'Hello, Get Me Rewrite!'

SAN FRANCISCO (02/01/2000) - Zap your Zip and can your CD-ROM:

These 13 CD-RW drives offer affordable, versatile storage options for everything from recording multimedia CDs to backing up critical files.

You put all-weather tires on your car. You use all-temperature laundry soap.

Why can't you find all-purpose storage for your PC? Floppy drives are painfully small and snail slow. Zip drives are faster but far from universal, and the media isn't cheap. Optical drives are even more rare and expensive. But now, new CD-Rewritable drives combine affordability with enough speed and flexibility to qualify as a first-rate storage option.

The big news: Speed. This crop of CD-RW drives makes last year's models look like slackers. These drives write CD-RW media at 4X and CD-Recordable media at up to 8X. And they can read CD-ROM disks at up to 32X, which means they can replace standard CD-ROM drives. Here's a telling point: According to Iomega's specifications, you can write data to its Zip drive about 50 percent faster than to a CD-RW, but Iomega's own CD-RW drive can read data four times more quickly than its Zip drive.

Flexibility is another charm of CD-RW drives: They can all read CD-ROM discs and write to both CD-R and CD-RW media (and a new type of CD-RW drive can read DVD-ROMs as well). Because nearly every PC sold in the last decade sports some sort of CD-ROM drive, the format is almost as ubiquitous as the floppy drive.

CD-RW drives aren't nearly as common, but they are becoming more popular:

Sony's newest desktop PCs carry both CD-RW and DVD-ROM drives in place of CD-ROMs.

Other removable storage solutions also have their advantages, but each of them imposes unique limitations. For instance, Iomega's Zip drive workswell if you want reasonably fast data transfers and media that'll fit in a shirt pocket.

But its discs cost up to six times as much as CD-RW media, and they work only in other Zip drives. (Plus Iomega now makes 250MB discs that won't work in the older, more common, 100MB drives.) And though many PCs feature Zip drives, CD-ROMs are still more prevalent. Castlewood's Orb drive and Iomega's Jaz drive both offer the hard drive-style speed and capacity needed for audio and video applications, but they aren't common either. And their cartridges cost even more--$40 for the Orb and $125 for the Jaz. Tape drives remain the only option for backing up today's gigantic hard drives on a single discrete unit of media.

But finding and retrieving files on them can be slow. And while tape may be the only storage media that competes with the cost per megabyte of CD-R and CD-RW, it's basically a one-trick format, performing backups.

The consumer CD-R-only drive is doomed, though CD-R maintains a niche in high-end uses such as audio recording. CD-RWs can do all that CD-Rs do, and much more, usually for only a few extra bucks. DVD-RAM is still pricey, and it can't write to other optical media.

Any of the CD-RW drives reviewed here can perform all the functions of other storage devices to at least some degree, and they may save you money. CD-RWs are fast enough for making daily backups, archiving images and databases, or whipping out quick copies of files for clients. And you needn't worry about the cost: The average price of a CD-RW disc now hovers around $3, and CD-R discs (that you can write to once) cost as little as $1.

Burning Needs

The popularity of CD-RW drives is also due in part to the many ways in which you can connect them. Besides EIDE and SCSI drives, vendors now offer CD-RWs that connect to parallel, USB, or IEEE 1394 ports. We picked internal EIDE drives for this review because they're the most popular and least expensive, plus three SCSI drives to test their ostensible performance advantage over EIDE drives. USB and parallel port drives sacrifice speed for ease of use, and no vendor could supply us with an IEEE 1394 drive, so we didn't test either type.

However, we also test CD-RW drives monthly on PC World Online; you can check there to read reviews of all CD-RW types.

CD-R and CD-RW discs offer equal capacities and durability. They both hold up to 650MB (or 700MB on discs that cost about 50 percent more). Manufacturers estimate that both recorded media last as long as 70 to 200 years, making them great for archives (except that the discs don't come encased in a protective shell, and scratches can ruin them). Your choice of media depends on the application. CD-Rewritables make the more practical and economical choice: You can overwrite a CD-RW disc up to 1000 times, but you can write a CD-R disc only once. When the information on your CD-R becomes obsolete, there's nothing to do but toss the disc or add it to your coaster collection.

