Three Optical Combo Drives Roundup: One More Samsung’s Benefit Performance?

Today we would like to take a closer look at a new optical DVD-drive from Samsung called TS-H492A. Created by the alliance of Samsung and Toshiba engineers, this solution is expected to become very popular. Let’s find out now what its advantages are compared to the predecessors, as well as competitor alternatives.

by Vasily Melnik
08/14/2004 | 10:18 AM

Once again we return to the discussion of combo optical drives. Someone may think the subject is hackneyed and rather obsolete, since DVD-recorders now rule the market, but undemanding users who do not want to spend a hundred bucks for an optical drive may find a combo the most optimal choice. Even with all the disadvantages of this class of devices, you can find a worthy sample that would match the best CD-RW drives as well as DVD-ROM drives. It is to find such pearls among the crowd of available products that we keep on doing our tests.

 

The ranks of the manufacturers involved into production of optical combos are getting ever thinner, but the companies who do stay in the field have now more elbowroom. Today, I will discuss three new models from two manufacturers. The first of them, AOpen Inc., is active in every segment of the optical drive market and continues rolling out new combo models, too. The second manufacturer is Samsung, and I guess it needs no recommendations. This company may be better in some spheres and worse in others, but it always puts much effort into expanding and conquering new markets.

We all remember the story of Samsung’s hard disk drives. Once overtly low-end, slow and unreliable, hard disk drives from Samsung are now competitive against and even superior to the products of the world’s leading HDD makers. Why? Because there was a decision made somewhere in the entrails of the corporation – “we either start making good hard disk drives or focus on another market segment”. Considering the tremendous potential of the company, its ability to output good drives was never under a doubt. Added the desire, they were doomed to succeed.

Why are you reading this in a review of optical drives? You know, it’s all much the same in this market, too. Samsung seems to have decided to make good optical drives. The first step towards this goal was the alliance with a leader in this field, Toshiba. The establishment of their joint venture Toshiba Samsung Storage Technology (TSST) was the first signal that optical storage devices were among the current priorities of the Korean manufacturer. Soon we met new products from the new developer group – from antique “pure” CD-ROMs to fashionable multi-format DVD-recorders.

The sector of combo drives wasn’t left unattended, of course. In a short period, they rolled out two models – the Samsung SM-352N (that came to replace the Samsung SM-352B) and the newest model for today, the Samsung TS-H492A. The former of them came from the pen of Samsung and even the marking remained the same, but the latter was developed by the joint group of TSST engineers. The model’s marking changed, too, to indicate that it was not quite a Samsung. Of course, some users might want it to be “not a Samsung at all”, but don’t anticipate – you haven’t seen the test results yet. Samsung can surprise with its products, especially ones developed with the help of the mighty Toshiba.

AOpen COM5232/AAH

The COM5232/AAH model continues the optical combo drive series from AOpen.

The device comes in a retail package, which looks pretty and is very informative, telling you the maximum speeds of the drive with different media types. Even an experienced user will read everything right. Inside the package, beside the drive proper, you find a user manual, a set of fastening screws, a CD with Nero Burning ROM and PowerDVD (two software titles on one CD is rather a rare thing), and an audio cable, which is actually not very useful nowadays. That’s about all – but the model comes under a name of Chameleon. Here’s why:

That’s right – removable front panels! Black and silvery colors. Some manufacturers do care about the user more than others!

  

Now, what about the drive itself? The front panel is rather originally designed with decorative corrugating where the control buttons are. Besides aesthetic purposes, this design solution is also practical – your fingers don’t slide off the buttons (probably, the manufacturer didn’t even give a thought to this, but anyway). Front panels of AOpen’s drives are traditionally overloaded with controls and sockets: two control buttons, a hole for emergency extraction of the disc, a headphones socket, a volume control and a signal LED. The LED looks very curious, peeping as if out of a porthole.

The back panel is standard, without any memorable features. There are icons explaining the purpose of the connectors and the values of their pins – other manufacturers place it on the cover of the drive. That’s a matter of taste. The length of the drive is reduced, so you can easily install it into a system case of any size.

