The DRX800UL is the external drive version of Sony's dual layer DRU-800A burner. It's encased in a solid and bulky plastic casing which measures in at 52 x 164 x 234mm and weighs 1.5kg without its power supply. While it's a theoretically portable unit, it's also bulky enough to make an impact in your laptop bag. The front of the drive houses a flap that completely covers the tray access, which should afford it a small quantity of spill/dust protection. Ejecting is managed by a protruding button on the right hand side - but that could also be described as the top of the unit. If that sounds confusing, it's because the DRX800UL comes with a vertical stand (an idea no doubt procured from the company's PlayStation 2 division) which lessens the amount of desk space the drive needs. It still feels a little odd to place discs vertically into a burner to us, though.
The back of the DRX800UL houses all the connectivity options of the drive, and here someone's been thinking clever thoughts at the Sony factory. Aside from the necessary power plug and switch, there are also three sockets for connecting via USB or Firewire. The USB plug is a regular sized USB plug - USB 2.0 if you actually want to burn to the drive at its rated speeds - while the other two sockets cover both the full-sized and micro Firewire (or, if you're Sony, i.Link) plug types. Cables are provided for all three connection options, and the practical upshot of that inclusion is that there's not a system on the planet that can't be theoretically plugged into the DRX800UL.
The only writeable DVD format that the DRX800UL can't in fact write to is the increasingly niche DVD-RAM format. The main differentiator for the DRX800UL is that it supports both the plus and minus dual layer formats for burning, at a top rate of 4X (5.4MB/s). Otherwise, it's a 16X burner for DVD+/-R format discs, 8X for DVD+RW, 6X for DVD-RW, 24X for CD-RW and 48X for CD-R.
On the software front, the DRX800UL is supplied with an SE copy of Nero 6 Ultra Edition. Breaking it down, that gives you Nero Burning ROM SE, Nero Express, Nero BackItUp, InCD (for packet writing), NeroVision Express, Nero Showtime, Nero Record, Nero Wave Editor, Nero Cover Designer, Nero MediaHome, Nero PhotoSnap, Nero PhotoSnapViewer, Nero Toolkit and the launching application to handle all of them, Nero SmartStart. It's a great bundle to include - although there is a catch, which we discovered all too quickly.
Burning a full dual layer disc with the DRX800UL connected via USB 2.0 showed it coming close to the stated writing speed of 5.4MB/second; across our entire test disc we averaged a speed of 5.12MB/second using DVD+R DL media supplied to us by Sony. Given the amounts of data being written, the practical upshot of that is that you're still looking at around 28 minutes to burn a full disc; less so with single layer media or discs that don't quite fill the entire capacity of a DVD.
While the supplied Nero suite is undoubtedly extensive, its SE nature introduces one irksome quirk into the equation that makes it less endearing. It's designed to work only with the DRX800UL, and if you install it on a machine with other DVD burners present, you'll find yourself unable to write to those drives. It's an irritating little limitation, especially when you consider that a full version of Nero has no problem picking up the DRX800UL itself. As long as you remember not to install the supplied suite on a machine with existing drives on it, you won't have a problem - but it'd be much easier and more pleasant to just be able to use the software to its full potential.
It's surprising to note that even now, almost exactly a year since Sony launched their first dual layer burner, the DRU-700A, that dual layer media is still relatively uncommon; while you can wander into any supermarket and pick up single layer media of both types with no problem, dual layer media is still thin on the ground - and still commanding a price premium. Still, the DRX800UL is a solid performer, and like its predecessors, having the capability to record to dual layer media isn't a bad thing to have per se, especially at this price point.