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12X CD-R/RW Drive Roundup

Hugh Bennett

Change, as we know, is the one constant in the computer industry. No sooner do we rush out and buy the latest gizmo than we see its new and improved replacement on sale within weeks. Back when CD-R/RW recorders were specialized professional devices, improved models were introduced at a glacial pace. But now that recorders are popular consumer and business items, new generations come to market in as little as six months.

Except for a short-lived effort by Hewlett-Packard (and its hardware supplier Sony Electronics) in the fall of 2000, the recorder marketplace more or less bypassed 10X CD-R writing speed by jumping directly from 8X to 12X capability. With an ever-increasing number of CD-R/RW recorders coming factory- installed in new computers, the demand for upgrade kits is shrinking. Consequently, aftermarket manufacturers desperate to hold on and differentiate their products are promoting speed like never before.

Surveying the 12X landscape today, recorders are available from all major manufacturers, are available in all major brands of aftermarket kits (Hewlett-Packard, Iomega, Plextor, TEAC, Ricoh, TDK, etc.), and come in bundles retailing for less than $300. All-around device performance also continues to charge forward with the introduction of 8X and 10X Constant Linear Velocity (CLV) CD-RW rewriting, plus enhanced 32X Max data and Digital Audio Extraction (DAE) reading capability.

In the past, manufacturers worried that high-speed recording would cause consumer problems because many computer systems couldnít keep up with the data transfer rates required by their units. Impressive advances in PC and hard-drive performance have largely put that problem to rest, but still a few concerns remain. For example, to keep costs down and improve ease of installation, most CD-R/RW recorders now use lower-performance EIDE/ATAPI rather than SCSI interfaces. In addition, only a handful of ATAPI CD-ROM and DVD-ROM drives are capable of the high-speed Digital Audio Extraction necessary for the reliable copying of audio discs CD-to-CD at 12X speed. Consumer preferences have also changed. Rather than being content to wait for a disc to complete recording before doing something different, computer users now want to work on other tasks while the disc is still in the process of being written.

The conventional solution to this problem has been to incorporate larger data buffers into the recorders. But the addition of extra memory adds cost and still canít guarantee complete protection from buffer underruns. Consequently, in order to bullet-proof the CD recording experience, several recorder manufacturers have developed new technol- ogies that prevent buffer underruns. Known by several trade names including ìBuffer Under Run Proofî (BURN-Proof) by Sanyo (and its licensees) and ìJustLinkî by Ricoh, this feature is quickly proving itself to be just what the doctor ordered and is gaining wide acceptance.

On the face of it, higher CD-R writing speed is attractive but, realistically speaking, the law of diminishing returns applies beyond 8X speed. Putting things into perspective, a single-speed (1X) recorder writes data at a rate of 150 kilobytes per second (KB/sec) and audio at a rate of 172 KB/sec. This translates into (roughly) 73 minutes to record a full 650MB data or 74-minute audio disc. Eight speed (8X) systems write eight times faster to complete the same job in roughly nine minutes, while twelve speed (12X) units oper- ate twelve times faster and record the same full disc in roughly six minutesónot a significant difference for most people.

Those who work with CD-RW discs, however, will welcome the jump from 4X rewritability to the 8X and 10X speeds offered by the latest generation of recorders. It should be noted, however, that to take advantage of higher-speed CD-RW rewriting, users must employ a new type of 4X-10X CD-RW disc that is incompatible with older recorders [See Hugh Bennett, The CD Writer, ìCD-RW: Busted For Speeding,î November 2000, p.49óEd.].

With more products than ever before to choose from and with competitors offering similar bundles for roughly the same price, itís important to pay attention to details. Is high-speed CD-RW writing capability really that important? Is enhanced read speed useful? Is it important to read DVD discs? Declining prices have also made recorder companies less generous in including software with their products, so to get good value obviously means to make sure that the included programs do what you need to do.



Without a doubt, of all the CD-R/RW recorder manufacturers, Plextor has the most loyal following. Its reputation for offering high-quality, high-performance products has gained the devotion of professionals around the world and, thanks to the companyís recent decision to offer equipment with ATAPI interfaces, consumers too are now enthusiastically embracing Plextor.

