the Plextor in our comparison, the Pioneer reads our test media at 16X-32X CAV speeds, just a hair behind the PX-40TSi and well ahead of the rest of the competition. So far in our testing, we've only found two drives that have been capable of such high read speeds with CD-RW media, said Plextor, and Creative's 52X ATAPI CD-ROM.

Now for the part we've all been waiting for. Does Pioneer's DVD-115 truly reach 16X DVD-ROM read speeds? How is movie playback? We are about to see.

DVD-ROM Performance Results

Low-Level Measurements

 Optical Testbed I DVD Speed 99 - DAE Transfer RateDetails... 
DAE Transfer Rate - Average
Windows 98 SE using FAT 32
Pioneer DVD-115 (ATA-33) - 8.60|
Toshiba SD-M1212 (ATA-33) - 4.34|
Pioneer DVD-303S (U-SCSI) - 4.27|
DAE Transfer Rate - Start
Windows 98 SE using FAT 32
Pioneer DVD-115 (ATA-33) - 5.01|
Pioneer DVD-303S (U-SCSI) - 2.56|
Toshiba SD-M1212 (ATA-33) - 2.54|
DAE Transfer Rate - End
Windows 98 SE using FAT 32
Pioneer DVD-115 (ATA-33) - 11.39|
Toshiba SD-M1212 (ATA-33) - 5.75|
Pioneer DVD-303S (U-SCSI) - 5.59|

At the inner edge of our test DVD (Twister), the Pioneer is already reading at 5X speeds, twice as fast as the two 6X DVD drives in our comparison. However, our test unit only reached a disappointing 11X by the outer edge of our disc, well below the expected 16X transfer rates. In contrast, our two comparison drives nearly equaled their rated speeds at the outer edge. Informally, we threw a few different DVDs at our test unit to see if it perhaps had issues with our test media. We found, though, that the drive would consistently top out at approximately 11X no matter which DVD we tested with. Considering the DVD-115's less-than-12X maximum transfer rates, Toshiba's new 12X DVD-ROM drive will make for an interesting comparison. We hope to get a hold of one of these soon!

The Pioneer's cpu utilization, as measured by DVDSpeed99, is a low 6% at 1X playback. Unfortunately, at this time we have only two comparison scores, one of which is apparently inflated by a firmware revision issue. You may recall from our first DVD-ROM review we discussed the possibility that Pioneer's 1.10 firmware revision causes abnormally high cpu utilization scores with DVDSpeed99 and Pioneer's DVD-303S. This leaves us at present with only one score to compare with-the 7% result Toshiba's SD-M1212 yielded. Despite the generational differences between the units, both scores are admirable.

Subjective Playback Observations

Considering the 1X transfer rates that DVD-Videos are limited to during playback, there should not be a discernible difference in movie smoothness when comparing most modern DVD-ROM drives in this respect. So it comes as no surprise when we report that the Pioneer DVD-115 played movies back flawlessly on our testbed. The Orpheus/Neo Matchup scene in The Matrix exhibited no jerkiness in playback; Twister's "wheat field flyby" scene whizzed by at eye-pleasing framerates. Of course, our two 6X comparison drives played movies just as well, as one would expect.


If you're looking for an extremely fast CD-ROM reader that also happens to play back DVD-Videos well, Pioneer's DVD-115 is well worth your consideration. With CD-ROM performance comparable to some of the fastest 48X CD-ROM drives we've tested, Pioneer's 16X DVD drive is an extremely capable reader. Also worth noting are its speedy CD-R and CD-RW reads. However, with this praise comes caution: questionable DAE quality might be enough to put off some folks. Depending on how seriously you take your audio extraction, this may make or break your purchasing decision. With so many things going for it, it's a shame that the DVD-115 had these DAE issues...otherwise we'd have seen it in a nearly flawless light (our only other quibbles were high heat levels and lower-than-advertised DVD-ROM transfer rates). As it currently stands, though, we can only recommend the DVD-115 to those who don't extract audio, or those who use an alternate drive for DAE.


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