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the cd writer

To the Victor Belong the Spoils

Robert Starrett

January 2000 | What can you buy for $99? A low-end stereo receiver. A low-end cassette deck. A turntable. A pair of bookshelf speakers. A five-disc Audio CD changer. Or a 2X CD-RW drive. By the time you read this, Christmas will be over and there will be hundreds of thousands of kids, old and young alike, enjoying the new experience of making their own data or audio CDs. The just-passed holiday shopping season will be over, and CD-R/RW will have proved itself to be the hottest computer peripheral of the decade.

There are some things that you just have to have for your computer. You need a keyboard, a monitor, and a mouse, of course. But you also need a printer and something besides a 1.44MB floppy drive for storage, backup, and data swapping. Many storage peripherals have had their chance. Iomega's Zip drives had a good run at it, but ultimately did not triumph, even in Iomega's mind--witness its latest product, ZipCD. Likewise, latecomers like Imation's Superdisk, a 120MB floppy drive, and Sony's HiFD 200MB floppy never had a chance. Magneto Optical drives had the best chance to become the peripheral of choice for secondary storage, but continuing high prices and an early lack of standards left them trailing in the race. Even promising modern technologies like DVD-RAM have had a lukewarm reception, and have an uncertain future as universal secondary-storage devices.

So, today, at the top of the hill is the CD-R/RW drive. Just using the word "drive" instead of "recorder" like we used to indicates just how far writable CD has come. Many people today do not have separate CD-ROM drives and recorders; they are able to use their recorders to play CDs as well. This is because manufacturers have greatly increased the read speed of recorders, so that current read speeds are sufficient to use a recorder as a CD-ROM drive, speedy enough even for demanding games.

All of this is related to the now-sub $100 pricing of writable drives. No one would have contemplated beating a $5,000 recorder--the price of the Yamaha CDR 100 when it debuted in 1995--to death playing action games. If you killed the thing, you were out five grand. Today, if you kill your writable drive from overuse, you are only out a hundred bucks.

There are several reasons that CD-R/RW won the desktop secondary-storage wars. One, of course, is the price-per-megabyte--a chart that changes weekly as media prices continue to drop, but one that CD-R enthusiasts have been waving around like a battle flag for years; one that showed, even when media was ten bucks a pop, that the cost of storing data on CD was lower than any other medium except tape.

In addition, and probably most important to writable CD's success, it can perform a function that no other drive and medium can. This functionality was passed down to CD-ROM by its parent, CD-Audio. Strangely, it is because CD-ROM was a lousy idea that it has enjoyed its present success and ultimately its victory in the secondary-storage wars. How easy it is to forget that, had you asked an engineer to design an optical data storage device in 1983, the last thing that engineer would have contemplated for efficiency and speed was a device like a CD-ROM drive. Laying down additional complex error detection and correction schemes on a Constant Linear Velocity device, in order to allow it to read data, is just a bad idea. And it looked like a bad idea for a long time. CD-ROM drives were slow. Few new users remember--and many will never know--that until 1993, CD-ROM drives ran at 1X. That was a data transfer rate of 150KB/sec. Seek times were a second and a half, not 80 milliseconds. Even fewer will remember that as exciting as the introduction of the 2X reader was, the next step, the 3X reader (made by NEC, now out of the drive business), was really looked at as quite a breakthrough. It actually did not work very well, and for a time it seemed that implementation of faster drives might be stalled. But then it came, in rapid-fire succession: 4X, 6X, 8X, 12X, and upwards, until we found ourselves in a world where 40 to 50X drives are the standard, and 72X drives are the latest thing for the rabid gamer.

But, despite the fact that CD-ROM was a crazy implementation of a data storage scheme, what gave it the edge was the fact that CD-ROM drives could also play audio discs because of their heritage. In fact, storage devices playing audio discs is a function exclusively within the domain of CD-ROM. No other drive, existing or to be developed, can perform this function. If it could, then it would itself be a CD drive. And, of course, the audio functionality carried over to recorders; they not only played audio, but could record it. And audio is what gave CD recorders the ability to make that final push up Pork Chop Hill, and ultimately defeat all the pretenders to the throne.

And now, writable CD plans to stay there. New devices like Ricoh's DVD-ROM/CD-ROM/CD-R/CD-RW drive make Compact Disc all the more attractive as a data storage and archiving technology. And music is what continues to drive growth, so new drive bundles continue to ship with more and better software for creating audio CDs. When the time comes that someone introduces a drive that reads and writes both CD and DVD, there will be no question that the Compact Disc, the most unlikely participant in the secondary-storage wars, will rule that kingdom for a long time to come.


Robert A. Starrett is a contributing editor for EMedia, The CD-R Writer columnist, and an independent consultant based in Denver, Colorado. He is the co-author of of CD-ROM Professional's CD-Recordable Handbook.

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