We've been waiting and waiting. By the end of last year more than two thirds of all motherboards sold featured Serial-ATA connectors - however, the corresponding drives available on the market had scarcely increased at all. In the spring of this year, hard drive makers were still only delivering small quantities, and manufacturers of optical drives often seemed to be shrugging their shoulders. MSI now intends to change all that.
In fact, Serial ATA does not entail any extra performance in and of itself - contrary to what is often propagated in innumerable marketing brochures. At the current maximum 150 MB/s, only the interface itself offers a good deal more bandwidth than UltraATA at 133 or 100 MB/s. But there are still no drives that can approach the maximum bandwidths of the UltraATA standard. Anyone solely interested in fast transfer speeds can continue to do without Serial ATA - unless you're dealing with a Western Digital hard drive with 10,000 rpm.
Up to now, the advantages of Serial ATA lie above all in uncomplicated cabling: the plug is reverse-polarity protected and the annoyance of configuring the master/slave on a single channel is a thing of the past, as exactly one drive is connected per SATA port. Plus, the sea of cables in the case is visibly reduced, which makes it easier to tell what's going on and aids airflow.
Subsequent generations of Serial ATA will not only be able to handle up to 300 MB/s per port, but will also feature what is known as Command Queuing. Assuming there is support for your controller and driver, a single device can rearrange numerous incoming data requests in a way that is optimal for its internal setup (disk or magnetic disk). The technology makes sense for optical drives, too, as it lets you avoid any unnecessary vibrations in the lens system and fluctuations in latency times due to rotation.
But all of that remains the stuff of tomorrow's discussions, so today we turn our attention to the innovation at hand: we're talking about the first DVD drive with SATA interface. The surprising fact is that it doesn't come from a traditional drive producer like Toshiba, Sony or Pioneer. Nope, the trailblazer this time is MSI with the XA52P. We took a first look at it for you.
The XA52P In Detail
In terms of the way they work, modern DVD drives and even burners aren't really all that different from each other anymore. This is clearly evident in the price, as nowadays you can even get an 8x DVD burner for around $80.
The supported speeds are thoroughly in keeping with the times: the burner can read and write CDs at 52x or a maximum 7.8 MB/s. The combo drive can burn CD-RWs at 24x and read DVDs at 16x DVD speed. The transfer rates and access times we clocked were in the middle range or above in all disciplines.
When writing CDs, the unit uses a buffer underrun system called SuperLink that can access up to 2 MB of buffer memory. It supports 74- and 80-minute CDs as well as 90- and 99-minute discs.
One strength of the drives from MSI is their compact design, and the new one (MSI calls it MiniForm) is small enough to fit easily in any mini PC.
Another intriguing aspect is the use of LiveUpdate3 software. Many users may already be familiar with it from the motherboards from the same manufacturer, on which it handles the BIOS software updates practically automatically. The same is the case with the XA52P, as LiveUpdate3 can also effortlessly install new firmware versions if desired.
The drive distinguishes itself from most of the competition by its changeable front panels. MSI calls this feature ActivePanel and includes three of them in the box (silver, beige and black), meaning the drive can be made to match any housing.
The package also contains an OEM version of Nero Burning ROM 6.3. PowerDVD from CyberLink is also included for video playback.
Conclusion: A Logical Launch
MSI's effort is a laudable one, as we've felt that an optical drive with an SATA interface has been overdue for months. From a realistic standpoint, the manufacturers have left this market gap unfilled for far too long. That's because users interested in technology are generally happy to spend a few extra bucks for new (and sensible) innovations. For our purposes, an SATA DVD drive would have yielded modest yet worthwhile sales figures back at the start of the year. Too late now, though: MSI is setting the pace.
We view the market launch of the XA 52P as a DVD/CD-RW combo solution as a reasonable compromise. A simple DVD-ROM seems rather banal by now, since it costs only a little more to add the option of burning CDs. To top it off, the DVD drive proved to be quite a wizard at reading, often leaving the burners that we previously tested in the dust.
The drive's compact size makes it suitable for practically any use and the three interchangeable covers add a bit of eye candy for modding enthusiasts, too. All in all, a product that we can recommend - as long as you use a motherboard with an Intel 865/875/848 chipset - the XA52P doesn't yet work with other SATA controllers, and so we have to sit tight for SATA II with ATAPI support.