Rewritable CD drives get faster, cheaper

Who could argue with better technology, faster speeds and lower prices? That's what is happening in the rewritable CD (CD-RW) drive market today. In this comparative review, we look at three rewritable CD solutions priced less than $400.

These solutions are great for offices that need to duplicate CDs (without violating copyrights, of course), store large quantities of data offline but within close reach and back up systems on a rugged media with fast access.

Specifically, we looked at Hewlett-Packard Co.'s CD-Writer Plus 8200i, Ricoh Corp.'s MediaMaster MP7060A and Verbatim Corp.'s CDRW4420a. With the exception of the Ricoh drive, which offers 6X recording performance, these drives all offer 4X CD-Recordable (CD-R) and CD-RW performance and 20X or 24X CD-ROM performance.

We installed and configured the hardware and software for each drive and then tested the performance of the drives by first duplicating a 450M CD to a CD-R disk and then copying the same 450M of data from a hard disk directory structure to a CD-RW disk. We also measured the amount of time it took to format the CD-RW disk for random read/write access.

While each drive offered something that we liked, the drive we liked the best overall is the HP CD-Writer Plus 8200i. It offers a clean integration of third-party software, excellent installation instructions and documentation, and a nice single point of access to the functionality of the drive.

HP's CD-Writer Plus 8200i

As you might expect from HP, the CD-Writer Plus 8200i represents a well-integrated CD-RW solution featuring excellent software and solid hardware. Novice users will feel comfortable getting the 8200i installed and configured. Veterans will find it a snap.

The pleasant experience with the 8200i starts right out of the box. The software CD includes a video explaining how to install the drive. Also, the installation program probes your hardware and offers its best guess as to how the drive should be configured. In our case, the recommendation was absolutely right.

Once you install the hardware and boot the computer, the installation continues and installs the software on your system. Adaptec Inc. products - including Easy CD for data and audio CDs, DirectCD for CD-RW functionality, and CD Copier for duplicating CDs - perform most of the tasks a typical user desires. In addition, HP includes its own disaster-recovery program that will create a CD-RW and boot floppies to restore your system completely in the event of a crash. This wizard-driven program is one of the easier ways to back up a system. Unfortunately, it doesn't work with Microsoft Corp. Windows NT.

Once the software is installed , you can start a Macromedia Inc. Director movie that will serve as a jumping off point to any of the functions you might want to access with the CD-RW. The movie fires up the Adaptec and HP products needed to perform the tasks. For example, Easy CD, the audio and data CD creator from Adaptec, offers a Windows Explorer-like interface for identifying sources and targets for CD creation. We were able to quickly come up to speed on Easy CD.

Adaptec DirectCD facilitates formatting CD-RW media. A nice feature of DirectCD is that it will format a CD-RW in the background after five minutes of foreground processing. You can begin saving data to the CD-RW almost immediately, although it is a painfully slow process until the formatting is completed. We found that formatting in the background took slightly longer than doing it in the foreground on the other drives. It is a nice feature, however, if you want to fire it up to format and copy and walk away from the system for a while.

Performance on the 8200i was good as well. It copied a CD nearly as quickly as the 6X Ricoh drive did.

Whether you are a novice or an old pro, you will find that the HP CD-Writer Plus 8200i is a snap to set up and operate. It sets the standard for a tightly integrated, feature-packed CD-RW solution and certainly raises the bar for the other products we looked at.

Ricoh's MediaMaster MP7060A

Sporting the only 6X CD-R write speed among the three products we reviewed, the MediaMaster MP7060A showed a lot of promise. However, a failed CD copy and software that lacked polish counted against the drive.

The MP7060A features 24X CD-ROM performance, 4X CD-RW speed and 6X CD-R speed. Ricoh claims that the MP7060A will challenge other vendors' drives featuring 8X CD-R speeds.

The MP7060A came with simple documentation for installing the drive. A user experienced with EIDE device configuration would have no trouble setting up the drive. A novice user might be a little snowed by the brief instructions for installing the hardware.

We found no printed documentation for the software included with the drive. A readme file briefly explained in what order to install the software.

The MP7060A includes a complete bundle of software products, including CeQuadrat's PacketCD for formatting and mounting CD-RW disks, CeQuadrat's Win-OnCD 3.6 for burning CD-R disks, CeQuadrat's just!audio for creating audio CDs and Seagate Technology Inc.'s BackupExec for backing up your system to CDs.

This software selection covers the spectrum of tasks a typical user would want to perform with the MP7060A drive. After installation, CeQuadrat ran a program to test the performance of the CD drives and the hard drive. We found this process somewhat tedious, and it did not appear to help much, as described below.