Now, let’s take a look at the drive’s insides:

Earlier combo-drive models from AOpen featured chipsets from Ricoh, but the COM5232/AAH is based on the ALi M5731. However, Ricoh remains here. Its technology called Just Link is employed by the drive to avoid the buffer underrun error. The design of the drive is curious by itself – nearly all the elements on the external side of the printed circuit board have special padding. It takes heat off the chips and stabilizes the temperature of the device since the bottom metal panel is a more effective heat-spreader than the cases of the chips themselves, moreover clamped in the limited space inside the drive’s chassis. The second purpose of the padding is that of damping. It is no secret that modern optical drives produce a strong vibration working at the maximum speeds. Then, when a chip becomes 60-70°C hot, its legs are less steady on the soldering points. Considering that there are unavoidable micro-cavities inside the solders, the chip may shift off the landing place or lose the contact with one of its legs. To avoid this, the manufacturer uses that padding.

This is not a trifle it seems at first sight. It is a well-thought and careful approach of the manufacturer to the product development process. You don’t often see such solutions in design of optical drives. Now, let’s examine the specification of the new model.

The technical characteristics of the AOpen COM5232/AAH follow:

With a blank Verbatim Datalife 52x disc inserted, Nero Burning ROM offers the following burn speeds:

As you see, the list of the available speeds is rather long. Moreover, this model is capable of burning top-quality 48x CD-R discs at 52x speed. Overall, the AOpen COM5232/AAH appears to be a well-made product. If it passes all my tests, it’s going to make another very appealing combo drive (the MSI MS-8452M was the first one).

I also have an opportunity to offer you the results of this drive with two firmware versions (1.05 and 1.09 – the freshest version for today). And here’s what the informational utilities (Nero InfoTool and DVDInfo Pro) have to say about this drive with the two versions of the firmware:

  
Firmware 1.05

  
Firmware 1.09

As you see, the firmware update doesn’t add support of the new formats. For example, DVD+R dual-layer discs are still unsupported. I will return to this subject during the tests, though.

Samsung SM-352N

This model came to market to replace the SM-352B drive and was the first device developed by the TSST group.

  

The exterior of the device is identical to the Samsung SM-352B: Samsung’s exclusive tray, and the typical design of the front panel with the manufacturer’s logo. So, there’s nothing extraordinary in the appearance of the SM-352N and, considering I had its OEM version, I have nothing to add about the accessories.

The main and only difference of this model from the previous one is the declared speed of processing CD-RW discs. It has grown from 24x to 32x. Otherwise, the two are identical, at least the manufacturer claims so. I have no reasons to be distrustful towards Samsung and, moreover, I have no way to check the drive for any changes in the firmware. So, let’s assume that the SM-352N is a SM-352B with an improved CD rewriting speed.

Now let us take a look inside to compare the stuffing of the SM-352N with the next model, the Samsung TS-H492A.

  

The drive is based on the Media Tec MT1628E chipset. The design is also similar to the SM-352B model. That said, the descriptive part is over, let’s read through the specification.

The basic characteristics of the drive:

  

Among unusual features, note the drive’s ability to read DVD-RAM discs as well as support of S.M.A.R.T. and streaming.

Samsung TS-H492A

Just a couple of months after the release of the SM-352N model, the manufacturer announced a substitute: the TS-H492A. This device was developed by the TSST team, too, and Toshiba engineers played the main role in the development process.

  

I had the OEM version of the drive, so I can’t say anything about its accessories. The drive’s design is similar to that of the Samsung SM-352N. The only exception is the front panel, which now has a decorative golden strip. Otherwise, the two models look like twins with the same controls and case construction. The new one looks of course better than earlier drives from Samsung, though. The developer claims the tray was redesigned to reduce the noise and to protect against dust. However, even a close examination of the trays of the SM-352N and the TS-H942A couldn’t reveal any differences between them. The amount of dust that finds its way into the case is hard to estimate, but in terms of noise, the new model, subjectively, doesn’t differ much from the previous one. So are there any differences at all? First of all, we have a different chipset here:

  

The Samsung TS-H492A is based on the Media Tek MT1688E chipset, while the SM-352N employed the MT1628E. By the way, Samsung came to use Media Tec chipsets only recently. The company thinks those chipsets are optimal as concerns the performance of the devices. Then, the drive’s firmware was rewritten – the Toshiba engineers were fully responsible for the development of the DVD-related part of the firmware.