Incorporating Plextorís PX-W1210TA recorder mechanism, the $269 internal ATAPI PlexWriter 12/10/32A offers solid 12X CD-R and 10X CD-RW Constant Linear Velocity (CLV) write performance, 32X max/14X min Constant Angular Velocity (CAV) playback, 32X max Digital Audio Extraction (DAE), 150ms access time, a 2MB buffer, and Sanyo-licensed BURN-Proof capability for preventing buffer underruns. This mechanism has also been marketed by Plextor to several of its competitors, including Iomega and TDK, who incorporate the unit into their own product offerings.

Staying true to its professional reputation, Plextor has in addition released the $379 internal and $479 external PlexWriter 12/10/32S, which offers the same features as the 12/10/32A model but with a SCSI interface and larger 4MB buffer.

Not known for excessive generosity with its software bundles, Plextor ships a fairly basic suite of programs with both units. Each comes with Roxioís (nee Adaptec) Easy CD Creator and DirectCD for recording and packet-writing chores [See Bob Starrettís review, November 1999, pp. 74-75óEd.]. The 12/10/32S SCSI models also include Plextorís CD Res-Q backup software. But be warned, the ATAPI unit does not come with an interface cable and the SCSI models lack the appropriate SCSI connection cables and interface cards.

In addition to solid hardware, Plextor recorder bundles include the celebrated Plextor Manager 2000, a useful set of tools for controlling and taking advantage of the features of Plextor CD-ROM drives and CD-R/RW recorders. In addition to playing multimedia files, Plextor Manager 2000 performs Digital Audio Extraction (DAE) as well as CD-to-CD duplication. Plextor Manager also features AudioFS, which allows users to view and use the contents of audio CDs as standard WAV files. Drive read speed and spindown rates can also be set along with valuable information obtained about the hardware and any inserted disc.


TEAC America

Quietly going about its business, another CD-R/RW recorder manufacturer with a well-established track record is TEAC America. Currently, the company offers a single $299 internal configuration of its new 12x10x32 CD-R/RW recorder employing TEACís latest CD-W512E mechanism. The unit offers competitive performance including 12X CD-R and 10X CD-RW CLV write speeds, 32X max CAV read speed with a very fast 85ms access time, a 4MB buffer, and an ATAPI interface.

If Plextor is considered thrifty when it comes to including software with its recorders, then TEAC is positively stingy. Currently, each device ships with a complement limited to Roxioís Easy CD Creator and DirectCD for performing all writing chores. The bundle does, however, supply the appropriate ATAPI interface and sound cables for easy installation.



A marketing powerhouse best known for its Zip and Jaz removable magnetic storage products, Iomega is now making a concerted effort to attract CD-R/RW business and consumer users. Its latest offering is the ZipCD 3840INT-A, a well-rounded $279 bundle incorporating Plextorís PX-W1210TA recorder.

It does not always follow that recorders employing the same mechanism offer identical features. Such is the case with the ZipCD, which (surprisingly) comes up short in one area compared to Plextorís 12/10/32A. Early Plextor firmware versions for the PX-W1210TA mechanism offered only 24X max DAE speed and, while Plextor later updated its programming to allow 32X max performance, Iomega has not yet offered the enhancement.

What the ZipCD may lack in state-of-the-art audio extraction speed, however, it makes up for with a slightly richer software bundle. In addition to Roxioís Easy CD Creator and DirectCD, the suite includes a version of Iomegaís QuickSync 2 software along with MusicMatch Jukebox and Adobeís ActiveShare, a simple program for managing, editing, and sharing photographs.


TDK Electronics

Best known as a manufacturer of audio and video cassette tapes, CD-R discs, and other data storage media, TDK Electronics is a fairly recent entrant into the world of aftermarket CD-R/RW recorder kits. Aimed squarely at a younger audience with its hip advertising, sculptured face plate, and funky translucent iMac blue disc tray, the $279 internal veloCD 12/10/32 is definitely not your fatherís Oldsmobile.

As is the case with Iomegaís ZipCD, the veloCD incorporates Plextorís PX-W1210TA recorder. Unlike Iomega, however, TDK has kept pace with Plextor and has incorporated the latest firmware advances, which enable full 32X max DAE.