Our only major gripe with the software is the somewhat unfriendly feel of WinOnCD 3.6, which is likely to be the most frequently used of the packages for many users. Even the wizard for running WinOnCD eventually drops you into the confusing WinOnCD graphical user interface for the final writing of the disk.

A good CD-burning application should provide a simple interface that will enable the novice to easily produce a CD, but it also should provide the technical depth that a more experienced user will want to use to fine tune the CD-burning parameters. HP's integrated solution - integrated with something as simple as a Director movie - makes the CD creation process much more intuitive. It is nice that vendors such as Ricoh include the selection of software they do, but taking the extra step to tie it together makes a huge difference in the user experience of the product.

The MP7060A copied our 451M CD in a blazing fast 13 minutes, 50 seconds. This seemed to support Ricoh's claims about the 6X CD-R recording performance of the drive. Once we finished the session, however, we realized that the newly recorded CD was bad. Suddenly the time spent calibrating the software for our system seemed wasted. Perhaps a slower write speed would have resulted in the successful completion of the CD.

Compared with the HP writer, the bundling of software and hardware in the Ricoh drive is somewhat crude. The inclusion of a fine backup product such as BackupExec adds to the value of the MP7060A, and the 6X write performance for CD-Rs will be appealing to folks, assuming that they do not have too high a failure rate in the disks they create.

Verbatim's CDRW4420a

The Verbatim CDRW4420a is a nice little bundle of CD-RW hardware and software for creating a variety of CDs. Its integrated CD software suite makes it easy for even a novice user to get up and running quickly.

Like the other drives we looked at, the CDRW4420a features jumpers on the back of the drive for configuring the EIDE interface. Experienced users will have no trouble with this, but novice users might benefit from a better explanation of how to configure IDE devices.

The software included with the CDRW4420a is CeQuadrat's just!burn suite, which includes just!audio for creating audio CDs, just!data for creating CDs from files on disk, CD!backup for duplicating CDs and PacketCD for managing CD-RW disks and files.

Noticeably absent from the suite is a solution for backing up your system, other than using just!data to perform a manual backup. While this is certainly adequate, backup software can simplify disaster recovery and make it easier to track which files have and have not been backed up. A complete suite of CD-R software should include some type of backup package.

Because it is a suite, installing and configuring the software is easier on the Verbatim drive than on the Ricoh drive. We found the just!data software to be more intuitive than the WinOnCD software on the Ricoh. That seems odd, given that both are from CeQuadrat.

In terms of performance, the Verbatim drive was fairly strong. It completed the CD-R test about nine minutes slower than the 6X Ricoh drive, but the disk was readable at the end. The Verbatim drive was strong on the CD-RW formatting portion of our tests, completing the task in 19 minutes, 55 seconds - several minutes faster than the Ricoh drive.

In addition to the fast CD-RW formatting time, the Verbatim drive offers another rewrite formatting option that will format the disk in about 30 seconds. The downside to this is that the disk is sequentially rewritable, which means that once you erase or rewrite a file, the space freed by deleting the old file is not available until the entire disk is erased. You have to decide which method fits your needs.

Copying files to the CD-RW took about the same amount of time as the Ricoh drive. An oddity shared by all three drives we tested is that the packet driver that enables read/write access to the CD drive wreaks havoc on the time estimates that Windows provides for how long it will take to finish the copies. Halfway through an 18-minute copying process, for example, Windows might report that the copy will be finished in 50 seconds.

The CD-R and CD-RW disks created by the Verbatim unit were error free. At about $50 more than the Ricoh unit, the Verbatim unit is a bit slower, but it is more accurate at recording CD-Rs. It also features a better-integrated suite of CD recording software (with the exception of a system backup package, which it lacks completely). If you have some other means of backing up your system, the Verbatim unit is a good choice.

Conclusion

CD writing technology has made great strides since the first, slow, finicky, expensive writers were introduced. Actually, the best way to put it might be that today's CD recorders are less slow, less finicky and less expensive than they were when they were introduced. Additionally, the fact that rewritable CDs enable you to use a CD-ROM like a removable drive or rewrite multiple versions of a CD on the same media makes the CD recorder a more versatile tool.

CD-RW drives are now bundled with software that performs many of the functions typical users want. However, in many cases, the integration of the hardware and software could use some polish. You might even be better off choosing the CD-R software that best meets your needs and buying the hardware that does the same.

We also saw that a big-name vendor such as HP can offer a competitive product with some of the bells and whistles a big-name vendor can provide but without the higher price tag you might expect.

-- Hammond is a free-lance writer based in Denver.

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