CD-Recordable does offer some advantages over CD-RW, and compatibility leads the list. Only the last couple of generations of CD-ROM drives are able to read rewritable discs, while practically all drives can read CD-Rs. Furthermore, conventional audio CD players will read CD-R discs, but only the very newest players will read CD-RWs. Then there's the time factor--many CD-RW drives write CD-R discs faster than they do CD-RW discs, and most drives read CD-R discs faster.

Performance depends not only on your choice of media but also on how you use a CD-RW drive. With session writing, you select a group of files from within a session writing application and write it all to the CD in one fell swoop.

Packet writing, on the other hand, lets you use CD-RW discs as you would any other removable media, dragging and dropping in Windows Explorer to write or delete files at will. But this flexibility exacts a price: Packet writing ropes off about 150MB, almost 25 percent of the disc's capacity, for file system data--the directory information for the rest of the files on the disc. In contrast, writing sessions lets you use nearly all of a CD's capacity, and that method is also typically a bit faster than packet writing.

To some extent, the writing method depends on your choice of CD-R or CD-RW.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, you'll write CD-R in sessions--the write-once nature of CD-R media lends itself to archiving large batches of files. But packet writing makes more sense for CD-RW: You can treat the discs like any other form of mass storage, such as a hard drive, a floppy drive, or a Zip drive.

When should you choose writing from an image (precreating a single file that holds all the individual files to be written), and when should you go with on-the-fly writing? If your system won't support burning on the fly (as is sometimes the case with older, slower computers), or if you want to burn multiple copies, creating an image first is your best bet. Writing copies from an image takes less time during the burn, but it takes time to set up. If you're only copying once, it's more time-efficient to burn on the fly.

Writing on the Wall

As our tests reveal, you should not buy a CD-RW drive based solely on its X-ratings. Two drives with the same CD-RW X-rating may perform dramatically differently. Software plays a big part in performance; many of the drives we tested use the same software for the basic functions, but some drives also throw in some of their own applications. None of the drives here require special effort to set up, but a couple deserve notice for making setup especially easy. The drives also vary in price, ranging from $160 to $399.

Our Best Buy, Hewlett-Packard's CD-Writer Plus 9110i, outperformed all but one drive and did it with a midrange price. And you don't have to work hard to get great performance--HP's installation was easier than that of all the other drives.

Sony's Spressa Professional SCSI drive squeaks by the HP on performance and offers better support policies, but it costs $130 more. Among the 4X drives, LG Electronics' $160 CED-8042B is a standout.

Rating the Writers

Our performance tests yielded some clear winners and a couple of surprising losers. We suggest you buy a drive based on how it performs the tasks you'll likely throw at it, so we tested each drive in a number of specific jobs.

One important note: Most CD-RW vendors recommend you use at least a Pentium-133 machine with 16MB of RAM, but you'll need even more speed and RAM to write reliably at the fastest speeds. For example, LG Electronics specifies a Pentium-166 and 32MB of RAM for 4X writing. If you own an older system, you can probably save money by sticking with a 4X drive, rather than buying an 8X drive that your system can support only at 4X.

Cracking the Case

Before you start spinning the platters, you must install the drive. All the drives came as internal units with installation kits, so we rated the ease of installing them. None put up any roadblocks.

Of the 13, the HP CD-Writer Plus 9110i and the Iomega ZipCD 650 make installation as painless as possible. Friendly is Iomega's middle name--its all-in-one software installation and excellent documentation make setting up the drive a breeze. But the HP goes a step further with an installation disc that features an AVI video covering the physical installation of your drive (although you can't watch it while you work, unless you own another PC). HP's documentation may not be as pretty as Iomega's, but it's equally informative.

HP and TEAC don't offer toll-free telephone support, though both offer extensive Web support. All the other vendors offer toll-free support; and three companies--Acer, Sony, and Yamaha--provide it around the clock. All the drives in our review carry a one-year warranty.

