Tech Flashback: Western Digital Raptor/Velociraptor Hard Drives

When it comes to computer memory, the tiers of storage always end in mass storage as being the system bottleneck. Hard drives, colloquially referred to as spinning rust, were the dominant technology for the vast majority of computers from the 90’s. However, we have seen in the last decade, a big shift towards the use of flash-memory based solid state drives as a faster, less power-consuming, more mechanically durable alternative as prices become ever more affordable. This has meant a change in how hard drives are positioned within the market – instead of dominating all storage requirements as it traditionally has, it has been relegated to bulk storage where speed and access times are not as important.

One of the victims of this shift is the Western Digital Raptor and Velociraptor series of hard drives, the last of which was launched five years ago. Its passing went almost entirely unnoticed, until I took a stroll in some of the computer shops in Hong Kong.

The First Generation Raptor 36Gb (WD360GD)

Before the existence of the WD Raptor in 2003, the prosumer/consumer market was mostly dominated by high-performance 7200rpm IDE hard drives, and more mainstream 5400rpm IDE hard drives. SATA drives were only just coming to the market.

Those looking for more performance would remember looking through computing magazines in the late 90’s at “the beast”, which would often be specified with Seagate Cheetah 10,000rpm hard drives. The problem was that such solutions were expensive owing to the use of SCSI interfaces, where a controller could easily cost more than a drive or even two. The drives themselves were also not cheap. The performance was, however, unbeatable. Because of this, the Seagate Cheetah never really saw wide adoption in home computers – I’ve never seen them myself, and as the performance of IDE drives continued to catch up to them, they became even less popular.

The WD Raptor was significant, as it was Western Digital’s take on bringing server-class performance to the home/prosumer market. Instead of insisting on a more expensive SCSI (or SAS) interface, it would instead launch with a SATA interface, positioning it at the forefront of consumer-class technology at the time. It had a 36Gb capacity, 8Mb cache and 10,000rpm spindle speed, trading off some capacity for faster access times through the use of smaller platters. It was expensive, but not too expensive, thus making it a success at least for a number of years.

The first WD Raptor did have a bit of an identity crisis. It was designed for IDE, and its controller ran on IDE. But in order to present an “advanced, bleeding edge” appearance, it was launched with a SATA interface. This was done through the Marvell 88i8030-TBC (and TBC1) IDE to SATA bridge chips, which meant that the drive didn’t necessarily benefit from the increased speeds of the SATA interface, and had no support for NCQ. The original bridge had only UDMA5 support, restricting throughput to 100MB/s, with the later one operating at UDMA6 133MB/s. At least, there was no chance of the drive being wired up with a slave device (as could happen on IDE buses) and needing to share bus time.

The drive was launched in a time of transition, and thus had both SATA power and 4-pin Molex connections. This arrangement was termed “FlexPower”, and allowed those without the appropriate SATA power connectors or adapters to just use the regular 4-pin connector. As both are “bridged together”, connecting both options to the drive could result in current flow across rails through the drive, causing damage.

Compared with 7200rpm drives, the WD Raptor was both heavier and hotter. The drive featured ribs across part of its housing as a heatsink to help dissipate the heat. The drive was also considerably louder in seeking compared to regular drives, but these were acceptable trade-offs for enthusiasts most interested in higher performance. Apparently, these compared favourably to server-class drives which were worse.

The other side shows the standard flat edge, as you might expect from a regular hard drive.

Like other Western Digital drives, the serial number is also positioned on a label on the outer-short-side of the drive.

I came to own three units, and all of them have had a decent level of usage on them. Rather unfortunately, it seems that all three units have had reallocations, but none have ever corrupted or lost data through the process. This one seems to have some UDMA CRC Errors as well, implying occasional communication issues with the SATA/IDE bridge chip as well.

When it comes to reads and writes, the result isn’t so stellar nowadays. It manages a maximum of about 63MB/s, a minimum around 43MB/s and an average about 56MB/s. The access time is about 8ms, with the write access times shorter because of caching. Today, I suspect the same level of performance can be met with a pro-grade SD card.

The full suite of tests were performed, and with a figure of a few hundred IOPs being the maximum, it’s clear why hard drives couldn’t keep up with solid state drives. But that being said, it’s still a pretty impressive result to see for a hard drive.

