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[EMedia]
Reviews

Sony Spressa CRX145S/XS

Stephen F. Nathans


EMedia Magazine, October 2000
Copyright © Online Inc.


Sony Spressa CRX145S/XS
synopsis: The Sony Spressa 145S/XS, a 10X write, 4X rewrite, 32X max read CD recorder, is a rock-solid performer. This is good news for the CD-R-buying public because this drive gets around–the current flagship CD-R/RW offering from two of the technology's most visible contenders, Sony and Hewlett-Packard, it's a mainstream CD-R product if ever there was one. And what's more, at least in its Sony bundle, it tinkers a bit with that mainstream status by bucking the popular trend of licensing Adaptec software across the board. The Spressa CRX145S/XS bundles CD Extreme to great effect on the PC side, itself a Sony-branded version of Prassi's excellent PrimoCD, and CharisMac's Discribe on the Mac.

price: $379.99

Sony Electronics, Inc.
3300 Zanker Road
San Jose, CA 95134
800/686-7669
408/955-4771
http://www.sony.com

Charismac Engineering
10000 Hill View Road
Newcastle, CA 95658
530/885-4420
Fax 530/885-1410
sales@charismac.com
http://www.charismac.com

Prassi Software USA, Inc.
1731 Technology Dr. Suite 490
San Jose, CA 95110
408/573-9100
Fax 408/573-8100
http://www.prassieurope.com

A couple of weeks ago, out for a run on the rugged west side of Woburn, Massachusetts, a friend and I were discussing the relative merits of growing up as a baseball fan in our day, the late 1970s, as opposed to today. If you were the stat hounds that we were 20-odd years ago–sorting out slugging percentages and on-base percentages, and applying Thomas Boswell's Total Average theory to all the everyday players on the 1978 Red Sox and Yankees rosters–it made a great outlet for all that math-letic enthusiasm that wasn't satisfied by the typical third grade arithmetic curriculum. It also gave you something to do in those frustrating times when you couldn't actually play baseball, such as after dark, on rainy days, and 6 a.m. on a Sunday when the promise of the box scores had yanked you out of bed and you couldn't even bounce a tennis ball off the garage door wall because no one in their right mind was up at that hour.

Much has changed in the meantime, from the new-old look of recently built parks (a welcome change from the monolithic industrial eyesores erected in the '60s as the game expanded to challenging climes) to the juiced-ball slugfests that pack them. What's also changed is the feast of statistics spread across newspapers and Web sites from USA Today to espn.com. Want to know how a given player hits against left-handed pitches, with runners in scoring position, after the seventh inning, in the month of June? Thanks to the Sabermetric indulgences of the Elias Sports Bureau, the answer can be pretty easily found. So can the slugging percentages, on-base percentages, and all the slightly more analytical stats we used to divine on our own as we scoured the Sunday "expanded batting leaders" page.

Is this a good or a bad thing? Hard to say. Hearing people analyze baseball in broad sociological terms gets less and less interesting to me as I get older, and the exegesis less and less convincing; In college, I recall reading one scribe who said baseball was rendered unspeakably boring in the '60s by a widespread obsession with meaningless numbers–like shortstops who could hit 12 homers in a season versus a mere 10–and the debilitating dullness of baseball probably explained why '60s teenagers started spending more time at peace marches than baseball games.

Has this happened with CD-R, as the ever-pressing need for product differentiation elevates on-the-box stats beyond in-the-box stability? 12X CD recording is a great thing, and achieving it was no picnic. And as far as CD duplication goes, in the hands of MediaFORM, Alea, Discmatic, and others, it makes life a whole lot better. Whether you attach them to networks, printers, or autoloaders, at the core, duplicators are essentially one-trick ponies–what they do is dupe discs–so they might as well do that trick as well as possible, which in assembly-line environments means, essentially, as fast as possible.

But desktop CD recording has always been a different animal. A desktop CD recorder has to match up with a range of different host systems, with whatever also-running baggage they carry with them, and perform all manner of tasks, from CD copying to audio CD compiling to packet writing to hard drive backups to one-offs to haphazard archive creation. A good CD recorder is comparable to what baseball folks call a five-tool player–good glove, good arm, good bat, good speed, good power.

Of course, all this rationalizing doesn't keep me from wondering where Sony's latest Spressa, a 10X write, 4X rewrite, 32X read CD-R/RW drive, fits in this 12X era. Well, CD-R will never be as fast as a hard drive, that is, so fast you barely know there's work involved in transferring files because it happens so blindingly fast. Writing to CD-R takes time; the good news is, it doesn't take much time, a statement that holds true for 10X and 12X recorders alike. For my money, the difference between a 10X and 12X recorder is comparable to the difference between a shortstop who hits 10 homers and one that hits 12–odds are that's not what you're paying him for, but both totals are nice perks.