  
The drives without the bottom panel (the SM-352N is on the left)

You may notice certain differences in the mechanics of the drives, comparing the snapshots above.

  
The PCBs of the SM-352N (left) and TS-H492 (right)

The same can be said about the PCB design.

Thus, despite the visible similarity, the Samsung TS-492A is a completely new model, with both software and hardware (mechanics and electronics) parts updated and revised.

The basic technical characteristics of the drive:

I’d like to draw your attention to a few points among all this abundance. Firstly, we have DVD-RAM disc support here. It might come in handy at times. Secondly, the drive can drop its speed when playing video both from CDs and DVDs. This is not good for copying DVDs (it take more time to burn a disc), but is certainly a plus when playing video back, since the noise from the drive is reduced. Then, I remind you once again that I had the OEM version of the device, so it only had 2MB of cache memory. The retail version of the TS-H492A comes equipped with an 8MB cache buffer.

Here’s information that Nero InfoTool and DVDInfo Pro are telling about this drive:

  

Now we can proceed to the tests.

Performance

Performance in CD WinBench 99

I’m going to start out with the synthetic CD WinBench 99 test:

The AOpen COM5232/AAH is an unrivalled leader in this test. It was the fastest reader both at the inner and outer areas of the disk and notched a good access time, although a bit worse than the new Samsung had.

Performance during CD-R Burning

I used Verbatim Datalife 52x blanks from Mitsubishi Chemicals for this test:

Drives of the same speed formula don’t greatly differ in their real speeds (the new and old devices from Samsung differ by 17%). The slowest drive took 26 seconds more to burn the disc than the fastest one. It’s up to you to decide if this difference matters, considering the total burn time of about 3 minutes. Anyway, the Samsung SM-352N won the test at 52x speed, while the new Samsung was the slowest. At 24x, the leader remained the same, but the other Samsung forced the AOpen down to the third place.

Burned CD-R read graphs at 52x speed


AOpen COM5232/AAH

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

In fact, all the drives did a good job of reading the blanks written at the maximum speed. The AOpen COM5232/AAH had the same result with any firmware version. This device was the fastest as it reached a speed of 52x at the final areas of the disc, while the Samsungs both stopped at 42x. Anyway, the difference between the models is negligible, about 1-2 seconds. The Samsung TS-H492A drew an ideally smooth graph, without any slumps or humps. The SM-352N produced certain undulations at the starting areas of the blank. But again, all the drives were very good in this test.

The AOpen can boast the best average read speed as well as the minimal access time. Well, we already know it from the CD WinBench 99 test. On the other hand, this drive is worse than the Samsungs as concerns the burst rate. The AOpen was also the best in ergonomics – it makes you wait for 9.35s for the disc to be recognized after the load. The Samsung SM-352N takes a disc in and recognizes it in 10.15s; the Samsung TS-H492A needs 12.49s to do the same.

Now let’s examine the quality of the burned CD-R discs. Again, I burned the discs at the maximum possible speed as well as at 24x speed.

Burned CD-R read graphs at 24x speed (Nero Quality Check)


AOpen COM5232/AAH

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

Nero Quality Check report


AOpen COM5232/AAH

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

I used the version 1.09 firmware with the AOpen COM5232/AAH in this test.

All the three drives had a single surge of errors of the second encoder: 103 with the AOpen and 105 with the Samsung TS-H492A. The Samsung SM-352N had more C2 errors – 266. As for the errors of the first decoder, the Samsung TS-H492A made few of them; the Samsung SM-352N is the second best in this respect, and the AOpen COM5232/AAH had the worst result. All in all, the new Samsung and the AOpen behaved much alike in this test. At 24x, the drives burned really high-quality discs. I could say the same about the SM-352N, but it had more C2 errors than the other two.

Now let’s check the quality of the discs the drives wrote at their maximum speed.

Burned CD-R read graphs at 52x speed (Nero Quality Check)


AOpen COM5232/AAH

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

Nero Quality Check report


AOpen COM5232/AAH

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

When the write speed is the highest, the AOpen COM5232/AAH again produces a disc of the best quality – the total of C2 errors is 103, in one surge. The Samsung TS-H492A has the same number of errors of the second encoder, and in a single surge, too. The Samsung SM-352N has nothing to be proud of – two surges with a total of 1568 errors, and a peak of 888 errors.

