Rewritable drives burn bright

Henrik G. DeGyor

Speedy, reliable CD-RWs offer users a flexible storage option at a good price

The 1.44M floppy drive is an endangered species largely because its primary predator, the CD-rewritable drive, can store up to 700M per disk and costs only about $100.

CD-RWs are getting faster, too. The GCN Lab recently spent less than four minutes burning almost 650M of data onto a non-SCSI CD-RW disk'a speed record for us. Soon 800M and 900M CD-RW media will be available.

Unfortunately, choosing the right drive has gotten more difficult. A few years ago only a few companies made CD-RWs, and the priciest was the best.

That's not the case anymore. There are hundreds of makers and, as our review shows, price has little to do with quality.

We measured five internal CD-RW drives' average transfer rate and time to burn a 650M file with a mix of formats: Adobe Portable Document Format; Apple QuickTime; audio; audio-video interleaved; Microsoft Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint and Word; MPEG video; and Visual Basic Script.

We also weighed price, overall burn quality and other factors such as buffer memory.

Five years ago, drive installation took a lot of time and trouble. Now users have come to expect driverless installation and straightforward setup with documentation in the manual, in the software and on the drive as well. We did not test external CD drives in this review.

The Samsung SM-332, a CD-RW and DVD-ROM combo drive, could burn 650M in an average of 5 minutes, 27 seconds, the fastest in the review.

With 8M of buffer memory, the $149 Samsung had 32X CD record, 10X rewrite and 40X read speeds. It could read and play DVDs at 12X, and it was one of the most reliable units we tested.

The setup was the simplest in this review. Fully plug-and-play under Microsoft Windows XP Professional, the SM-332 had a detailed diagram of jumper settings on the back, so we never had to guess about them.

We used midgrade media for our test burns, much like any government user who doesn't want to pay extra for high-grade, proprietary disks. Our 650M Maxell CD-R74 media slowed down many of the other drives, but not the Samsung SM-332. It ran fast regardless of the media brand.

Similarly, we used Windows XP's embedded CD-RW software to test all the drives because it's simple, basic and common.

The Samsung SM-332 earned a Reviewer's Choice designation and the highest grade in the review.

The Yamaha CRW-F1 took the checkered flag for the fastest recording time: 4 minutes, 57 seconds. But we could clock that time only with a blank Yamaha CD-R disk and Yamaha's bundled Nero Burning ROM software.

Safe against corruption

When we tried nonproprietary media and standard XP software, the Yamaha dropped to the slowest in the review at 11 minutes, 17 seconds.

To its credit, the Yamaha was not only among the easiest drives to set up, it also had a whopping 8M of buffer memory to protect against data corruption during a burn. That's 4M to 6M more than in any other drive except the Samsung.

Anyone who has ever installed a CD-RW drive knows how maddening it can be to get the master-slave jumper settings just right to prevent hardware conflicts. The Yamaha won points by detailing the settings better than any other product in the review, including the Samsung.

There were three diagrams of ports and settings on the back of the Yamaha, making errors nearly impossible. Settings for the other drives were more difficult to debug.

The Yamaha also had the most impressive speed ratings'44X record, 24X rewrite and 44X read'but they were attainable only under ideal circumstances.

At $179 the Yamaha was pricey, especially as it couldn't play DVDs.

Sony Electronics' DRU120A not only played DVDs, it could record them. With that extra capability, no wonder the $449 DRU120A was the most expensive drive in the review.
We found, however, that burning DVDs involved a host of headaches, as explained in the sidebar.

As for CDs, the DRU120A read at 32X, wrote at 12X and rewrote at 10X'a far cry from the Samsung and Yamaha speeds, at least on paper.

The Sony burned 650M of test data in a respectable 8 minutes, 35 seconds, about as fast as the Toshiba drive and far faster than the Yamaha.

We would have liked more buffer memory than a feeble 2M, especially considering that the drive was designed to burn gigabytes of information.

Installation was relatively easy and well-documented on the CR-RW side. The Sony performed above average, better than two other drives from Philips and Toshiba. But if you buy it primarily to burn data on DVD, you'll have problems.

The Philips PCRW4012 was a fine performer that took a bit of extra work to get running.

The other drives were pretty much plug-and-play, but the Philips needed a CD installation program. That sets up a Catch-22 for users who don't have a working CD drive to begin with: They can't install the Philips unit.

We tried to make the drive work without the installation program. Although our Windows XP Professional test system could detect the drive, it couldn't use it.

The installation program walked us pretty well through getting the drive into the PC. There were videos of technicians working on every stage of the operation. The videos did have a serious flaw, though. They didn't accurately depict the back of the drive.

Nor was the back of the PCRW4012 labeled, which means most users would stumble trying to set the jumper to master or slave settings. For the Philips unit to work properly, it must be a slave drive.

In the videos, the jumper settings were clearly marked above the jumpers themselves. But the back of the actual drive was blank except for a sticker on top.

Another installation problem cropped up at one point when we tried to print out the settings. Our test computer did not have a printer installed, and it crashed the first time around. Eventually we got the drive up and running fine, and it burned our test file in six minutes, 27 seconds.

Because of the Philips' low price and decent burning speed, we gave it a Bang for the Buck designation.

The Toshiba SD-R1202, a solid performer, was outclassed to some extent by the other units. It wrote our test file in eight minutes, 29 seconds, which isn't terribly long. But several errors were detected in the written data, and that happened repeatedly with cheaper media.

After talking with Toshiba representatives, we learned of a problem with the SD-R1202 that could be fixed fairly easily by upgrading the firmware. Toshiba has posted the necessary file on its Web site.

The downloadable fix did help eliminate errors but did not speed up operation. You could buy a better-performing drive for $150, though the Toshiba should be adequate for most users.

There's still a place in the office for the floppy. It won't be extinct until the day comes when the average document exceeds a floppy's 1.44M limit. But CD-RWs are a welcome replacement and here to stay, at least until DVD-RWs get easier to use and less expensive.

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