Samsung Writemaster SE-W164C External DVD±RW Drive

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TEST METHODOLOGY


The Writemaster in use on a piece of foam, with SPCR's recording rig in the background.

The Writemaster was tested for two things: Noise level, and power consumption. Performance for quality and speed was not tested, as it is not our range of expertise (or real interest). Other hardware sites do a good job of evaluating optical drives for performance, but very few do a good job of testing noise or power. We recommend this review at CDFreaks for performance test results about the SE-W164C.

Both noise and power were tested at a variety of different speeds, which were controlled by using Nero DriveSpeed. Keep in mind that the optical disc itself has a large influence on optical drive noise. No polycarbonate optical disc is perfectly balanced, they are simply stamped out in mass quantities. The inherent imbalance of an optical disc is the primary cause of the wobbling and almost violent vibration so many optical drives exhibit when spinning at high speed.

Hence, noise measurements depend partly on the specific disc in the drive at the time of testing. Power consumption may also be affected, although to a lesser extent than noise. Our goal was not to find out exactly how much noise the drive produces at such-and-such a speed — there is no exact value. Instead, we asked the following questions:

  • How does the external enclosure affect the noise quality, and how well damped is the drive in general?
  • How does spindle speed affect noise?
  • What is an acceptable tradeoff between noise and performance?

The following tools were used during testing:

Ambient noise at the time of testing was 20 dBA.

TEST RESULTS

The open/close action of the tray mechanism was smooth, well-damped, quiet and fairly quick. No lengthy whirring, grinding, or clicking noises here, unlike many drives of yesteryear. In this regard, it was similar to internal BenQ, LG, Asus QuietTrack and other Samsung optical drives used around the lab recently.

The noise level during use varied considerably depending on the task and the selected speed, as shown in the table below.

Samsung WriteMaster SE-W164C: CD Tests
Speed
SPL (Idle)
SPL (Seek)
Power Consumption (AC)
48x*
36 dBA@1m
37 dBA@1m
18.3W
40x
34 dBA@1m
35 dBA@1m
14.7W
32x
30 dBA@1m
32 dBA@1m
12.0W
24x
25 dBA@1m
28 dBA@1m
9.3W
16x
22 dBA@1m
27 dBA@1m
8.2W
8x
21 dBA@1m
27 dBA@1m
12.1W
4x
~20 dBA@1m
24 dBA@1m
8.8W
*Accessible only by setting the drive to "High Speed Mode" with Samsung's Magic Speed.

The default rotation speed seemed to be 32x, although the speed changed depending on how the drive was used. 32x was the speed the test disc would spin at when first inserted. What it did after that depended on the usage pattern. If left alone, the rotation speed would drop to 16x after about 45 seconds. On the other hand, if data was copied from the disc it would spin up to 40x for the duration of the transfer and then drop back down to 32x.

At 32x, the noise was borderline acceptable. The bulk of the noise was made up of broadband air turbulence that was quite easy to get used to, although the noise was instantly recognizable as soon as it was listened for. If the Writemaster stayed at this level, it would already be a step ahead of most other optical drives.

However, the increase to 40x was not good for the quality of noise. At this level, a distinct hum could be heard that was not a significant part of the noise character at 32x. It was accompanied by a high-pitched squeal reminiscent of a poorly damped hard drive. The squeal was not loud compared to the rest of the noise, but it was easily the most irritating part of the noise. The amount of vibration at this level was also quite high, and could potentially produce more noise if placed on a resonant surface.

Considering that the (theoretical) difference in performance between 32x and 40x is only 25%, the acoustic penalty seems to far outweighs the performance benefit in this jump. Samsung could have made a much nicer sounding drive simply by limiting Magic Speed's Silent Mode to 32x instead of 40x. Such a drive might prove difficult to sell though, since most consumers are likely to look only at the performance numbers.