Now, about the first encoder: the AOpen is the best with 1465 errors; next goes the Samsung TS-H492A with 1531 errors. Overall, the AOpen COM5232/AAH and the new Samsung produce high-quality discs, both at the maximum and reduced burn speeds. The Samsung SM-352N is just a little worse than these two drives at 24x speed, but the difference becomes more evident at 52x speed.

As I mentioned above, the AOpen COM5232/AAH agreed to burn a Verbatim 48x blank at 52x speed. Why not to check it out?

  

Well, the result is worse than with the disc rated for 52x speed, but good enough for this non-standard operational mode: a single surge of the first encoder errors (106), which is only three errors more than in the regular work mode. The C1 error count grew more, from 1465 to 3731. Anyway, the AOpen handled this blank in a most appropriate way. For example, it made fewer errors than the Samsung SM-352N, which was writing a 52x blank at 52x speed. These are all preliminary results, though. I will voice my final verdict after looking through the results of CD CATS SA3. That’s what I’m going to do right now.

Burn Quality at Different Speeds

AOpen COM5232/AAH

The quality of blanks written at the maximum speed is rather good. The Block Error Rate (BLER) is low, not exceeding 30 errors in peaks. The Burst Error Length (BERL) parameter goes out of the acceptable range at one point only. However, there’s no BLER surge at this point, so this is not a mechanical defect of the medium, but a fault of the drive. There are E12 and E22 errors – not too many, but some other drives make fewer errors or none at all. Jitter fits into the norm, although there are still problems with Land Jitter. The sequences of 3T size are slightly longer than acceptable, and the others fit exactly into the norm. That’s why we have that look of the Pit Histogram – adjacent areas are overlapping up to a sequence of 5T. There’re minor overlaps on the Land Histogram, too, but they don’t affect the quality of the written disc much.

Now, let’s examine the disc burned at 24x speed.

It’s roughly the same here as with the disc burned at 52x. The Land Jitter remained the same, only its level is slightly lower, but there are no overlapping areas on the Land Histogram, although neighboring areas are very close to each other. The C2 error count is still high.

Now, let’s examine the disc rated for 48x, but burned at 52x.

This is not the drive’s normal burn mode, but if it claims it can do it, why not to check it out?

However strange, some parameters have even improved! For example, the BLER and BERL values have reduced, and there are fewer second encoder errors. The Land Jitter has increased, though. It is above the norm for all the sequence lengths, and the disc symmetry on the initial area is distorted. Anyway, considering that that medium wasn’t originally rated for 52x, the drive did its job well enough.

Overall, the quality of the burned media improves as we go down to lower speeds. The drive is good at writing at its maximum speed, and the reduction of speed to 24x brings a slight quality improvement. In contrast to pure CD-RWs and best combo drives, this model looks rather unassuming. Yet, it is good enough against the crowd of ordinary combo devices.

Samsung SM-352N

That’s overall a good result. The BLER is low, with peaks of about 30-40. The BERL parameter is high, but still normal. Among the second encoder mistakes, there’s only a scattering of E12 errors. The Land Jitter is slightly above the norm, but this doesn’t affect the Land Histogram where there are no adjacent areas. The Pits fit into the norm, too, although adjacent areas in the Pit Histogram are very close to each other. That is a very good result for the maximum write speed. Let’s drop it down to 24x and watch the outcome.

We’ve got surprises here. The quality of the written disc degenerated considerably in comparison to the 52x disc. The higher BLER and the worse symmetry in the middle of the disc can be put up with, but the Land Jitter is too high and the look of the Land Histogram is not pleasing at all. Areas overlap up to sequences of 10T and 11T. The Pits are all right, though.

Well, this one is a tricky device. It is good at writing discs at its maximum speed, but worse at 24x. I recall the same thing with MSI’s CD-RWs with earlier firmware versions. MSI solved that problem thereafter. Probably the next firmware version of the SM-352N will deal with this problem, too.