CD-R Performance: Burn It

The Sony Spressa Professional earned top marks in our tests, but our Best Buy, the HP CD-Writer Plus 9110i, ran a very close second.

In our session-based CD-R write tests, all the drives--both EIDE and SCSI--came close to their advertised X speed ratings. On average, the 4X drives burned a 430MB image file in a little less than 14 minutes, and the 8X drives burned the image file in just over 7 minutes. Speeds varied less than 2 percent, except for Philips' PCRW404K, which lagged more than half a minute behind the next slowest drive.

Performance wasn't quite as close among the drives when writing 430MB of files to CD-R media on the fly. We saw a 3 percent difference between the fastest and slowest 4X (CD-R rating) drives and 6 percent between the fastest and slowest 8X models. Software accounts for some of the greater performance differences--it must gather and cache copies of the files before burning the CD-R disc.

The 8X Sony Spressa Professional performed best in this test, with the HP 9110i trailing closely. Among the 4X drives, the Pacific Digital eked out a narrow victory.

Although the speed differences between drives with the same X-rating may not be significant, the disparity between 4X and 8X drives is. Of course, you'll pay $120 more on average for an 8X drive.

Inalienable Rewrites

For our packet-writing test, we dragged and dropped 100MB of files via Windows Explorer to a CD-RW disc. Again the Sony wrote fastest, copying the data in 3 minutes, 24 seconds. Again the HP was hot on its heels--a mere second behind.

No other drive lagged much more than 10 percent off the pace, except the last-place Philips, which took half a minute extra.

Rewriting the same 100MB of data to the same CD-RW disc turned up far greater performance differences. Only the Sony managed to rewrite as quickly as it wrote the original data; and four of the drives--the Iomega, the Plextor, the Pacific Digital, and the TDK--took more than twice as long to rewrite data.

Speed Reader

Previous generations of CD-RW drives couldn't read CD-ROMs very quickly, so they worked best as supplements to CD-ROM drives. The new 32X drives, however, read data faster than the drives bundled with a few of the systems in our Top 10 desktop PCs sections.

Our Microsoft Office 2000 install test locates and copies hundreds of files, both small and large; it's a thorough test of a drive's overall CD-ROM read performance. The TEAC captured first place at 5 minutes even, but the Sony finished just 17 seconds behind. Surprisingly, the Plextor, despite its 32X rating, placed dead last at nearly 7 minutes--4 seconds slower than the 32X Philips. The two fastest 24X drives--the Ricoh MP 7060s and the Yamaha--both SCSI models--came in with times of 5 minutes, 41 seconds and 5 minutes, 42 seconds, respectively. Both of these drives very likely benefited from SCSI's capability to perform multiple operations without bogging down the CPU.

Audiophiles probably use another criterion to judge CD drives: digital audio extraction performance, or how long it takes to copy a .wav file from an audio CD onto a hard drive. (Copying a .wav file, as opposed to an MP3 file, taxes the drive itself, but not the CPU.) The Yamaha CRW8424SZ led the field with a pacesetting time of 2 minutes, 5 seconds, while Plextor's EIDE PlexWriter was the runner-up, a scant 8 seconds slower. This was the only test in which the Sony fell well behind the pack, extracting the file in a leisurely 3 minutes, 45 seconds, the slowest of the 8X drives for DAE.

For audio, Plextor's AudioFS drivers let you drag and drop files from an audio CD to perform on-the-fly extraction from within Windows Explorer. And Plextor's bundled media player does not require you to attach the drive to your sound card, as the other drives do--it works through the drive interface.

The Write Software

By itself, Windows doesn't support CD-R or CD-RW recording; though once you install some underlying software, you can use Windows Explorer to copy files.