CrystalDiskMark gives us the figures which broadly agree with HDTune results. The equal results with 4k and 4kQD32 show a clear lack of NCQ ability.

ATTO gives a very strong performance, with full speeds from 8kB accesses and up. The 512 byte performance is quite strong as well, because this drive predates the 4kB Advanced Format change and is thus 512 bytes native.

The Third Generation Raptor 150Gb (WD1500ADFD)

Western Digital released a second generation drive with double the capacity a year later and much the same design. I didn’t end up buying it. But I did buy the third generation drive, released in 2006 (three years since the first generation drive) which had a capacity of 150Gb and a 16MB cache to boot. This provided quite a lot of breathing room for my OS install, and it had a native SATA interface with NCQ at last.

The unit doesn’t have the mixed-tone lid on the top like the original, and has a new-style label design. There was a special edition of this drive with a clear polycarbonate window on top, but I didn’t manage to get one of them. It would have been nice though.

It retains the FlexPower arrangement as the original Raptor, even though many consumer SATA drives are now on the market without such conveniences.

Just like the original, there are ribs for heatsinking along one side, and the serial number label on the opposite short-side.

A look from underneath shows that the IDE to SATA bridge chip is gone. Hurrah. What cannot be seen is a newer FDB motor, which meant this drive was noticeably more quiet than the original.

It also proved to be even more reliable, seeing service in three different builds and clocking up some decent hours for a workstation with zero reallocations.

Because of the increased density, the unit performs better with a maximum read throughput in the vicinity of 84MB/s, an average around 74MB/s and a minimum about 54MB/s with a blisteringly fast access time of 8.14ms. The write throughput is slightly lower. Again, this might well be achievable by a modern pro-grade SD card.

On the whole, while the results are great for a mechanical drive, they are very much limited by the physics and thus the performance is only slightly improved from the first generation when IOPs are concerned.

CrystalDiskMark reflects similar results as to HDTune, although it’s clear NCQ seems to be having a significant impacts on reads, and a smaller impact on writes. A faster sequential speed is always welcome for “bulk” transfers.

ATTO on the other hand seems to report a mixed-bag of performance scores varying from run to run. This may be due to the NCQ implementation, but the drive does hit a very good 4kB read score near its full potential, and by 8kB and onward, it seems to be at its full performance.

The Fourth Generation Velociraptor 160Gb (WD1600HLFS)

I’ll admit, I never actually purchased a VelociRaptor for use in my own builds. As a thrifty student at the time, I kept running my hardware until it either failed or was too obsolete to be worth using. However, I was delighted to come across one in a junk pile during my trip to New Capital Computer Plaza in Hong Kong.

For the fourth-generation, WD changed its branding to VelociRaptor, probably to make it a little more exciting. Instead of building full-size drives, it would build 2.5″ units which were thicker than standard laptop drives, and mount them into cooling heatsink adapters called IcePacks which turned them into 3.5″ drives. The drives were available without the frame, although this was intended for use in specialty servers where the heat could be properly managed. Unmounting the drive from the frame would void the warranty.

This particular unit is actually a “special” 160Gb version for HP as an OEM drive. The standard capacity for WD’s retail model originally came in 80/150/300Gb.

The underside has four Torx screws, one covered by a label, that hold the drive into place. A red PCB contains the interface adapter which connects the 2.5″ drive’s SATA and power interfaces through to their standard locations on a 3.5″ frame. Some earlier IcePacks did not have this “feature” and thus were incompatible with backplanes.

In the design of the IcePack, both sides have heatsinking fins.

There is no serial number label on the front, but the serial number is laser-etched onto the drive which can be seen through a cutting in the frame.

This generation of drive abandons the FlexPower arrangement, as by 2008, SATA was well and truly established.

Rather disappointingly, the drive does not function. While it does spin-up, it clicks a multitude of times before spinning back down, suggesting possible firmware damage or physical head damage. As a result, the drive isn’t useful, but at least I do have an adapter frame.

The frame has two positions where thermal pads have been installed to carry heat from the drive’s PCB.

The rear of the drive is plain, but the outlines of the two thermal pads can be seen.

