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The CD Writer
Floppy Disc Replacement: CD-R or CD-RW?

Hugh Bennett

February, 2001 | By incorporating CD-RW support directly into future operating systems, Philips, Sony, Compaq, and Microsoft have unilaterally declared CD-RW to be the replacement for the floppy disk. They call it "Mt. Rainier." What others may call it is another matter-maybe high-handed? Or arrogant? It's like declaring darkness the industry standard if you aren't smart enough to change a light bulb.

But haven't consumers already chosen CD-R as the best technology for the replacement job? Thanks to its lower media cost, higher formatted capacity, greater compatibility, and higher performance, CD-R makes for a far superior floppy replacement than does CD-RW. So, if operating system storage support should be added for anything, it should be for CD-R.

When justifying the exclusive position of CD-RW in the Mt. Rainier proposal, the participants maintain that the mainstream buying public has a psychological need for rewritable storage. Practical experience with CD-R, however, has shown this to be a false premise. Manufacturers are simply projecting their own prejudices and foisting them onto consumers.

Flying in the face of the argument that successful storage and distribution media must be rewritable, CD-R has proven itself to be "Digital Kleenex", affirming the proposition that if something good is inexpensive enough, it becomes ubiquitous and comes to be treated as disposable, which obviates the rewritability question

. According to the promotional literature circulated by the Mt. Rainier participants, CD-RW has been wildly successful: nearly three billion "CD-R/RW" discs were sold in the year 2000. And, though the figure is probably closer to four billion, it's important to note that only 50 million of these are of the CD-RW variety. Despite the marketing spin, CD-R, not CD-RW, has been, and overwhelmingly will be, the consumer media of choice.

While CD-RW media sell for $1 to $3 apiece, CD-R discs are commonly available in the $0.25 to $1 range. With over 70 manufacturers worldwide currently producing drives and an 80-to-1 sales advantage over CD-RW, CD-R will always be less expensive than its rewritable cousin. And, given the reality that the vast majority of discs will likely never be reused, consumers are far better served choosing the economical CD-R media.

Like all rewritable storage media, CD-RW discs must be formatted before use. A heavy penalty is paid for this, however, as the process results in a 23% reduction in the usable capacity of each disc. Generally speaking, the usable storage capacity of a CD is dependent upon the filesystem and logical structure used. For example, when written in ISO 9660 format using a single-session recording method, the capacity of a 74-minute CD-R or CD-RW disc is 650MB. However, to enable direct overwriting capability and accommodate a defect management scheme, Mt. Rainier introduces a significant amount of overhead, which results in a reduction of the accessible space of a formatted CD-RW disc to a mere 500MB. As a write-once medium, CD-R is unencumbered by the baggage necessary for random rewriting and thus has a spacious capacity of over 625MB, even after being prepared for packet-writing use.

To be successful, any replacement of the floppy diskette must be readable by most computer systems. CD-R wrote the book on physical compatibility, and CD-R discs can be read by all CD-ROM and MultiRead DVD-ROM drives. Unfortunately this can't be said for CD-RW discs, which are incompatible with older CD-ROM and CD-R drives.

Computers must, in addition to reading a disc physically, be able to access the files contained therein. Due to technical issues, Mt. Rainier will only write and rewrite CD-RW discs by using a new generation of CD-R/RW drive with added capabilities. It can't even rewrite CD-RW discs created using existing packet-writing software. Unfettered by such problems, CD-R support could be painlessly added to any operating system so that existing recorders could be used and compatibility maintained with the dominant packet-writing programs currently on the market.

Given the rate of industry advancement, by the time the Mt. Rainier specification is embraced, new CD-R/RW drives will only offer either 4X-10X CAV (600-1500KB/sec) or 10X CLV (1500KB/sec) CD-RW writing performance. At the same time, however, higher CD-R writing speeds will be commonplace with 12X-16X PCAV (1800-2400KB/sec) or true 16X CLV (2400KB/sec) capability offered in the same devices. Since its inception, CD-R's performance has outstripped that of CD-RW, and that gap isn't expected to narrow in the foreseeable future. By the time even marginally higher performance CD-RW products come to market, considerably faster 20X and 24X capability for CD-R will already be entrenched.

Read performance also favors CD-R. It isn't a well-advertised fact but, due to low reflectivity and signal-to-noise ratio characteristics, CD-RW discs are more difficult to read at high speeds than CD-R media. In concrete terms, older MultiRead CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, and CD-R/RW drives only read CD-RW discs at 2X, 4X, or 8X CLV speeds, and even the latest generation of drives only accommodates 8X-20X CAV (1200-3000 KB/sec) reading speed. CD-R discs, on the other hand, can be read as fast as prerecorded media-at last count 18X-56X CAV (2700-8400KB/sec) and still rising.

Why can't consumers be the best judge of their own needs rather than having these sorts of decisions handed down from on high? Better still, why not incorporate both CD-RW and CD-R in future operating systems?

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 (www.forgetmenot.on.ca), a reseller, systems integrator and industry consultant based in London, Ontario, Canada .

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

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