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Recordable and rewritable CD drives: Permanent, portable storage

May 20, 1998
Web posted at: 4:51 PM EDT

by Jeff Sengstack

The recordable CD (CD-R) drive is a truly wonderful invention. Not only can it act as a quasi-backup device, it has two unique talents: It can make both music CDs and 650MB data CDs that anyone with a CD-ROM drive can read. Try that sometime with a Zip drive.

There's just one little problem with CD-R drives: You only have one shot at making a disc. Once recorded, a CD-R disc can't be altered. Enter rewritable CD-R drives (CD-RW), which let you erase and reuse special CD-RW discs hundreds of times.

Formerly very pricey, CD-RW drives now sell for as little as $399, almost as cheap as their CD-R siblings. Which raises the question: Are CD-R drives still worth buying?

CD-R is still in the game, but probably not for much longer. After testing seven CD-R drives and nine CD-RW drives from Hewlett-Packard, Ricoh, Sony, and other leading manufacturers, we concluded that a CD-R drive is still a good buy if you plan on churning out CDs every day. But the case for CD-RW is strong: If you don't mind the slower speed, a CD-RW drive can do everything a CD-R can, plus give you the choice of using rewritable discs.

The best all-around CD-R Drive is Teac's 4X12. For $549, you get a small, quiet drive with top-notch speed, and, for a SCSI drive, painless installation. Among CD-RW drives, the Hewlett-Packard CD-Writer Plus 7200i is the hands-down winner. At $425, it's relatively cheap, and it has the terrific combination of a large software bundle, fast performance, and easy setup.

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Is CD-RW for You?

Like CD-R drives, CD-RW models are ideal for creating customized music or multimedia CDs, and for archiving or distributing big files such as databases or digital images. They can make the same write-once CDs that CD-R drives do, so you can pass out your work to anyone you please. Both types of drives use easy-to-learn recording software that is much improved over what was available just a couple of years ago. But best of all, the option CD-RW gives you of recording over old data makes CDs almost as much a breeze to reuse as floppies. Imagine updating your CD-based multimedia presentation with the latest sales figures, for instance, or using the same CD to make fresh backups of important files.

Nevertheless, you might want to hold off on buying a CD-RW drive. Why? One reason is limited compatibility. Most CD-ROM drives still won't read rewritable (CD-RW) discs. Only the newest CD-ROM drives support MultiRead, the standard that makes reading CD-RW discs possible. The upshot? If you mostly cut editable discs, you may be the only one to see the fruits of your labor.

Another tradeoff is speed. Although faster CD-RW drives are expected out in the fall, most current models are limited to a recording speed of 2X (unlike CD-R drives, most of which are 4X). As a result, in our tests it usually took a CD-RW drive about twice as long--up to 27 minutes--as a CD-R drive to fill a CD-R disc. CD-RW drives also play discs at half the speed--4X to 6X, versus 8X to 12X for CD-R drives. This makes them an even poorer replacement for your current CD-ROM drive than a CD-R model. (Our advice: Keep your CD-ROM drive for playback, no matter which type of recordable drive you buy. You'll need an extra drive anyway if you want to make copies of music CDs.)

Finally, keep in mind that CD-RW discs are still pricey, although this should change soon. At $15 apiece, CD-RW discs cost about eight times more than CD-R discs--so you'll have to recycle the same disc several times before you recoup your investment.

Best of the Bunch

Picking one type of drive over the other is a tough decision right now, so we awarded Best Buys in both camps. Teac's 4X12 is our favorite CD-R drive. This $549 SCSI model is about average in price, and is both one of the fastest we tested and one of the easiest of the SCSI units to set up. Of the CD-RW drives, HP's $425 internal CD-Writer Plus 7200i is our pick. It's a snap to install and use, is the speediest CD-RW drive we tested, and comes with a raft of software besides the usual CD creation utilities.

If you're looking for a CD-RW drive to share with others, check out the external version of this drive, HP's CD-Writer Plus 7200e. It was the easiest to install of all the drives we tested, and the simplest to move from one PC to another. However, making CDs with this drive slows your other work to a crawl. It hogged so much of the processor on our test PC, even our mouse pointer could only twitch.

Plextor's CD-R drive, the PlexWriter PX-R412Ce/PCI, is another standout. It has an extra button for changing tracks and fast-forwarding through music CD selections. It also includes an audio cable you can connect to your sound card so you can listen to music on the CD-R drive while using your CD-ROM for other tasks. But you pay extra for these luxuries--at $704, the PlexWriter is the priciest of the lot.

We had the worst experiences with Ricoh's Media Master MP-6200S, a CD-RW drive, and MicroNet's Master CD Plus 4X12PC, a CD-R model. Both were expensive and had a number of other shortcomings. The MicroNet is fast, but installing the bulky unit was a chore, and its cooling fan is noisy. The Ricoh model was hard to install, its lousy support and manuals were no help, and the drive's performance was only so-so.

What about DVD-RAM? If you've heard the buzz about these next-generation recordable drives, you're probably wondering if you should skip CD-RW altogether. Like CD-RW on steroids, DVD-RAM drives can record and rewrite up to 5.2GB on one double-sided disc--more than eight times the capacity of a CD.

Should you hold out for DVD-RAM? If our first look at Hitachi's GF-1050 DVD-RAM drive is any indication, rewritable DVD drives will be killer recording devices. You'll probably want to wait for prices to come down, however, and for standards issues to be hammered out.


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