Removing the PCB shows a bit of foam with plastic insulation, along with a set of connections for the spindle motor and head-stack assembly.

The PCB has what appears to be three vibration sensors, which were surprising. Two of them are larger ones, at the extreme edges, with a smaller one near where the spindle motor connection is.

The interface adapter is wired straight through. Notice the jumper block on the rear is not-connected to anything and is not necessary, but its existence is probably to simplify parts handling for the manufacturer – they can use the same connector assembly for regular 3.5″ drive PCBs as for the adapter.

Conclusion

The Western Digital Raptor was an important part of my computers in the mid 2000’s through to the early 2010’s, providing a step-up in performance from regular 7200 rpm hard drives in a period where solid state drives were non-existent or too uneconomical to deploy as a boot drive. The diminished capacity, hotter and louder operation were acceptable trade-offs for a much more responsive system that booted quicker and started programs faster. Even though the first Raptor was a bit of a “shambles”, I came to own three units and all have been perfectly reliable despite reallocated sectors. I upgraded to a third-generation Raptor, which also proved equally as reliable but much better on acoustics. It’s unfortunate that having been reminded of the Raptors by the fourth-generation Velociraptor I picked up in Hong Kong, that it should be non-functional.

Unfortunately, the Raptors have been driven to extinction, as solid state drives based around flash memory trounce the Raptor on every performance metric, while (eventually) undercutting on price, mechanical durability, energy consumption and acoustic noise. It’s sad, but also, a natural course for a non-competitive product to take.

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Tech Flashback: BenQ DW1640 DVD±RW Drive Specialties

The final part of a series of postings about the BenQ DW1640 DVD±RW drive looks at some of its other special features and explains why I’m so fond of this particular drive.

Quality Testing

When users burn recordable discs, they don’t have a ready way to gauge the quality of the recording. Owing to the presence of error correction data within the recorded data, a simple read-back verify would succeed as long as sufficient data remained readable to recover the original data post-error-correction. A user would not have any means to more accurately determine whether a disc was “close” to being unrecoverable or not, possibly save for a transfer-rate test where speed dips were indicative of drive retries although the cause would not be clearly understood (e.g. could be disc warpage).

To that end, normally such information can only be garnered through the use of expensive disc analyzers such as CATS. However, this ability began cropping up on drives as part of less-well-documented firmware features that exist with drives of specific chipsets. The most famous are the Mediatek-based drives from LiteOn, where Karr Wang helped popularize media scanning with his KProbe2 tool, which later on, was followed up by DVDScan which has since been abandoned. It was then discovered that other drives with other chipsets also had this ability to differing degrees, including the BenQ DW1640.

To do such quality scans requires third-party software. The ones I use most are Nero CD-DVD Speed and Opti Drive Control, both by Erik Deppe, however there is at least one other alternative (that I will not name owing to some political issues).

The drive supports scanning both CD and DVDs. In the below set of four images, I scanned four different types of blank CD-R (one of the Plasmon discs is a mis-identified Ritek) recorded by a slimline DVD recorder at 24x. Most slimline drives are terrible, but this LiteOn DS8A8SH seems to be somewhat passable.

The drive can return the C1/C2 error count simultaneously with jitter. Lite-On drives can do the same, although jitter support varies and typically is done “post-test” in a second pass. Applicable limits are generally a C1 maximum below 220 (as that is the “failure point”) and preferably no C2 errors. This has been met for all discs. Jitter should be as low as possible, generally below 10-12% is a good idea.

The drive can also test DVDs, returning the PIE, PIF and POF counts with jitter. The drive reports PIFs as sum8 values rather than the standard sum1. As a result, direct comparison with Lite-On drives and ECMA standards for PIFs is a bit difficult. PIEs should be below 280 (limit to failure), and PIFs should be below 4 (sum1) or about 16 (sum8). Note that the PIFs for sum8 condition is not 8 times the sum1 condition, as statistically, there could be a chance that the PIFs are “bunched” in one block which would result in an actual read error. There should be no POFs, else unreadable data is quite likely. Jitter should be below 12%.

With this information, it’s possible to get an idea of what the drive is seeing when it tries to read the disc, although the absolute figures are probably unreliable and incomparable when comparing across different models of drive.

