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The Goods Under the Hood: ID'ing CD Recorders

Bob Starrett
May 2001

Poking around the web, or going down to the local computer store–or WalMart for that matter–and looking at the names branded on the variety of CD recorders available, one would think that everybody in the world manufactures CD-R/RW drives. But the companies that actually manufacture these units are few compared to the number of companies that resell them under their own names. In addition to the major electronics manufacturers, you'll see offerings from Acer, AOpen, BTC, Cal Digital, Caravelle, Cyberdrive, Delta, Dynatek, Dysan, Grundig, Hi-Val, HP, Memorex, Mitsubishi, Optima, Octek, Pacific Digital, Techmedia, Traxdata, Waitec, Wearnes, and many, many others.

As far as I know, there are only 12 companies that actually manufacture CD recorders. These companies are JVC, Mitsumi, LITEON, Philips, Plextor, Panasonic, Ricoh, Sanyo, Toshiba, Sony, TEAC, and Yamaha. LG Electronics (Goldstar), BTC, Aopen, and Acer may also manufacture their own recorders, but pinning this down has been a little difficult. So whatever name appears on the box, the drive, or the faceplate, you can (almost) rest assured that it was manufactured by one of these companies. This is, as I said, to my knowledge. If I am missing any, I would love to hear from manufacturers or readers so that I can keep the list up-to-date. It is also important to maintain the distinction between manufacturers and resellers. Why should this matter to the end-user, who just wants to take home something that does the job relatively fast and painlessly? Because many times you can get a better price on the drive you want by buying it from a reseller instead of buying the same drive in the manufacturer's box. And down the road, when support becomes an issue, knowing the origin of your peripheral can make the difference between a working recorder and a paperweight.

It is also important to know what you're getting when you buy a resold drive, because let's face it: all drives are not manufactured equally. And, while its pretty easy to differentiate resold products on the basis of external features–like the amount of bundled software and media and price–whose drive you're really buying is just as important, and in some cases, more so.

The problem is, you can't always tell, and the resellers will often make a point of not telling you. I am not exactly sure why companies are so jealous about their branding, except that it appears to be some sort of business school axiom, and as such, was presumably taught to the marketing people who make the decisions on how to brand and package CD recorders. If I were RecordCo, Inc., I guess I would want customers to think that RecordCo, Inc. manufactured its own recorders, especially if the recorders were great ones and the software, support, and everything else was great, because soon I would have gained a reputation as a company that provides inexpensive, quality CD recorders and everybody would then want a RecordCo recorder. On the other hand, I can also see the wisdom of saying something like "manufactured by Sony for RecordCo, Inc." This approach would, of course, give people instant confidence in the product, and help RecordCo build just as great a reputation by co-opting Sony's clout. But the latter just isn't the way it works. For whatever reason, companies like Hi-Val, the late-lamented Smart and Friendly, and even Hewlett-Packard have always wanted to have their brand names on the recorders, even if they did not manufacture them, which leaves consumers to make less-than-informed purchasing decisions.

The Denial of Debt

Some resellers take this guardedness to extremes. That was the case when Olympus Image Systems decided to sell recorders a few years ago and, while attending a trade show somewhere, I stopped by the Olympus booth to chat.

Looking at the Olympus CD recorder displayed, I thought it looked suspiciously like a Sony CDU 920S, even though the label said Olympus Image Systems, Inc. I told the booth guy that I thought it was great that they were using Sony drives, because in my experience, this had been a great drive in its time. With a look of utter shock on his face, the marketing guy grabbed me by the elbow and escorted me away from the booth so nobody could hear our conversation.

No, he insisted, the recorder was manufactured by Olympus; they made all their own stuff. They did not use Sony drives, definitely not. After some prodding about the similarity to the Sony recorder, he still insisted that it was actually manufactured by Olympus. We looked at the drive more closely. I could swear that it was a Sony. He pointed out the label in the back, which clearly did say Olympus Image Systems. Perhaps he had me there, and the similarity was merely coincidental. I did not have the guts to ask him if I could disassemble the drive; surely, they would never let that happen right there on the show floor. But then I noticed something on the Olympus label: the FCC ID number. That number was AK8CDU920S. Now, since the Sony was called the CDU920S, this was surely no coincidence. I asked the Olympus guy why, if they actually manufactured their own drives, the FCC number on the drive would be the same as Sony's. Dejected, he just walked away, muttering, "We make 'em, we make 'em."