Samsung TS-H492A

The BLER is higher than with the previous model, but is still in the acceptable range. There are fewer second encoder errors. A single surge of errors at the end of the disc is due to a physical defect of the medium and is no fault of the drive. The BERL is smaller, three at the maximum. The Jitter is always normal, both in Lands and in Pits. However, the Pit Histogram shows that adjacent areas of small-length sequences do overlap. Overall, the quality of writing is similar to the previous model. I could have said it is high if it were not for the Pit Histogram.

Now let’s reduce the speed to 24x.

And again, strange things happen. The overall burn quality has improved; at least there is no overlapping in the histograms. The BLER diminished, too. But the BERL has increased, the C2 error count has grown, too, and the disk symmetry has deteriorated. Once again, we see a drive from Samsung to behave strangely at a lower burn speed. Maybe they tuned the drive up for high speeds only?

It’s real hard to select the best CD-R burner among the three tested devices. One model may be better in one set of parameters, but worse in another set. The AOpen COM5232/AAH looks the most balanced of all, producing discs of an acceptable quality at the maximum and reduced speed alike. However, you don’t get any considerable quality gain by reducing the burn speed. Samsung’s drives burn better than the AOpen at the maximum speed, but are less successful at the reduced speed. I can’t say that any of the Samsungs was better than another in my tests.

Overall, the three tested drives do not aspire to be anything more than “average” devices in terms of quality of the burned CD-R discs. There are models with even worse parameters, but there are also much better drives available in the market.

Work with CD-RW Discs

We’re finished with write-once media. Let’s do some rewriting.

It takes about the same time to burn a CD-RW disc at 32x and 24x speeds. The AOpen COM5232/AAH was nominally the fastest at 32x (by the way, the firmware update didn’t affect the burn speed in the slightest), while the Samsung TS-H492A won at 24x speed. The Samsung SM-352N was the only drive to go off the rails, with 32x discs. As you remember, the main difference of this model from the SM-352B is a faster declared rewrite speed (32x instead of 24x). However, the SM-352N refused to burn our test medium (Verbatim 32x disc) at a speed higher than x16 – maybe due to certain defects in the firmware. Will they correct them, considering the release of the TS-H492A? I guess not. Samsung was very quick in releasing the new model – my tests explain why.

Now, let’s discuss the quality of writing CD-RW discs. We start out from 24x speed.

CD-RW 24x burn graphs

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.05)

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.09)

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

The firmware update didn’t affect the result of the AOpen COM5232/AHH. All the drives handled the test disc successfully, in about the same time. The Samsung TS-H492A reached its maximum speed earlier than the other devices as it started burning at 20x rather than 18x as the other two. Anyway, this didn’t practically change the total burn time.

CD-RW 32x burn graphs

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.05)

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.09)

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

You remember that the Samsung SM-352N refused to process the CD-RW disc at this speed, limiting itself with 16x only. The new firmware of the AOpen drive only reduced the resulting time by 1 second.

I have nothing to say against any of the drives. I do not want to pay much attention to the TS-H492A’s pulsation as it was trying to accelerate suddenly. In fact, it only makes sense to compare the results of the COM5232/AAH and the TS-H492A, since the SM-352N is out of play with its 16x. The drives that wrote the disc at 32x behaved much alike to each other – they even hit the maximum speed at the same point.

Let’s now evaluate the quality of the written discs. The 24x media come first:

Burned CD-RW disc read graphs at 24x speed (Nero Quality Check)

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.05)

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.09)

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

Nero Quality Check report

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.05)

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.09)

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

What influence does the firmware version have on the results of the AOpen COM5232/AAH? The graphs are similar with any version, but the quality improves dramatically with the fresh firmware! This drive wasn’t brilliant with firmware 1.05, getting about 11,000 first encoder errors and 884 second encoder errors (with a peak of 749 errors). After the firmware update to version 1.09, the C1 error count diminished to 2,649 (with a maximum of 28), the C2 error count to 103. I will take into account the results of the updated firmware only.

The quality of the disc written by the AOpen is worse if compared to the other two test participants, both in C1 error count and in C2 error count. Curiously, the TS-H492A is better than its predecessor, the SM-352N model, as concerns the first encoder errors (1,685 against 5,227), but has more C2 errors (718 against 699). Well, considering that that was a single surge, most likely provoked by a defect of the medium, I can claim the new drive from Samsung to produce discs of a higher quality.