There were other drives, including some combo drives and readers which had scanning ability. However, many of them were not particularly reliable, partly owing to their mostly CAV characteristics, which show increased error rates towards the outside edge not due to recording issues but possibly mechanical ones. CLV scanning is generally preferred, especially at 4x for DVDs, as this reduces the “mechanical” contribution to the variance in scan results.

99-minute Overburning Support

When CD-R/CD-RW media enjoyed a price advantage over DVD media, the quest for ever more capacity was constant, and special blank media of 90 minutes and 99 minutes were released for a limited time. These pushed the standards somewhat in regards to the pitch of the groove, allowing more data to squeeze into the same radius. These discs were all identified as “standard” 79m59m74f style 80 minute blanks, and required overburning to achieve their full capacity. Not all drives were capable of handling this properly, and while the 90 minute blanks were generally quite compatible, the 99 minute ones almost always caused problems.

As it turns out, I still have a few 99 minute discs left, so it was a good thing as I can demonstrate the BenQ’s abilities.

On a simulated overburn, the BenQ DW1640 was able to register a maximum capacity of 99 minutes 56 seconds and 41 frames. Such long simulated capacities are nice, but can it actually be achieved?

I decided to write a 99 minute 00 second 00 frame disc, as in my experience, getting too close to the simulated value will cause issues. Another frequent cause of issues is the lead-in of the disc uses the same addresses as used by the recorded data.

Once burned, the disc achieved a practically flawless read-out on the BenQ DW1640 as well as a LiteOn DH16A6L, LiteOn iHBS212, LG BH16NS55 and LG GGW-H20L. It was an unexpected result, as contemporary drives in that era would often have problems maintaining high read speeds as they struggled to cope with the marginal disc that was just out of spec.

A quality test showed the disc wasn’t in any danger of breaching the C1 limit, and registered zero C2 errors although the jitter was high, possibly due to the fact the manufacturer of the disc is unknown and the write strategy possibly less than optimal. But that’s still better than not being able to burn the disc at all.

If you compare this with other drives, one of several results can occur. Some drives simulate and “pretend” they can record forever, such as this LiteOn DH16A6L –

Others will honestly bail out, but short of the full capacity of the disc, such as the result from my LG GGW-H20L –

But when it comes to writing, all bets are off, as the actual result may not even work as drives struggle to finalize the disc or fail to maintain tracking towards the outer area. The BenQ, however, has always been a reliable writer of these types of marginal discs and has been quite a good reader as well in handling such odd media. It does go without saying that in this case, being able to overburn this much also means handling overburning of regular 80 minute CD-Rs quite well.

DVD+R Overburning Support

While CD-R overburning was easily achieved using contemporary burning software of the time (Nero) and generally just worked, DVD overburning was completely different. In fact, I wasn’t even convinced that DVD overburning could happen and made this post on 14th October 2005 stating my opinion which was quickly refuted as being real, but only for Plextor users.

Attempting to overburn on most drives with DVD+R media results in a burn right up to the limit before suddenly bailing out resulting in a “truncated” burn. However, simulating such a burn on the BenQ DW1640 resulted in a true simulation (no burn to disc) and a value which suggested overburning was indeed possible.

I was intrigued by it, hence my posting about it. Needless to say, I was soon steered into this post by Erik Deppe (the man behind this exact software I’m using to test the discs) which claimed back in 22nd August 2005 that he managed an overburn but a severe quality issue occurred. There wasn’t much action after this until I came along the day after I posted my disbelief in overburning DVDs and realized the issue as being the Solid Burn outer calibration track. Disabling Solid Burn through QSuite allowed me to burn my first overburnt disc (and presumably the world’s first without the quality issue) with the BenQ DW1640 cross-flashed to EW164B. As a result, I also beta-tested ImgBurn version 1.0.0.8 with overburn support for DW1640. It wasn’t a complete success, as overburns had to be greater than about 4500MB or else the drive fails to finalize, but it did allow us to create strangely non-standard discs many years prior to the advent of BurnerMAX for Mediatek based drives and DVD+R DL media.

The DVD+R overburn was successful.

Readback on the DW1640 did show some slow-downs towards the end, but that may also be because the data rate exceeds the chipset’s nominal specifications.