Protest as he did, the man was wrong. But a good lesson to learn is that you don't have to take his word for it, or swallow the party line preached by any sales or marketing types who think they have something to protect. Following a few simple clues to recorder identification will help you with your next recorder-buying decision, since, in nearly every case, you'll know what you're buying, whether or not you pay the manufacturer's preferred price. What's more, knowing what you've bought, regardless of whose name is on the faceplate, can make a big difference down the line in maintaining drive performance and troubleshooting problems.

Soft Sells and Hard Facts

At this point, a lot of people might think, So what? What difference does it make who actually made the drive? Well, when you are buying a drive–whether it is your first, a replacement, or an additional one–you can save a lot of money by knowing who makes what, and finding just the make and model you need at the best price. Chances are, if you have been recording CDs for some time, you have already chosen your favorite software, and software is not much of an issue for you. If you're sold on a mainstream tool, like Roxio's Easy CD Creator or Veritas' PrimoCD (developed by the just-purchased Prassi Europe), and you already have a copy of a recent version on hand, your current copy will likely support any new recorder that you buy, or at least you will be able to download a patch so that it will. Even when brand loyalty or software preference is not an issue, knowing what recorder you're using can make a big difference down the line. If you're having a problem with an older Smart and Friendly recorder, for example, it's nice to know that the recorder was made by Yamaha, and that a solution for the Yamaha recorder might also work for the Smart and Friendly.

Identifying a recorder is also useful when searching for drivers and firmware updates. If the recorder has had its BIOS ID string changed–which many times does happen–a firmware update for the manufacturer's recorder may work for the reseller's recorder. Some resellers are not so good at keeping drivers and BIOS updates current on their Web sites, so knowing the manufacturer at the start of your driver search is critical. And, of course, there is always the possibility that the reseller can go out of business, leaving you stranded unless you know who actually manufactured your recorder. (This was one dire consequence of the disappearance of Smart and Friendly last year. The company's success in obtaining and selling the first high-speed recorders off the line had, in recent years, made it nearly synonymous in the U.S. with Sanyo, who manufactured all the "Smart and Friendly" 8X and 12X drives.)

Give it a Name

Short of taking a recorder apart to see who made it–assuming that there are identifying marks inside of it–how do you determine who manufactured your recorder? If the name on the unit is one of those manufacturers listed above, then you already know, of course. But to do it yourself, look at the label on the top of the unit, because, even though it may have a different name on the faceplate, many times the top label reveals its true origin.

If the label doesn't tell you who manufactured the drive, there are some general rules of thumb that you can use. First, we can note that HP recorders are currently made by Sony. Older HP recorders, like the 4020, 6020, and 7100 series, were all of Philips origin.

Don't take this as gospel, because things change all the time, but using a little aggressive Web research, and assuming that what is shown in the picture is the actual drive, here is what you can surmise: if you see a 16X recorder, it's a Sanyo, a Plextor, a Yamaha, or possibly the slightly later-issued TEAC. You can tell the Yamaha recorders by the slight curve on the underside of the disc tray. The Plextor and Sanyo drives have no curve, but are, instead, rectangular. They look similar, but the key here is the placement of the emergency eject hole. On the Plextor, it is between the volume control and the drive light, while on the Sanyo, the eject hole is way over on the left, just under the disc tray. We haven't seen a TEAC yet, but the traditional TEAC drive design is easy to identify (see the following), so if they stick with that, you should have no problem spotting this one, under whatever faceplate you find it. 12X recorders are a little trickier to identify since there are many more players in that game. Sanyo, Sony, Plextor, Yamaha, Ricoh, and TEAC all have 12X offerings that you will see in various guises. A 10X recorder is usually a Sony, at least at this point; 10X was an intermediary step between 8X and 12X that most manufacturers skipped, though Sony makes an excellent 10X drive. Now, Sony has both 8X and 12X drives available, too. The key to identifying a Sony recorder is to look for the location of the emergency eject hole on the faceplate; Sony's emergency eject is right next to the tray eject button.