When it comes to software, the veloCD ìCD Blenderî suite obviously panders to the kids to give them exactly what they wantóthe tools to rip audio tracks, create music compilation CDs, burn discs from downloaded music files, and copy entire audio CDs. Data and multimedia work is tackled by the latest version of Aheadís Nero [See Joshua McDanielís review, February 2000, pp. 56-58óEd.] and mundane data packet-writing chores by InCD. A feature of Nero worthy of note is its ability to disable the veloCDís BURN-Proof option so purists are ensured that written discs are as ìperfectî as possible. One of Neroís more useful features is its ability to take advantage of the raw reading and writing functions of the veloCDís PX-W1210TA recorder to duplicate some damaged and even commercially copy-protected discs.

Rounding out the TDK bundle is Adobeís ActiveShare, MusicMatch Jukebox, Media Hub, Windows Media Player, and Digital MixMaster, a useful but somewhat confusingly psychedelic utility which acts as a digital music player, audio extractor, CD-to-CD copier, and tool for recording audio from analog sources.



Never one to follow the pack, Ricoh has kept pace with rapid changes in the CD-R/RW recorder world and stayed true to its philosophy of developing and using its own recorder mechanisms in all its products. Available directly from the company in North America, the $199 internal MediaMaster MP7120A is currently the best value in 12X recording. The package incorporates Ricohís own MP7120A ATAPI mechanism with its competitive 12X CD-R and 10X CD-RW CLV write performance, 32X max CAV playback, and DAE, as well as a 120ms access time and a 4MB buffer.

Most recently, Ricoh has introduced a $259 updated model called the MediaMaster MP7125A, which offers the same performance as its predecessor but, instead, uses a smaller 2MB buffer while incorporating JustLink buffer underrun prevention technology.

Without a doubt, Ricohís $299 internal ATAPI MediaMaster MP9120A is unique among the current 12X recorder field. Offering the same performance and features as the MP7125A including the JustLink system, the MP9120A is a hybrid or combination recorder which also functions as an 8X max DVD-ROM drive cable of reading DVD-ROM, DVD-Video, and DVD-R discs.

Unpredictability also characterizes Ricoh, as it never seems to settle on bundling the products of any one software publisher. Both the MP7120A and MP9120A models come with Prassi PrimoCD Plus and abCD packet-writing software, while the MP7125A model includes Ahead Softwareís Nero and InCD. Rounding out the otherwise- spartan MP9120A bundle is a copy of InterVideoís WinDVD 2000 application for viewing DVD-Video titles.



Itís interesting to note that, while Hewlett-Packard has dominated the aftermarket CD-R/RW recorder landscape for nearly five years, its products seldom lead the pack when it comes to price, performance, or even value. All function and no nonsense, HP units always get the job done.

That pretty well describes HPís latest 12X series of CD-R/RW recorders, beginning with the HP CD-Writer Plus 9500. Incorporating Sonyís latest CRX 160E recorder, the $299 internal 9500 offers 12X CD-R and 8X CD-RW Constant Linear Velocity (CLV) write performance, 32X max CAV playback, 20X max DAE, a 125ms access time, a 4MB buffer, and an ATAPI interface.

Note also that HP is one of only a handful of companies still offering SCSI versions of its recorders. The $299 internal and $335 external CD-Writer Plus 9600 units offer identical features and performance to the 9500, but incorporate Sonyís CRX 160S SCSI recorder.

Both the CD-Writer Plus 9500 and 9600 series units include the same software bundle and use an HP-specific version of Veritasí MyCD for primary CD creation and copying, and Roxioís DirectCD with HPís Fast Format capability for packet-writing to CD-R and CD-RW discs. Aimed at novice users, MyCD does an excellent job of providing an easy alternative to mainline products such as Easy CD Creator, Nero, and PrimoCD. More advanced users, however, will find the lack of a full-feature set and wizard-like interface frustrating to use.

Rounding out HPís bundles are MusicMatch JukeBox (for playing and organizing audio material), HP Simple Backup (for backing up hard disks or files onto CD), Neato CD Labeler II (for creating and printing CD sticky labels), and Broderbund Multimedia Organizer (for keeping track of multimedia files).


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