The disc quality is not too bad according to the DW1640 – a bit poor on the inside ring, but otherwise quite decent.

Testing it with two LiteOn drives shows the DH16A6L felt the burn quality to be poorer but not unreadably so. The newer LiteOn iHBS212 Blu-ray drive instead sees the burn as horrible, but that is because it doesn’t seem to scan properly anymore, disobeying the speed request for 4x and not scanning at CLV which puts additional stress on the disc.

Surprisingly, trying to read back the overburnt disc in the LiteOn DH16A6L (at maximum and restricted to 8x), LiteOn iHBS212, LG BH16NS55 and LG GGW-H20L all failed to read to the end, most bailing out at the “normal” limit size of a regular DVD. Might this be a firmware bug related to the way the drives support dual-layer discs? I don’t know for sure. But what I do know is that the data is there, and the laser pick-up can reach it (as the quality scans show). But the other drives can’t read it. It’s always fun to create such strangely incompatible discs.

In case you were wondering, overburning DVD-R has not been a possibility. Using the Nero CD-DVD Speed software, a simulation of DVD-R overburning is possible with the DW1640.

However, when attempting to burn, we find that burns proceed to writing all the data and then fail. Worse still, the drive also ignores our request for 4x write speed.

Ejecting and re-inserting the disc results in a “blank” disc appearing, as none of the inner metadata has been properly written. The data area of the disc has been burned, and the disc is thus a coaster.

Giving it a go with the latest Opti Drive Control software results in a similar result – it just doesn’t finish and a coaster which appears blank is the end result.

Imgburn, being the ever-so-honest software, asks the burner to reserve a track of a size greater than allowed up-front pre-burn, and the burner denies this request thus making overburning impossible through this route. It’s good to rediscover that nothing has changed since 2005.

Firmware Modification

Thanks to the work of ala42 on MediaCodeSpeedEdit tool (MCSE), it is possible to read the firmware’s media support list, rename/reassign strategies to change write speeds or quality and patch the rip-lock to speed up DVD-video ripping.

This basically bought “Omnipatcher” abilities that were bought to LiteOn based drives by the codeguys to a number of other drives. As someone who also owned LiteOn drives at the time, it was nice to see “feature parity”.

In fact, I did help out with some testing of LG GSA-4163B patches back in 2005, as can be seen in the changelog.

1.0.5.9 25 Aug 2005
 Thanks to Crisao23, ise, lui_gough, PumaUK for testing the LG patches
[...]
 - changed GSA-4163 support
   overspeeding of 4x -R media does not work
   supports overspeeding of 4x/8x +R media to 12x and 16x 
   supports overspeeding of 8x -R media to 16x 
   all +R MIDs already supporting 12x can be used @16x
   six additional +R MIDs can be swapped to 12x/16x
   six additional -R MIDs can be swapped to 16x

Conclusion

Considering the BenQ DW1640 wasn’t particularly expensive compared to its contemporaries, it was actually quite a good drive for an average user as it delivered on good robust disc reading, quality disc writing at higher speeds and extra features to allow one to tinker with the drive and assess the quality of discs. The added firmware modification support is a big bonus as well.

On the downside, it didn’t support as many media types as some of the competing models, and it had no support for DVD-RAM (for which I kept an LG GSA-4163B for at the time) or Mt. Rainier (which I had an LG GCE-8523B as well). The quality scan features reported PIFs as sum8-values rather than sum1, thus could not be directly compared with the LiteOn or ECMA standard guidelines, although different drives did always vary with their opinions of the quality of discs.

It kept me good company as my primary burner for many years, and I still enjoy having it around for the “odd job”. I suppose this write-up is my way of thanking the drive for years of trouble-free service. That being said, most modern burners won’t have many of these features exposed to the users, but their burn quality at high speeds has definitely improved along with media support.

It’s right around now that I wished I was the owner of a Plextor drive for some GigaRec fun. It’s yet another way to get more data onto a CD-R, and one which can produce strange compatibility issues too.