If a recorder is 6X and includes CD-RW, it is probably a Ricoh; any 6X CD-R-only drive is a TEAC, regardless of what the faceplate says. Hi-Val appears to be shipping Mitsumi recorders. Smart and Friendly 12X recorders–Sanyo recorders, that is–are now in liquidation at Justdeals.com. Of course, you can't keep former Smart and Friendly CEO Perry Solomon down for long. Despite the Smart and Friendly bankruptcy, Perry is still selling recorders over at Aleratec.com–specifically, a Sanyo FireWire 12X.

Four unlikely companies have entered the recording hardware field in the last couple years. Iomega and TDK have brought a lot of marketing muscle with their ZipCD and veloCD, respectively, and you're as likely to see these drives populating retail shelves as any other. But both companies are strictly in the VAR category, at least for the time being. TDK's recorders are manufactured by Plextor. The key here is that even though the label says TDK, it also names Shinano Kenshi Co., which is Plextor. On the 16X front, TDK is likely to use either Plextor or Sanyo, but no samples were available for examination, and the picture on the Web site is not detailed enough to reveal the true identity of the drive. Unfortunately, I could not get my hands on an Iomega product in time for deadline, and thus, must report only through rumor and speculation that Philips and Mitsumi are behind the Iomega drives. MediaFORM, best-known for its duplication and production systems, is entering the single-drive game with a 16X unit based on the Sanyo mechanism. Another fairly recent entry is Imation, with Plextor covering its lower end at 8X, and Sanyo covering the faster models: the 12X and 16X screamers. Of course, with all of these companies, suppliers and components can change– and rather quickly–so keep your eyes and ears open, and do not rely on old information.

For the last batch of Yamahas, look for the blue "4x2x6" or other numbers indicating CD-R write, CD-RW write/ rewrite, and CD read speeds, respectively, on the front panel. This holds true for the current round of Yamaha recorders, except that the printing will be gray instead of blue.

Panasonic does not put the Panasonic name on its drives. But if the label reads "Matsushita Kotobuki Electronics Industries, LTD," the drive is, in fact, a Panasonic.

Work the Web

To start getting familiar with recorders, visit the Web sites of the big names in recorder production that were listed earlier. Use the "save image as" function in your browser, and save the pictures of the various recorders to a folder on your hard drive, and then import them into a good graphics program for easy access. Then, when you are looking at a Caravelle recorder, for instance, save and import that picture, and compare the faceplate features–that is, the size and location of the buttons, the audio jack, the volume control, the shape of the tray, and any other distinctive features to your "Big 12" pictures. Chances are, you'll get a match (in this case, it's a Sanyo), and chances are also good that you'll get a better price than the manufacturer's branded recorder. It is not easy keeping up with who makes what in the CD recorder arena. Again, just at press time, TDK and Hewlett Packard have announced 20x/ 10x/ 40x CD-RW drives to raise the speed limit even higher, and make us wonder who will be the underlying manufacturer of such speed demons, who will actually be first to market, and whose drive is behind the faceplate on the one you buy.

Show Your Bios ID

While I have intimated that many CD recorders are others in disguise, I do not mean to imply that there may not be distinct and important differences in drives that are manufactured specifically for another company. Mostly, the changes are in the BIOS ID string to make the recorder's identification on bootup match the name on the label and faceplate, which is also often redesigned to give the recorder a unique appearance. However, it is likely that in some cases, the drive reseller will request certain other changes in the mechanism. These could include additional BIOS functions besides the ID string change, dustproofing, tray redesign, additional LEDS, a larger buffer, different or strengthened components in any part of the recorder, or any number of changes that the reseller considers important to its branding, recognition, and reputation.

So, although the number of recorder manufacturers is limited, and the number of resellers seems almost unlimited, a Yamaha from Yamaha, for example, and a Yamaha from a reseller could indeed not be identical. In which case, you should exercise caution, since the specifications of one may not match the specifications of the other exactly, and problems could arise if you assume too much.