So on to what really matters: the Sony Spressa 145S/XS is a rock-solid performer, which is good news for the CD-R-buying public because this drive gets around–the current flagship CD-R/RW offering from two of the technology's most visible contenders, Sony and Hewlett-Packard, it's a mainstream CD-R product if ever there was one. And what's more, at least in its Sony bundle, it tinkers a bit with that mainstream status by bucking the popular trend of licensing Adaptec software across the board. The Spressa CRX145S/XS uses CD Extreme on the PC side, a Sony-branded version of Prassi PrimoCD, and CharisMac's Discribe on the Mac.

getting busy with SCSI

The Spressa 145S/XS submitted for review is a standard external SCSI-2 model, so installation was a snap. The unit was tested on two systems, a 333mHz eMachines PC running Windows 98 with 64MB RAM and an Adaptec 2906 SCSI card installed, and a 333mHz Mac PowerBook G3 with 64MB RAM and built-in SCSI and an HDI-SCSI adapter. The drive's default SCSI setting of 6 worked fine with both systems; all that was required was plugging in a terminator to close the SCSI chain. Some problems resulted on the PC side when attempting to daisychain the drive with a TEAC 8x24 CD recorder, but otherwise connecting the drive was quick and painless.

The drive itself is a nice, robust unit with a sturdy tray, a solid feel, and an on/off button on the front, which is much appreciated. Sony stuffs the box pretty well, too–the $349 unit ships with premastering software for both PC and Mac (CD Extreme, a.k.a. Primo CD; and Charismac's Discribe), a neat audio curiosity called Mixman that works on both platforms, plus one Sony CD-R and one Sony CD-RW disc. The 41-page manual devotes most of its text to general information about CD recording (including a nice glossary), media compatibility, physical characteristics of the drive, and useful stuff about getting the unit up and running on both platforms. It's reasonably readable and helpful for getting started with the technology and the drive. Information about the software is found in electronic form on the application CDs. The PDF of the Discribe manual is particularly extensive; at 92 pages, don't plan on printing much besides the sections you'd really like to kick back with.

words to discribe...

As ever, Mac recording is basically a breeze. The Sony Spressa comes bundled with two pieces of Mac software, Charismac Engineering's Discribe, a general-purpose Mac recording tool, and Mixman Studio, a music mixing and recording product that allows users to assemble their own recordings using prerecorded sounds and instrumental parts.

For the last few years, the software market for Mac CD recording has basically been a two-horse race, with Adaptec's Toast coasting far ahead and Discribe drawing attention primarily from Sony drive users through their bundling program and fans of Charismac's long-standing Mac backup product, Backup Mastery. Now in version 2.99 as a retail product, Discribe seems to have several features in its off-the-shelf configuration that aren't found in its bundled version, at least on the audio side. Also soon to enter the running for Mac CD recording is a product called MerkWorks' CD Wonder Writer, although little is known about it at this point.

The bundled version installs easy enough, has a simple interface, and does just about everything you'd expect a recording product to do. The problem is, it doesn't do it with much elegance, and managing its organizational quirks and visual limitations can be a bit frustrating. Plus it crashed the G3 frequently in testing, although never in the recording process, so no discs were blown as a result.

On the left side of the main interface, staggered in a cascaded arrangement, are the four words "source," "image," "recorder," and "write," with what appear to be round buttons to the left of each. But these seeming buttons aren't clickable; in fact, according to the manual, they're status indicators, which tell you where you are in the recording process. Thus these provide a key to the organizational structure of the program, although they're just as easily ignored. But for those keeping track at home, each LED changes from red to green as you advance through the process, as the element corresponding to each is selected.

On the right half of the screen is the clickable stuff. Somewhat lacking in color contrast (another source of enervation), the right half includes two columns, one in which specific selections, such as format, can be made, and the other, for selecting write, done, cancel, and so forth. The first selection screen you'll see when opening the program is Select Source, which gives you the choice of working with an existing project or a new one. Follow the arrows after coming up empty when first attempting to click on the boxed words and you're in business. The second selection screen is "Select Format." Here, the user can select from a good range of choices, including Mac HFS, ISO 9660, ISO 9660 XA, Audio CD, "Build a Mac HFS," Mac/ISO Hybrid, or Disc Copy Image. Mac/ISO Hybrid and "Build a Mac HFS" point the way to some of Discribe's more sophisticated features, such as bootable CD creation (a must for drive backup when disaster recovery is needed), which are a welcome component of the program.