All the CD-RW kits we tested include the software needed to write data with your drive. HP and Sony provided the best bundles overall. Most drives bundle Adaptec's Easy CD Creator software for audio and data CD creation and DirectCD for packet writing. TEAC upped the ante by offering the newer Easy CD Creator 4, which offers some embellishments but doesn't boost performance. The Ricoh drives, on the other hand, opted for CeQuadrat's WinOnCD 3.6 and PacketCD. The Philips drive used older CeQuadrat products--Write2CD for audio and data and Packet Writer for packet writing; the software probably contributed to the drive's abysmal performance. Sony's Spressa Professional came with its own CD Extreme mastering software (Sony's answer to Easy CD Creator) and Prassi's abCD packet-writing software.

For the drives that bundle it, Easy CD Creator 3.5 earns them some bonus points with its stability and straightforward approach. But CeQuadrat's WinOnCD and Write2CD garner style points for their colorful interfaces. For packet writing, PacketCD offers an advantage over DirectCD 2.5 and abCD: transparent, on-the-fly data compression when writing to CD-RW. It also installs a driver on the CD-RW that you're burning, which allows other systems to read the compressed data. The recently released DirectCD 3 also includes data compression, but at the time we conducted our tests, only the Hewlett-Packard CD-Writer Plus 9110i and TEAC 4x4x32 CD-RW shipped with it.

Ricoh bundles the highly capable Seagate Backup Exec with its drives; Iomega provides a simple backup program called 1-Step Backup; and HP, Sony, and Philips provide disaster recovery software that you can program to back up critical system files automatically. Sony bundles a very attractive media player with DAE and audio-CD writing capabilities--plus Mixman Studio Pro, a program that lets you create your own music. Pacific Digital and HP include Sonic Foundry's Acid (which performs many of the same duties as Mixman).

Pacific throws in an MP3 player.

Sony provides possibly the handiest feature among all the drives in the review:

Its software allows it to link to another CD-RW drive (not necessarily another Sony) and write two discs simultaneously. If you write lots of CD-R discs, cutting your burn time in half should be a very attractive proposition.

San Francisco-based freelance writer Jon L. Jacobi contributes regularly to PC World. Robert James and John Tjon, PC World Test Center performance analysts, conducted all performance tests.

Picking the Best Buy drive for this review was easy: Hewlett-Packard's CD-Writer Plus 9110i exhibited consistently high speed, excellent features, and pain-free installation--all for a reasonable price.

DVD-RAM: Waiting in the Wings

If you're looking for more capacity than CD-RW can provide, DVD-RAM may be your answer--as long as you can live with some significant limitations.

Creative Labs recently dropped the price on its 2X DVD-RAM drive to $299--about the price of an 8X CD-RW drive. These drives read and write cartridges containing 2.6GB of single-sided or 5.2GB of double-sided media--about nine times the capacity of a packet-written CD-RW. DVD-RAM media costs about $15 to $20 per side, about the same price per megabyte as CD-RW discs. Single-sided media can be popped out of its protective cartridge and read in some (but not all) of the newest DVD-ROM drives. Better yet, DVD-RAM drives can read (but not write) CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, and DVD-ROM media. Unfortunately, far fewer people own DVD-ROM drives than own CD-ROM drives, so it's harder to share data.

We took three drives from the current crop for informal test spins: the Panasonic LF-D103, Hi-Val's SDW1101 kit (which includes a Sigma Designs MPEG decoder card), and Creative Labs' PC-DVD RAM. Some vendors include decoder cards or sell them separately--they improve MPEG playback but have no effect on writing performance.

Unlike with CD-R and CD-RW, you can't write DVD-RAM discs in sessions--you must use packet writing. As with CD-R and CD-RW, packet writing gobbles up some disc space for file-system duties. But at only 300MB per 2.6GB side, that's a much lower percentage of the disc's total capacity.

The drives in our tests read DVD-RAM media at slightly better than 8X, comparing favorably to the roughly 7X the CD-RW drives managed with their own media. However, the 2X DVD-RAM drives wrote at roughly half the speed of 4X CD-RW drives.

The Creative Labs PC-DVD RAM's performance and price make it our pick among the three. But stay tuned--new 4X/4.7GB-per-side drives will soon appear. The high-capacity drives, with room to fit an entire movie per side, will cost a hefty $700 or more.

Lab Notes

Drive DMA, Disk DOA?

