Sony's designers must be somewhat reluctant to let go of designs. The DRX810UL is a case in point -- externally, it's almost identical to its predecessor, the Sony DRX800UL. Like its predecessor, it's the external drive version of the fastest current Sony Dual Layer burner, in this case the DRU810A. If you're not in need of the external casing, you can save yourself $120 and go for that internal unit, which is otherwise functionally identical to the DRX810UL.
Like the 800UL, the DRX810UL is suitable for either flat or upright positioning, and comes with a small translucent stand to enable you to do this. We're still a little uncomfortable about doing this in the long run. While it does look quite cool, you're introducing elements of vibration into the drive, which can be audibly heard when in vertical operation. The external casing itself is quite simple, comprising an eject button on the side/top (depending on vertical/horizontal orientation of the drive) and a full reflective plate that hides the disc tray altogether. Like the previous model, the rear of the unit houses connection options for both firewire and USB2.0 cables, both of which are provided in the retail box.
The most enticing factor for the DRX810UL is the burning speeds it supports. Single layer DVD discs can be burnt at up to 16x CAV (21.6MB/s), while dual layer and DVD+RW discs can be created at up to 8x (10.8MB/s). DVD-RW users get a claimed 6x CLV (8.1MB/s) writing speed, while CD-R and CD-RWs write at 48x and 32x respectively.
On the software side, the DRX810UL ships with burning applications for Windows and Macintosh users -- presumably the Linux crowd is expected to be bright enough to work something out. Mac types can use Toast 6 Lite, and Windows users get an LE version of the current Nero suite. On the Windows side (we did not test on a Macintosh system), 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 as with the 800UL, there is a catch, which we discovered all too quickly.
As noted above, we did notice that the unit was that touch noisier in vertical orientation, which worried us when we were using it for writing operations. The unit has a 2MB buffer that should eliminate the creation of coasters, but every time you drop to the buffer, you're slowing the writing operation down, which means longer write times. The size of the unit and its external casing does make it semi-suitable for portable use; it's certainly rugged enough, but at the same time it's about half the size of the average notebook, and at 1.6kg, not that much lighter than many notebooks.
Running test burns with the DRX810UL showed a lot of variety in burning speeds with the unit. At worst, though, we hit the kinds of levels we got with the 800UL -- about 5.4MB/sec -- and it always kept above this level on our test disc burns. It's debateable whether existing burner owners will genuinely benefit from the jump from 6x to 8x DL media burning, but those who don't yet have a burner, or need a full replacement unit will undoubtedly get a small boost in writing speed.
When we reviewed the 800UL unit, the one thing that annoyed us more than any other was that the supplied Nero burning software is locked to the burner, and it's the same case with the 810XL. The practical upshot of this is that if you install it on a machine with an existing optical writer, that existing unit won't be recognised by Nero -- even if you're updating an existing Nero install! It's an irritating limitation to place on the software, which presumably saves Sony a few dollars on the cost of the software, but at the expense of annoying end users.
Dual layer media is becoming more widely available, although it still hasn't reached the levels of single-layer media, which can be had at just about any retail outlet you'd care to name, including most supermarkets. To get the most out of the 810UL, however, you'd need to track down 8x compatible DL media. Our brief and totally unscientific survey of stores found no media on sale that was specifically rated at that speed, although a quantity of our 6x rated media was happily accepted by the 810UL as 8x media.
The DRX810UL is a solid and reliable burner, and the price tag it carries shows how common DVD burners have become -- it wasn't that long ago that you couldn't get an internal single layer burner for this kind of asking price. We'd suggest that anyone pondering the DRX810UL should add the price of a full copy of Nero onto the asking price however if you're planning to use it on a multi-drive system.