Copying a disc under Discribe, like using the software for digital audio extraction, is also problematic. While the Sony drive reads and rips like a champ (it cranked up to about 13X for extraction, and stacks up to any 32X CAV drive in file-loading), Discribe refuses to use anything but the recorder for disc extraction or copying. This is a real pain if you expect to do a straight disc-to-disc copy. By comparison, disc-copying on the PC side is a snap, since the CD Extreme software is more than happy to recognize any other installed drive as a source, including the 32X (a Toshiba DVD-ROM) installed on the test-bed eMachine.

Once your files are ready, Discribe asks you to choose a speed (a nice option when working with slower systems for safe and secure recording) with 10X as default, asks you whether you want to write a session or a finalized disc, and gets down to the business of burning. Usually there's a brief stutter step in realizing that a recordable disc is installed in the drive (something that happens with many CD-R tools, Mac and PC). A rectangular, vertical window indicates the progress of the burn with a typically low-contrast, cone-like shape that gradually swells to the top of the window. In testing on the Mac, Sony succeeded at 4X recording for CD-RW and 10X recording for CD-R on every disc used in a variety of formats, including data discs with small and large filesets and audio discs of varying size. Asked to record 80-minute discs, Discribe didn't blink, and tore off a jam-packed 79:54 audio disc in about nine minutes. Once the recording phase was at hand, no buffer underruns, no queues, no waiting–a fine testimony to the Spressa's strong performance. It also did so with a range of media, faring splendidly with Mitsui Gold and Silver 74, Smart and Friendly Rocket Fuel 80, Ricoh 12X Platinum 80, and Sony's own.

PC performance

The Spressa burned just as reliably on the PC side, and things went much more smoothly with the software. CD Extreme installed easily, and quickly was set to the task of performing a heap of direct disc copies of multisession Kodak PhotoCDs. Since the drive arrived for review just two weeks after my sister's wedding, and a day after the five-disc PhotoCD compendium of wedding pictures came in, my responsibility of generating seven additional sets for various kith and kin was easily passed off to the Sony Spressa, which handled the task in exemplary fashion. Kodak was careful to leave each disc about one-third to one-half empty so none of the pictures felt too cramped, and each disc of 400MB or so copied at a rapid-fire six- to seven-minute clip.

CD Extreme also offered the option of downshifting to slower speeds for safer recording, but that proved unnecessary in each case, as the eMachine's hard drive and installed 32X CD-ROM reader proved well up to the challenge in supplying data for 10X recording. At 333mHz, the host system was well ahead of Sony's prescribed minimum 233mHz PC.

Most types of recording tasks are easily managed from within CD Extreme's "Starters" menu, including Data CD, Copy CD, and Audio CD, and excursions from there happen smoothly and gracefully without the intrusions of wizards, cartoons, and the like. For the official word on Prassi Primo CD Plus (and a more extensive description), see Bob Starrett's review in the June 2000 issue, pp. 69-72.

PC recording also proved effective with the above range of media (Mitsui, Ricoh, Smart and Friendly, and Sony) and incurred two blown discs in roughly 60 attempts, including almost 40 in rapid succession (close to five hours of continuous use)–not a bad record with a just-installed PC recorder.

the burning question

There are a lot of great recorders out there today, and it would be foolish to claim any one was significantly superior to any other, especially since most are based on one of a small handful of recording mechanisms and aren't a whole lot different under the hood. The salient point here is that the 4X era is over, and the 8X era is more or less over, although nobody out there with an 8X drive is hurting for speed. There's little appreciable difference in the recording experience you're likely to have with an 8X, 10X, or 12X recorder–at least not one solely or even primarily determined by the maximum writing speed of the drive. There are a lot of ways of storing data faster than any CD-R drive can achieve. With CD-R, it's all about the disc you get when you're done, where you can take it, and that you didn't have to wait too terribly long for it.

The Sony Spressa isn't just significant because it's a high-performance, high-reliability drive; it's also the drive you're most likely to bump into as you wander the world of drive retail and distribution, whether in the Sony box, or (perhaps more commonly) the HP. Where you do run into it, give it a good, long look. And while you're at it, if you're a Mac user, give some consideration to how much orneriness you're willing to put up with in your software, because that's a factor, too.

What's interesting in the whole speed-racing question is where Sony's looking next: from all appearances, its key concern isn't raising CD-R speed, although it is making the odd allusion to 16X like everyone else; its main concern these days is doubling CD-R density. Is double-density CD-R (DDCD), the new Purple Book spec developed by Sony and Philips, the kind of cataclysmic Next Big Thing that might change the way the CD recording game is played? Not necessarily, but it's a lot more likely to be than incremental speed changes. In any event, for those of us with numbers on the brain, the leap from 650MB to 1.3GB is certainly more interesting, whatever we decide to do with it.


Stephen F. Nathans (stephenn@onlineinc.com) is Editor of EMedia magazine.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

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