When we test computer products, we follow manufacturers' installation instructions to the letter, because we assume they know how to make their products perform best. However, in our tests of CD-RW drives, we found that some manufacturers aren't telling you about an important setting--direct memory access, or DMA.

If you check the Properties settings for EIDE hard drives and CD-ROM/CD-RW drives in Device Manager, you'll find a check box labeled DMA. Direct memory access relieves the CPU of the chore of transferring data between a device such as a CD-ROM drive and your computer's memory.

But more important, the drives perform better with DMA. According to our tests with CD Tach, a drive performance benchmark, EIDE drives without DMA averaged about 54 percent CPU usage during 12X memory transfers; with DMA enabled, the same drives averaged a minuscule, 4 percent CPU usage. CD-RW packet read and write times also dropped by about 5 percent. CD-R write times didn't change much, because session writing is naturally less dependent on the CPU than packet writing is.

According to some vendors, enabling DMA can result in ruined CD-R discs, inaccurate data transfers, and even system crashes. However, we've yet to see such erratic behavior in our tests. If you bought your system within the last couple of years, the odds are your drive will work with DMA enabled.

Mike Mihalik, vice president of engineering at LaCie, a CD-RW vendor, says, "Our drives can handle DMA; we just can't anticipate the quality of the hundreds of different motherboard [types] out there." Vadim Brenner, engineering division manager at Plextor, says his company optimizes its drives for DMA, and he claims that writing at 8X with any EIDE drive is problematic without DMA enabled.

The DMA setting should be specified in the product manual, but most of the drives' manuals make no mention of it. For our tests, we used the manuals' specifications, or we called the companies to get the setting. We recommend you do the same.

The Best Connections

The interface you use to connect a CD-RW drive to your PC helps determine how fast it can read and write discs. Mathematically, with each X equal to 150 KBps, a 32X CD-ROM reader requires 4.8 MBps of sustainable throughput. Of the five interface types CD-RW drives offer, only EIDE, SCSI, and IEEE 1394 meet this need. Easily connectable, hot-swappable USB and parallel port drives are limited by their interfaces to 4X CD-R or CD-RW writing and 8X reading.

SCSI drives still cost more than EIDE drives, and they require a SCSI controller. Of the three SCSI drives we tested, only the Ricoh MP 7060S provided its own controller; the Yamaha CRW8424SZ and the Sony Spressa Professional CRX140S/C came to the dance alone. SCSI drives put less of a burden on your CPU, and they write more reliably on older, slower systems.

However, if you purchased your system within the last year or two, you should get topflight performance from an EIDE drive.

Sony already offers IEEE 1394 CD-RW drives (but couldn't provide one for this review). TDK and Plextor are also investigating the interface. Currently, Sony's drives use an EIDE drive and a converter to add the 1394 interface, but the company will soon offer native 1394 drives.

X-ceddingly Complex X-ratings X-plained

Which 'X' is which? Most vendors show X-ratings in the order of CD-R, CD-RW, and then CD-ROM speeds. For example, an 8X/4X/32X drive can write a CD-R at 8X, write a CD-RW at 4X, and read a CD-ROM at up to 32X. But because not all vendors follow this order, remember two simple rules:

1.The largest of the three numbers is always the maximum CD-ROM read rating--even if it's shown first.

2.Of the two X-ratings that may remain, the larger is always the CD-R write speed.

So what is an X-rating anyway?The X equals roughly 150 kilobytes per second.

Thus 2X means 300 KBps, 24X means 3600 KBps (3.6 MBps), and so on. But when describing CD-ROM read speed, vendors often indicate only a maximum rating.

CD-ROM drives rated 8X and faster spin discs at a constant rate. But the tracks farther from the center of a disc pack more data per revolution; so drives read the outside tracks faster than they do the inside tracks.

X-ratings reflect how long it takes to write a full 650MB disc in one session:

2X takes 36 minutes, 4X takes 18 minutes, and so on (though speeds will vary based on your particular system). However, packet writing, because of file-system overhead and the continual on-and-off activity of the laser, generally falls about 5 percent short of its actual X-rating.

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