Know Your Writer

Just as it is useful to know the origin of CD-RW drives, it is also useful to know the origin of the software that controls them. Without a doubt, Roxio (formerly Adaptec) is the leader here, and will try to remain so with the release of its Easy CD Creator 5 Platinum Edition. But it is a competitive market, and big players are stepping in to compete for the top spot.

You'll see Easy CD Creator shipped with a lot of drives, but other than in past Hewlett-Packard bundles, you will not see Roxio making changes to the interface, adding or deleting features, or customizing the software for a particular company. That has been the province of Prassi Europe, and it has been successful enough at it, producing products like Click n' Burn for Stomp and MyCD for Veritas. So successful, in fact, that as this story neared deadline, Veritas Software announced that it had acquired Prassi Europe, gaining a premier CD recording product and engine: Primo CD. Then, just two weeks later, the second domino fell, with Iomega announcing the acquisition of Asimware Innovations' software product line, which includes the HotBurn recording software. Both acquisitions called for the programming staff of the acquired companies to join Veritas and Iomega, respectively.

Identifying software is obviously much easier then, since, at least at this time, the only widely customized engine is Primo CD, and all other major recording products retain their identities. If you are using Click n' Burn, MyCD, or Sony's CD Extreme, then you have the Prassi engine underneath it.

Connective Issues

Recorder identification is especially useful for SCSI drives, because they have more than a few jumpers that need to be set. An IDE recorder is a breeze–master, slave, and C/S, or cable select, always labeled. With a SCSI recorder, you will need to set the SCSI ID, the termination, the parity, the terminator power, and maybe even test mode, eject prevent, and several other options. Doing that on a Sunday without an owner's manual–on a no-name drive–could drive you up a wall at speeds a lot faster than 16X. But if you can identify the manufacturer, a trip to the manufacturer's Web site is likely to have you up and running in short order.

SCSI and IDE (ATAPI) aren't the only interfaces used with CD-R these days, however. Parallel, USB, and FireWire recorders are also available. While parallel port recorders never made much of a market, identification of parallel recorders uses the same criteria, since they are merely IDE recorders with a parallel-to-IDE converter inside the case. There are a number of companies selling USB and FireWire drives these days. USB doesn't offer CD-R much in the way of fast or dependable recording, but it has gained some cachet in consumer recording circles as the only way to connect a CD recorder to Apple's first-generation iMac. Most recent desktop PCs feature USB as well, and, even for PC users who have better options for high performance (namely, SCSI and IDE), it has a certain hot-swappability appeal.

But open a USB external case, pull out the drive, and what do you see? A plain vanilla IDE recorder with a USB-to-IDE converter in between. So, once again, the same identification criteria applies to USB. Since USB drives are generally limited to 4X as a top recording speed because of the limitations of the USB bus specification, there are only a few manufacturers who still make 4X recorders, the main one being Mitsumi. You'll see USB drives from QPS, CD CyClone, HP, Hi-Val, and numerous other resellers. Of course, since the USB functionality is based on the conversion board, any IDE CD recorder could be housed within these cases; and which IDE recorder you find inside makes less difference than it does with IDE, SCSI, or FireWire-connected drives, where higher performance is possible. Who makes it, who you get it from, and what speed the drives are capable of, is kind of a moot issue with USB, since it's the interface itself that reins it in.

FireWire had a slow start in the CD-R market, but that's in no way indicative of its high-velocity recording prowess. FireWire drives are available today from a number of manufacturers and vendors, including Sony, HP, CD CyClone, LaCie, Goldstar, Plextor, and others. But once again, all we need do is look inside the case to see if a FireWire drive is nothing more than an IDE drive with a FireWire-to-IDE converter sitting between the 40-pin IDE connector and the FireWire ports on the back of the case. So, like IDE and USB drives, the identification hints apply just the same.