Now, what about the discs written at 32x speed?

Burned CD-RW disc read graphs at 32x speed (Nero Quality Check)

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.05)

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.09)

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

Nero Quality Check report

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.05)

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.09)

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

Let’s again examine the performance of the AOpen drive with its different firmware versions. Like in the previous case, the firmware update had a most salutary effect on the device – we see a dramatic reduction of the first encoder errors (from 549,707 to 17,284 – by a factor of thirty!), and of the second (from 21,321 to 761 – a similar ratio!). Once again, the firmware update proves to be a mandatory condition to making this drive work normally.

The AOpen becomes the leader of the test after the firmware update. It has more C1 errors than the Samsung TS-H492A (17,284 against 1,274), but fewer C2 errors (1,026 against 761). As for the Samsung SM-352N, even its 16x speed couldn’t help it to leave the last place. Burning a 32x CD-RW disc, it made over a million errors of the first encoder and about 5,000 of the second – an awful result.

So, the AOpen COM5232/AAH, an average drive with firmware 1.05, becomes an absolute leader among the tested devices in CD-RW burn quality both at 32x and 24x speeds, as soon as you update its firmware to version 1.09. However, the new Samsung is very close to the leader, and even surpasses it in the C1 error count.

Reading Damaged CD-ROM Discs

I am going to finish the CD-related part of the review by checking the error correction mechanisms of the drives. The compact disc is a delicate data medium, so the optical drive always has something to correct. Let’s check out how good the tested drives are at that.

Damaged CD read graphs

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.05)

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.09)

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

The firmware update does not affect the error correction capabilities of the AOpen drive. It performs reading in the same manner as before, and the number of unread blocks remains the same – 5 in both cases. The only difference is that version 1.09 took half a minute more to read the disc (5min10sec instead of 4min41sec). Both drives from Samsung use the same reading algorithm, and the TS-H492A handles the task faster than its predecessor: 4min56sec against 5min38sec. The number of unread blocks is 3 and 4, respectively.

Overall, the drives were all successful in this test. The new device from Samsung, the TS-H492A model, handled the damaged CD-ROM best of all – in the least time and with fewest errors – although the AOpen seems to be accelerating faster at first sight.

Reading DVDs

We are done with CD media. The second part of my tests is about the DVD-ROM aspect of the combo drives. Let’s try reading molded CDs:

The read graph for a single-layer molded DVD-Video disc

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.05)

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.09)

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

This time AOpen’s new firmware left an ambiguous impression: the read speed remained the same, but firmware 1.09 had pulses at the end of the disc, which version 1.05 had not. They are not as annoying, however, as to prevent you from changing the drive’s firmware.

Both models from Samsung had similar problems at the end of the test disc, but the pulses were stronger and the drives lost more speed. The SM-352N recovered faster than the TS-H492A and finished reading the disc earlier.

The read graph for a dual-layer molded DVD-Video disc

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.05)

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.09)

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

Again, the AOpen drive is indifferent to the firmware update. Firmware 1.09 had a minor and short speed slump when transitioning from the first to the second layer. This accounts for the difference of 3 seconds between the two firmware versions.

The Samsungs work better with dual-layer media than with single-layer discs, producing smooth read graphs. The TS-H492A model stumbled at the end of the second layer. The SM-352N is the only drive that dropped the DVD-Video read speed to 8x; the other two drives reached a speed of 10x.

Being done with the test of reading molded DVDs, I would like to say that the AOpen drive was the best here. The drives are all good at reading dual-layer media, but single-layer discs provoked some troubles for the Samsungs.

Now, let’s turn to recordable DVD discs.

The read graph for the written DVD+R discs

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.05)

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.09)

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

Here’s another profit from a firmware update. The AOpen couldn’t read the written DVD+R disc to the end with firmware 1.05. After the update to version 1.09, it produced a smooth and clear read graph.

The drives from Samsung were both excellent at reading this type of media. The SM-352N was the only device to finish at 6x speed, while the other drives did it at 8x. The difference is three minutes – about one third of the total time.