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Tech Flashback: BenQ QSuite v2.1

One thing that made owning a late-model BenQ DVD recorder worthwhile was the decent writing quality it had out of the box, along with the amount of tweakability the unit had. Knowing what I know now, an earlier Plextor drive (that was designed in-house, and not rebadged) was the one to die for – with its fancy PlexTools with GigaRec, PowerRec and other features, it had the widest flexibility amongst all optical drives. That being said, the BenQ DW1640 did become rebadged as a Plextor PX-740A, implying the BenQ drive was especially worthy, even if it wasn’t as great as the “real” Plextors that came before it.

Most of the tweakability for BenQ drives is controlled through QSuite, a small tool supplied with the drive and downloadable online which allows you to configure the options. In this post, we will look at all of the Qsuite functions and do some Qscans of present-day media. As far as I know, version 2.1 is the final version prior to BenQ’s exit from the optical drive business, selling their assets to LiteOn, and helping to form Philips LiteOn Digital Solutions (PLDS). In all, the BenQ and Philips joint venture lasted just four years.

QSuite

On starting the program, you are warned that it only works with certain BenQ drives, and that changing settings may have side effects. It also warns you that the test results can vary, as a disclaimer as the tool mightn’t be consistent across drives and different media – it’s consumer grade hardware, not a high-end optical media analyzer.

The body of the program consists of a tabbed interface which defaults to the Information tab. When a supported BenQ drive is selected through the drop-down, the information tab allows you to view information about the drive and the disc inserted. It gives you the media code (with some bugs for DVD-R discs) but more importantly, whether the media is supported by the Media Table within the drive. Only discs supported by the Media Table within the drive (i.e. containing a write strategy) are likely to give consistently good quality burns.

The next tab is used for changing the Book Type of discs written by the drive. This is necessary to make DVD+R/RW discs more compatible than DVD-R discs by setting their booktype bits to appear as a pressed DVD-ROM. Earlier writing software were not aware of the commands necessary to control the booktype, and thus this provides an ability to set the preferences on the drive itself. DVD+RW discs can be booktyped to DVD-ROM as well, but doing so can prevent some software from writing to or erasing such discs, so the bottom part allows for the booktype of a DVD+RW disc to be rewritten.

The QScan tab is by far the most important of the suite of tools. This is a tool that allows you to gauge the physical construction quality of the disc in terms of tracking and focus error. Through a process of simulating writing at a given speed, the TE and FE are plotted versus a set criteria to judge whether it is advisable to record a disc at a given speed or not. The process does not consume the disc and does not record anything to the disc. It can even be carried out on a recorded disc, but is only effective for DVD±R (and DL) discs. The test has a setting for the test speed, as well as the sampling rate. Even with it set to full, the tests are much quicker than an actual burn as it takes scattered point-samples instead of continuously evaluating the TE/FE.

After running the test, you will get a recommendation as to whether the disc is suitable for writing at a particular speed or not.

Tests done at 2.4x seem to run into a problem and never finish, causing the drive to drop off the IDE bus as it takes a long time to complete some action “on its own”. As a result, the message above may appear. Because the QScan tool is so useful, I will look at it in a separate section below.

WOPC, short for “walking optimum power control”, is a strategy that allows the drive to pause writing from time to time to check the write quality and adjust the laser parameters to attempt to maintain writing quality. This process increases burn time slightly, and can cause some step variations in the writing quality of the disc, but generally helps keep burn quality consistent. In the cases where it doesn’t help or a faster burning speed is desired, it can be disabled.

OverSpeed is an option that lets you burn 4x or 8x media at 8x or higher speeds. By default it is turned off, but the BenQ DW1640 generally has excellent overspeeding properties and can write a wider variety of older media at higher speeds.

Part of the reason for its excellent overspeeding capabilities is the Solid Burn algorithm. This is a technology that uses the inner and outer test areas of the disc to optimize the write strategy prior to the burn starting. Optimized parameters are stored in the EEPROM and improved burn-to-burn. As a result, even unknown discs with no write strategy support can see a decent burn on these recorders. Solid Burn is generally unnecessary for discs which have media table support, but I find burn quality to be improved with it left on. Its use is not without drawbacks, which I will elaborate in a future posting. In case the drive’s self-learning features have been led astray (e.g. by mixing discs with “faked” media codes with genuine blanks) and the burn quality is problematic, the clean tool can reset the learning data to allow the drive to start fresh. This technology now exists in LiteOn’s HyperTuning/Smartburn, although traditionally with most drives, only low speed recording is possible for unsupported media with absolutely horrible quality.

For changes to these settings, they can be made temporarily (i.e. in the burner’s RAM) or persistently (i.e. in the EEPROM). The software allows you to make this choice to avoid unnecessary writes to the EEPROM which could shorten its lifetime.

The Test Write tab turns on a “simulation mode” for the drive, ensuring that no write actually occurs. In the CD-recorder days, a specific command existed to allow for simulated writes – this allowed for testing to ensure the source was fast enough to prevent buffer underruns, to ensure the laser could follow the disc’s track during recording, and to ensure the recording software didn’t encounter any errors to prevent wasting a disc. This specific command did not carry over to the DVD era, and thus in many cases when a simulation is attempted, a drive will actually burn a disc. This allows you to run simulations anyway, by disabling the drive’s ability to write, so you choose to write a disc as normal in your software to run a simulation. This does have a danger that you could inadvertently leave it switched on, and thus not burn anything you thought you were burning.

Aside from the ability to save screenshots, that’s basically all the QSuite has within it. Further drive capabilities are available with third party software – something we will look at in a later post.

QScans

I decided to run a bucketload of QScans on my DW1640 with the blank media I still have in my possession to demonstrate the advances in disc TE/FE with improved manufacturing for higher speed discs. High speed burning is enabled not only by more sensitive dyes, but also with better physical disc construction in terms of precision centering, balance, track definition, warpage, etc. With Over Speed enabled, the drive is able to run TE/FE tests at 16x, 12x, 8x, 4x and 2.4x (or 2x in the case of DVD-R). I suspect the display of 2.4x for DVD-R is merely a bug with the software that was never corrected. Of course, good QScan results do not guarantee good burn results as the laser power and waveform need to be correct to get a good response from the dye, but a poor QScan result generally guarantees a bad burn as the drive will have problems even getting the laser to the dye properly. The results will vary subtly from disc to disc (depending on manufacturing variance) and from drive to drive (in case of wear, or different models).

DVD-R

The oldest disc in the collection is an MCC00RG200, which is a Verbatim branded 2x DVD-R which is media code supported by the drive. The focus error is high for 16x and 12x, but tracking errors are not too bad at 12x. By 8x, with the exception of a spike of FE, it seems possible to track the disc accurately. At 4x, it seems absolutely fine, which matches my previous experience of overspeeding these discs to 4x with absolutely no problems at all. Interestingly, the FE gets worse at 2x, which may have to do with mechanism resonance or some other effects.

Another old sample is an LGE04, an LG branded 4x DVD-R that is not natively media-code supported by the drive. This disc shows universally high FE and TE values at 12x and 16x, only settling to mostly within thresholds at 8x. It’s only completely within thresholds at 4x, and looks excellent at 2x. So it seems that over-speeding on this disc might not be that advisable, but 8x may well be achievable. It also shows the variation in blank disc quality from vendor to vendor – even if it is a “higher speed” rated blank.

I managed to dig out an old CMCMAGAF1 4x DVD-R, sold under the Imation branding and supported by the media table of the drive. Like the LG disc above, the TE/FE readings are wild and elevated at 16x and 12x. By 8x, it settles down with the exception of the inner radius which seems to be high regardless. At lower speeds, a spike in the FE appears which may be a disc defect, and the BenQ does not “pass” the disc at any speed, although it seems 2x may be the safest bet.

The next-generation version of the disc is the CMCMAGAE1, an 8x DVD-R under the Shintaro brand and also supported by the drive. It has a slightly less purple coloured dye, but more importantly, this one has much improved TE/FE figures. It’s probable that burning at 12x may be safe.

The next sample is an MXLRG03, a Maxell branded 8x DVD-R also natively supported by the firmware. Maxell have had quite a positive reputation in the community for good quality media, and this shows as the media only just exceeds on TE at 16x, and seems possible to burn at 12x without issue.

The newest is an MCC03RG20, sold in a bulk spindle of printable discs rated for 16x. This disc is also natively supported by the firmware. While it is claimed to be 16x capable, it seems the FE/TE exceed limits at the outer edge when burned at 16x, so restricting to 12x seems advisable. This is not uncommon, as with most burners, using the maximum speed is often a bad idea.