Companies Mentioned in This Article

Acer America Corporation
2641 Orchard Parkway, San Jose, CA 95134; 800/733-2237, 408/432-6200; Fax 408/922-2933; http://www.acer.com

ACS Innovations International
3171 Jay Street; Santa Clara, CA 95054; 408/566-0900; Fax 408/566-0909; http://www.acscompro.com

24F, #100, Sec. 1, Hsin Tai Wu Rd., Hsichih, Taipei Hsien, Taiwan, R.O.C., 886-2-2696-1333, 886-2-8691-2255; Fax 886-2-8691-2233; http://english.aopen.com.tw

2F.51 Tung Hsing Road, Taipai Taiwan R.O.C.; 886-2-8768-3988; Fax 886-2-8768-3777; http://www.btc.com.tw

Hewlett-Packard Company
800 South Taft Avenue, Loveland, CO 80537; 800/752-0900; Fax 970/635-1610; http://www.hp.com/storage

Hi-Val, Inc.

JVC Digital Storage Systems
5665 Corporate Avenue, Cypress, CA 90630; 714/816-6500; Fax 714/816-6519; http://www.jvc.net

Imation Corporation
1 Imation Place, Oakdale, MN 55128-3414; 888/466-3456, 612/704-4000; Fax 800/537-4675; http://www.imation.com

Iomega Corporation/Asimware
1821 West Iomega Way, Roy, UT 84067;

800/697-8833, 801/332-1000; Fax 435/778-4117; http://www.iomega.com

LG Electronics U.S.A, Inc. (Goldstar)
1000 Sylvan Avenue, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632; 201/816-2000; Fax 210/816-0636; http://www.lgeus.com

Lite-On, Inc.
720 South Hillview Drive, Milpitas, CA 95035; 408/946-4873; Fax 408/941-4597; http://www.liteon.com

Mitsumi, Inc.
5808 W. Campus Circle Drive, Irving, TX 75063; 972/550-7300; Fax 972/550-7424; http://www.mitsumi.com

Panasonic Consumer Electronics Company
One Panasonic Way, Secaucus, NJ 07094; 201/348-7000; Fax 201/348-7016; http://www.mei.co.jp

Philips Electronics
3200 North First Street, San Jose, CA 95134; 408/570-5644; Fax 408/570-5757; http://www.philips.com

Plextor Corporation
4255 Burton Drive, Santa Clara, CA 95054; 888/675-3986, 408/980-1838; Fax 408/986-1010; http://www.plextor.com

QPS Inc.
23671 Via Del Rio, Yorba Linda, CA 92887; 800/559-4777, 714/692-3588; Fax 714/692-5516; http://www.qps-inc.com

Ricoh Corporation Disc Media Systems
One Ricoh Square, 1100 Valencia Avenue, Tustin, CA 92780; 714/566-3235; Fax 714/566-2683; http://www.ricohdms.com

691 South Milpitas Boulevard, Milpitas, CA 95035; 800/442-7274, 408/945-8600; Fax 408/262-2533; http://www.adaptec.com

Sanyo Corporation
2001 Sanyo Avenue, San Diego, CA 92154; 619/661-1134; Fax 619/661-6795; http://www.sanyo.com

Sony Electronics, Inc.
3300 Zanker Road, San Jose, CA 95134; 408/955-5462; Fax 408/955-6822; http://www.sony.com

TDK Electronics Corporation
12 Harbor Park Drive, Port Washington, NY 11050; 516/625-0100; Fax 516/625-0100; http://www.tdkonline.com

TEAC America, Inc.
Data Storage Products Division, 7733 Telegraph Road, Montebello, CA 90640; 323/726-0303; Fax 323/727-7652; http://www.teac.com

Toshiba America, Inc.
1251 Sixth Avenue, 41st Floor, New York, NY 10020; 212/596-0600; http://www.toshiba.com

Yamaha Corporation of America, Consumer Products Division
6600 Orangethorpe Avenue, Buena Park, CA 90620; 714/522-9011; Fax 714/228-3913; http://www.yamaha.com

Veritas Software Corporation
1600 Plymouth Street, Mountain View, CA 94043; 650/335-8000; Fax 650/335-8050; http://www.veritas.com

Bob Starrett (bobs@cdpage.com) is a contributing editor for EMedia Magazine, co-columnist for The CD Writer, and an independent consultant based in Denver, Colorado. He is the co-author, along with EMedia Magazine contributor Joshua McDaniel, of The Little CD Audio Recording Book, published by Peachpit Press.

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