When the disc was in the drive but not in active use, the spindle speed dropped down to 16x, where is was difficult to hear clearly. At this level, the noise character was more or less the same as a quiet fan. Motor hum and vibration were almost entirely absent.

16x is probably the lowest speed that still maintains an acceptable level of performance. Although slight acoustic gains could be had by reducing the speed even more, these gains were offset by noticeable decreases in read speed. Consider: 8x differs from 16x by a factor of two, yet the noise difference at idle was only 1 dBA@1m. Compare that to the difference between 16x and 32x (also a factor of two), but the acoustic difference here was 8 dBA@1m. Also, keep in mind that as the nominal read speed becomes higher, it gets more difficult for the drive to maintain that level of performance, so the actual difference in performance may be less than the numbers would suggest.

The acoustic advantage of speeds below 16x was made even more dubious by the fact that the lowest speeds seemed to exhibit a lot more seeking than higher speeds, and the seeks would last for longer, since the transfer time was greater. This effect is noticeable in the power consumption measurements, which increase below 16x.

The seek noise of the Writemaster did not change much no matter how fast the disc was spinning. The only exception was at 4x, where the seeks seemed quite muted in comparison to faster speeds. Because of this, the seeks tended to be most audible at lower speeds, when they weren't well masked by the noise of the disc spinning. Seeks at 40x were barely audible, not because they weren't there, but because they were so much quieter than the rest of the drive. Subjectively, the seeks were similar to the sound of an inkjet printer: Rhythmic and quite tonal, with an almost musical character. Compared to most internal drives, they seemed quite sharp and could probably be a bit more muted.

MP3 RECORDINGS

Several ten second-recordings were made of the Writemaster in a number of different states.

Samsung Writemaster SE-W164C: 16x (Idle), 22 dBA@1m

Samsung Writemaster SE-W164C: 16x (Seek), 27 dBA@1m

Samsung Writemaster SE-W164C: 32x (Idle), 30 dBA@1m

Samsung Writemaster SE-W164C: 32x (Seek), 32 dBA@1m

Samsung Writemaster SE-W164C: 40x (Idle), 34 dBA@1m

Samsung Writemaster SE-W164C: 40x (Seek), 35 dBA@1m

HOW TO LISTEN & COMPARE

These recordings were made with a high resolution studio quality digital recording system. The drive was placed on soft foam and the microphone was located 3" above and to the front of the drive.

To set the volume to a realistic level (similar to the original), try playing the Nexus 92 fan reference recording and setting the volume so that it is barely audible. Then don't reset the volume and play the other sound files. Of course, tone controls or other effects should all be turned off or set to neutral. For full details on how to calibrate your sound system to get the most valid listening comparison, please see the yellow text box entitled Listen to the Fans on page four of the article SPCR's Test / Sound Lab: A Short Tour.

CONCLUSIONS

Overall, the Samsung SE-W164C is a nice product, although not particularly quiet. It has the advantage of portability: It can be plugged into any system that runs Windows XP and immediately used to read a disc. Thanks to USB and Plug-and-Play, CDs can be burned using Windows' built-in capabilities without needing to do anything more than plugging in the drive. Until Windows Vista is released, burning DVDs will require installing some software, but eventually that too will be built into the operating system.

Like all external optical drives, the SE-W164C requires an AC power source, which limits its true portability. Certainly, any device tethered to AC power is of limited utility for road warriors.

In terms of noise, the external Writemaster is no better than an internal burner, but neither is it any worse. If the drive is used repeatedly with the same system, it is worthwhile to install Nero DriveSpeed and turn the maximum speed down to 16x except for short bursts of copying when it can be turned up to 24x or 32x. However, because this is software, it is not a viable solution if the drive is intended to be portable and used with multiple PCs, since DriveSpeed may not be installed or properly configured on all systems. It would be nice if Samsung's Magic Speed utility could adjust the maximum speed to below 40x.

Many thanks to Samsung Canada for the Writemaster SE-W164C sample.

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