The read graph for the written DVD-R discs

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.05)

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.09)

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

Irrespective of the firmware version, the AOpen COM5232/AAH had no problems reading discs of that type. It drew smooth, without undulations, graphs and reached a speed of 8x.

The drives from Samsung also performed the reading of written DVD-R discs easily. The SM-352N took some time to think it over at the beginning of the disc, though, and this shows as a single slump in the graph.

Summing it up, none of the tested drives had problems with write-once media, both DVD-R and DVD+R. There is only one remark: the AOpen COM5232/AAH definitely needs a firmware update; without it, it encounters problems reading DVD+R discs.

Now let’s move on to rewritable media.

DVD+RW read graphs

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.05)

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.09)

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

Whatever the firmware version, the AOpen COM5232/AAH is reading DVD+RW discs with ease. There are no pulses or slumps in the graphs. The drive reaches a speed of 8x.

It is not that simple with the Samsungs. The SM-352N model did the reading of the DVD+RW disc well enough, although more slowly than the other two drives, finishing at 6x speed, but the TS-H492A was reading hesitatingly since the second half of the disc. The closer it got to the end of the disc, the stronger was the pulse. Anyway, the drive read the disc through to the end and without any significant speed losses, but this behavior is alarming all the same.

DVD-RW read graphs

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.05)

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.09)

 
Samsung SM-352N

 
Samsung TS-H492A

The AOpen COM5232/AAH finds it more difficult to read this type of media – it was better with +RWs. There’s throbbing at the beginning of the disc. Its amplitude is smaller after the firmware update, but it is still here.

Both models from Samsung performed the reading of the DVD-RW excellently, producing smooth and clear graphs.

Overall, the AOpen COM5232/AAH is again the best with rewritable DVDs. The SM-352N had a good result, but it is slower than the AOpen. The only gripe about the Samsung TS-H492A is that it is unconfident at reading DVD+RW discs. So, all the three drives are quite successful at reading written DVD discs.

As a conclusion to this section of the review, I would like to say a few words about the compatibility of the drives with dual-layer DVD+R discs. The specifications of the devices do not mention such compatibility, but let us check it out anyway.

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.05)

 
AOpen COM5232/AAH (firmware 1.09)

As you can see in the pictures, the AOpen was the only drive to see a dual-layer DVD+R disc, but it couldn’t recognize it correctly or read a layer to the end. The new firmware version doesn’t cure this – the read error occurs at the same point. Both Samsungs refused to identify the inserted dual-layer DVD+R disc.

So, the specifications were right – Not Supported. We should wait for new firmware versions.

Audio Track Extraction


Click to enlarge

Both drives from Samsung have a zero offset, while the AOpen’s offset is rather big. The Samsung TS-H492A has the best access time, but the other two don’t lose it too much. All the drives had the same maximum “on-the-fly” copy speed, 16x. It is good that none of the drives had problems reading the sub-channel data, but both Samsungs turned to be unable to work with Lead-In and Lead-Out zones of the disc.

The AOpen seems to be the best in this test, but you should take into account the rather high offset value of this model. It is also not among the fastest devices as concerns processing damaged Audio CDs.

The table below shows you the real speeds of extraction of audio tracks from a normal and damaged Audio CDs with the help of the EAC program:

Conclusion

The first and most obvious point we can make from this test session is that you should always update the firmware of your optical drives. Does that sound trivial? Yes, but you have just seen that a new firmware version can dramatically improve the operational characteristics of the device. Those users who don’t need a better performance of their drives will probably be interested to view the changes implemented by the manufacturer in practice. Those who update the firmware “automatically” or do not update at all will see once again that this is a highly important matter.

Now, a few remarks about the particular drives. The new combo model from Samsung can be viewed as a rightful heir to the SM-352N. The latter seems to be going to leave the market soon. The substitute was rather a success, although the developers didn’t remove all the problems of the previous model. Considering the traditionally appealing pricing of Samsung’s optical devices, I can recommend this model for an economical customer.

The AOpen COM5232/AAH is clearly a well-made model. Without certain minor flaws, which will hopefully be corrected soon, we would have a nice combo drive. Here’s a list of all the pros and cons of each model:

AOpen COM5232/AAH

Highs:

Lows:

Samsung SM-352N

Highs:

Lows:

Samsung TS-H492A

Highs:

Lows: