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The CD Writer
CD-RW: Busted for Speeding

Hugh Bennett

November, 2000 | Here we go again. Despite the buying public's four-year indifference to CD-ReWritable (CD-RW) technology, those involved in its creation just can't take the hint. The latest attempt to increase the popularity of CD-RW involves extending its performance to 10X Constant Angular Velocity (CAV) and Constant Linear Velocity (CLV) writing speeds. Manufacturers must by now realize that there are serious side effects to indulging an inferiority complex, not the least of which is confusing the consumer.

New high-speed CD-RW functions are beginning to make their way into mainstream recorders and will soon be standard equipment on most devices. Included is the latest crop from Plextor, TEAC, Ricoh, Sanyo, and TDK offering 10X CD-RW capability, while slower devices from Sony, Hewlett-Packard, and Yamaha promote 8X speed.

Current CD-RW media design is insufficient to deal with the demands of high-speed recording. Thus, one consequence of accelerating CD-RW is that it requires a new blank disc. However, due to technological constraints, it's not possible for a single type of disc to support the full range of recording speeds (from 1X to 10X). A second kind of CD-RW disc had to be developed specifically for high-speed operation (4X to 10X).

This has created all sorts of problems. The most obvious issue is that older CD-RW drives cannot write to new media, or will create unsuitable results when attempting to write these discs. To prevent this, the high-speed media has been designed so as to be write-incompatible with the older equipment. This is accomplished by offsetting the Absolute Time In Pregroove (ATIP) location of the disc's Power Calibration Area (PCA) to make the disc invisible to older recorders.

Making new discs incompatible with the old equipment, manufacturers will inevitably confuse the consumer–a far more serious industry ailment than the new technology is worth. When attempting to buy discs at their local outlet, owners of current 4X CD-RW drives will be staring at two types of media on the shelf: normal (1X to 4X) and high-speed (4X to 10X). With 4X compatibility being shown on the box for both the old and the new discs, the unwary purchaser is bound to choose the wrong type and be left wondering why a perfectly good recorder doesn't work anymore.

Even Philips seems to understand the problem, so it came up with a new high-speed CD-RW logo, which it presumes will alert consumers to the difference. This logo is designed to advise purchasers that only recorders bearing the high-speed logo can write discs displaying the same logo. However, most customers know nothing about the new logo or the new product, and retailers usually know even less. Whether it's PhotoCD, CD-Extra, MultiRead, Consumer Audio, or high-speed CD-RW, experience has shown that logos have never been successful in idiot-proofing technologies.

Complicating matters further are public statements from Philips saying that it is possible for some older 4X-capable CD-RW drives to write the new high-speed media at 4X speed, if firmware is upgraded to incorporate an adapted write strategy as well as the details on the ATIP jump. Thus, the industry undermines any potential usefulness of the high-speed logo program. What's more, it's doubtful that resource-constrained recorder manufacturers (Philips included) will expend precious engineering efforts revisiting obsolete equipment.

Creating a double standard for CD-RW sets a dangerous precedent. What happens when it comes time to increase the speed of CD-RW yet again? Will there be a third type of incompatible CD-RW disc? And what would happen if CD-R disc technology advances and can no longer support the full range of recording speeds? How could Philips and Sony complain about a CD-R disc specifically designed for ultraspeed recording? Pity the poor recording consumer.

Contrary to the marketing hype, the move to faster CD-RW writing speeds, unlike the push behind CD-R, has not been driven by consumer demand. One need only look at the standardization efforts of Philips and Sony that license the underlying technology to see the difference. While CD-RW standards have consistently changed to keep pace with product releases, changes to CD-R standards have lagged behind shipping systems ever since 4X and 6X recording were introduced more than six years ago.

Due to tremendous competition in the CD-R market, manufacturers have become desperate to maintain profit margins. Turning to CD-RW is one attempt to hold on. Unfortunately, with demand for CD-RW limited and a market already encircled by high-volume Taiwanese media manufacturers, Japanese and European companies seem to be attempting to set the technology bar so high that only they can make the jump.

Currently, only Ricoh and Verbatim manufacture the new high-speed CD-RW media. Since most existing CD-RW disc manufacturing equipment is capable of producing high-speed media (after implementing some straightforward process and material changes), most CD-RW disc manufacturers are planning to offer high-speed products in the fall. Given the cold reality, it's reasonable to question the wisdom of a strategy that provides only a short window of opportunity to sell higher-margin products when the cost of doing so is so great–not only for retooling and retailing, but more importantly, for the issue of consumer confidence.

Hugh Bennett (hugh_bennett@compuserve.com), an EMedia contributing editor and co-columnist for The CD Writer, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems Inc., a company based in London, Ontario, Canada offering CD and DVD-ROM recording, mass reproduction, and consulting services as well as CD-R/RW and DVD-R/RAM hardware, duplication systems, software, and blank media sales.

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