One of the essential components of today’s computer systems and one of the most common upgrades to older computer systems is the CD-ReWritable (CD-RW) drive. It lets you create your own customised music CDs, back up data, and share large files with others without running into compatibility problems. If your PC doesn’t already have a CD-RW drive installed or you are looking to upgrade to a newer model, a brand new CD-RW drive capable of burning a CD in less than four minutes will not cost you an arm and a leg. All the drives we looked at were IDE-based internal CD-RW drives, with the exception of the OPTI CD-RW/DVD-ROM Combo Drive which can also be used to play DVD-ROM discs.
Reading the speeds
When looking to buy a CD-RW drive, the consumer’s main concern is its stated operating speeds. These are indicated by the numbers on the retail packaging and may sometimes cause confusion as they are not always clearly labelled. For example, what does 52x24x48 mean? The general rule of thumb is that the first number denotes read speed (CD-ROM), the second number denotes rewrite speed (CD-RW), and the last number denotes write speed (CD-R). However not all vendors follow this convention. For instance, Mitsubishi is one of the vendors that places the write speed before the rewrite speed.
CD-RW drives use x-ratings to indicate writing and reading speeds, where 1x equals 150KBps; the ratings listed on the box indicate the drive’s maximum speed for reading from or writing to a disc, not its average speed (which may be about 4x to 6x less than the x-rating). Though drives that burn to write-once CD-Rs at up to 48x now reign supreme, models capable of 52x will go on sale later this year.
Thereafter, industry experts said, the escalation in CD-R write speeds would slow dramatically — and may stop altogether — due to technological limitations and diminishing returns. After all, burning a full disc now at up to 48x requires about two-and-a-half minutes; ratcheting the write speed up to 52x will shave mere seconds — not minutes — off that time.
All of the drives we reviewed have fast recording speeds — from 40x up to 52x for a CD-R disc and from 16x up to 24x for a CD-RW disc. You can burn a CD in less than three minutes on one of these units. However, boasting higher numbers than older CD-RW drives (such as 24x recorders) doesn’t necessarily mean they can burn a CD at a much faster rate than a slightly older model drive. We proved this during our testing. We burned CDs at the fastest speed the drives were capable of and also at half of their fastest speed. The results clearly showed that there really was no major benefit in burning CDs at the higher speed and the fastest burn may not always produce the most reliable results, especially on older computer systems.
Successful CD creation at high speeds depends on the media you use as well as the drive’s capabilities. Burning at a high speed requires a disc that will be able to adequately handle those high speeds. Some of the CD-RW drives in this review were able to determine the capabilities of the type of media that was inserted in the drive and in turn adjusted the available recording speed settings in their CD burning programs. For example, upon inserting a 40x CD-R disc into some of the drives, the software limited us to burning a CD at this speed. Upon inserting the 48x or 52x capable media that was provided in the box with most of the drives, we were able to burn at the higher 48x and 52x speed settings.
This feature catches out many people, as they use media that is not rated high enough to burn at the fastest speed of their drive and consequently think something must be wrong with it. The same is true of CD-RW discs, as these will often dictate the speed at which the rewrite function operates.
When CD-RW drives first came onto the market, the infamous buffer under-run error proved to be the bane of computer users. CDs were ruined due to the burner’s inability to keep data flowing at a constant rate during a disc creation procedure. This problem would mostly be due to a slow or poorly configured PC. In order to avoid such errors no other tasks would be run while the CD burner was doing its business.
These days, the average computer system is more than capable of handling a CD burning session while other tasks, such as Web surfing or office duties, hum along in the background. The drives also offer burn protection technologies that seem to vary from vendor to vendor. We are happy to report that not a single ‘coaster’ was created in the course of this review, and we now have close to 50 identical discs of valuable test files at our disposal.
The burning software of choice across the board in this round-up proved to be Ahead’s Nero Burning ROM and InCD packet writing software. Burning ROM is an easy-to-use program that features guided tasks and an Explorer-like interface for burning data or audio CDs. The exceptions are Panasonic, which bundles its drive with Ahead Nero Express, and Sony, which bundles its drive with a program called B’s Recorder Gold that is just as intuitive as Nero.
Drives such as the Yamaha CRW-F1 with Mt Rainier technology integrate support for writing directly to CD-RW media via the operating system, bypassing the need for third-party packet-writing software such as Roxio DirectCD. For now, only versions of Linux based on the latest Linux kernel support Mt Rainier. Microsoft says that it will implement the spec in the next version of Windows, codenamed Longhorn, due sometime in 2004.
Other advantages to Mt Rainier include the format’s support for disc formatting on the fly and its improved defect management to help overcome errors on a disc. Unfortunately, discs written using Mt Rainier won’t be backward-compatible with older operating systems such as Windows 98 or Windows XP, so you’ll still need third-party software like DirectCD 5.2 to read (or write to) the discs.
How we tested
We used the vendors’ supplied media, where applicable, for both CD-R and CD-RW tests. For drives that did not ship with any media (and for the half-speed CD-R tests) we used 700MB TDK CD-R discs, rated at 40x, and we also used 650MB Kodak CD-RW discs, rated at 4x. As well as speed, reliability of performance, physical features and bundled extras of drives were taken into consideration.
The tests conducted on the drives were as follows:
Read test: to gauge read (CD-ROM) performance we inserted disc one of our SYSMark 2001 benchmark suite and recorded the time it took to extract the benchmark files from the CD to the hard drive.
Audio extraction test: to gauge the ability to rip music CDs, we used the free Cdex ripping utility to rip a 10-track 77-minute audio CD to WAV files, recording the amount of time it took.
CD writing: to gauge the CD writing (CD-R) capabilities we recorded the time it took for each drive to burn 600MB of MPEG files, office documents, MP3s and executable files. We first burned these files at the fastest possible speed the drive could handle, and we also burned the files at half the maximum speed of each drive.
CD-RW disc format: to gauge how long it took for each drive to prepare a CD-RW disc before usage, we timed how long it took to undertake a complete format of a CD-RW disc.
CD rewriting: to gauge CD rewriting (CD-RW) performance, 500MB of MPEG files, office documents, MP3s and executable files were dragged and dropped via Windows Explorer to a prepared CD-RW disc, noting the total elapsed time. We then deleted these files and repeated the drag and drop operation, again noting the total elapsed time.
CD-RW read test: to gauge CD-RW read capabilities, we timed the transfer of the 500MB of test files from the CD-RW disc back to the hard drive.
All CD-RW drives were installed as the Secondary Master drive in our Compucon test bed that featured the following specifications:
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-8IE
CPU: Intel Pentium 4 2GHz (400MHz FSB)
Memory: 256MB PC2100 DDR SDRAM
Hard disk: IBM 40GB 7200rpm
Graphics card: Gigabyte Radeon 9000 Pro
Monitor: Sony Multiscan E220 Trinitron
Our platform had Windows XP Home installed and was refreshed before the testing of each drive using Symantecs Ghost program. All drive tests were performed after a system restart.