DVD+R

The oldest +R disc I have to hand is a RICOHJPNR02, an 8x DVD+R under the TDK brand, natively supported by the firmware. While the previous generation R01 4x discs did well for overspeeding, my experience was the R02 wasn’t especially great towards the outer edge, and the graphs seem to show this. I suppose if you don’t fill the disc, you can get away with 12x or 16x, but best to stick to 8x.

Another 8x rated disc is the CMCMAGE01 which I also got under the Shintaro brand, also natively supported in the media table. Unfortunately, this one has rising TE/FE towards the outer edge, making overspeeding not recommended.

The latest discs I have are the MCC004 16x rated DVD+R discs under the Verbatim label, also present in the firmware media table. These seem to have a bit of a spike in TE about 5% in, but it seems that 12x burning may be possible, with 16x a bit of a stretch at the outer edge.

DVD+R DL

Due to a bug in the software, all of the DVD+R DL discs are claimed not to be supported by the media table, but through other means, it was determined that all tested discs were indeed part of the media table. The oldest is a 2.4x rated RICOHJPND00 branded under the TDK label, where no overspeed was offered. The test showed some spikes in TE/FE but it generally was within limits.

The next-generation was a RICOHJPND01 8x rated disc also under the TDK label. This disc showed higher TE on L1 versus L0, although FE remained relatively constant across both layers. Burning at 8x looks borderline based on the TE results, but probably not impossible.

Next-up is a RITEKS04 under the Laser Co brand of Bulkpak. This is another 8x disc. This disc shows a pronounced increase in TE towards the layer-change point at the outer edge of the disc. While overall TE is lower, the spike at the edge suggests problematic burn quality at 8x at the edge, so best to run 4x or less.

Finally is a MKM003 of 8x rating from Verbatim, which is considered a quality media. Contrary to the other discs, it seems that FE is an issue at 8x, with some pronounced TE spikes (as noted in other MCC discs as well). Burning at 8x is probably possible as the exceedance is limited, but not recommended.

Does it work on a BenQ DW1650?

While the DW1640 was my favourite drive, I have been gifted a “new-old-stock” spare OEM DW1650 with a newer Philips chipset. While I’ve dabbled with the DW1650 and found it slightly inferior, I never checked to see if it could do a QScan. I’m happy to report that it works practically the same as the DW1640 although it seems 2.4x selection is unavailable for most media.

Here is a scan of another sample of MCC 004 which shows a similar peak in tracking errors about 10% and 25% of the way in, which seems to be a peculiarity in the batch of Verbatim 16x DVD+R discs that I have. According to the tool, it’s not suitable at any speed due to the spike in TE, but generally speaking, burning at the full 16x is overly optimistic, and 12x is probably going to end poorly.

Conclusion

QSuite was an important part of making the most of your BenQ DVD burner. While the burner generally had good “default” choices put in, the software had the ability to change these options if you wished. The main attraction was the QScan feature, which allowed you to assess the physical construction quality of a disc through measurement of focus and tracking errors at simulated write speeds without writing to a disc. It even worked on already recorded discs (although results can vary slightly after recording). This could save you coasters from being too optimistic with your write speed choices. The majority of the software was demonstrated with a DW1640, although a DW1650 with a slightly later Philips chipset was also used and found to work just fine.

As for the media, it seems that higher speed discs universally showed better TE/FE values, as necessary to ensure quality burns. This implies the manufacturing of the discs were improved along with the dye formulation to make high speed recording a reality. That being said, some of the older media were surprising in its TE/FE stability – a look at the Maxell 8x DVD-R or the Verbatim 2x DVD-R shows that not all older discs were as “wobbly” as the others. That being said, the newest discs still didn’t give perfect TE/FE values towards the outer edge, which probably represents a limitation with the mechanism of the burner combined with the difficult physics problem of keeping the outer edge of the disc in perfect tracking and focus.

Of course, the drive is capable of even more interesting things which I will look at in a follow-up post, but interestingly, FE/TE scanning ability was present in some LiteOn drives which were supported by DVDScan, although it seems that firmware hacking has hit an all-time low with the irrelevance of optical media, lack of willing hacking expertise and the encryption/restriction of firmware distribution all playing a part in making this a thing of the past.

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