Write on target

Micro Solutions' Backpack Triple Play has record, rewrite and read speeds of 32x10x40 and several connection options. It's priced at $220.

Lacie's Fusion CD-RW has 24x12x40 speeds and connection via USB 2.0. It's priced at $199.

CD-RW drives hit the mark for fast, affordable, portable storage

The options for portable storage range from trusty old Iomega Zip drives to high-end DVD-RW and DVD+RW systems that can write and store gigabytes of information. But for my money, the best all-around storage bet is a CD rewritable drive.

A portable CD-RW drive is one of the handiest tools you can get for storing megabytes of information on your notebook or desktop PC.

I admit to having twinges of DVD envy when I see a fellow airline passenger enjoy a full-length movie on his notebook computer while I strain to see a rerun of a year-old film. And who can help but be impressed with the huge storage capacity of rewritable DVD drives?

But my desire for DVD ends there. The drives are expensive, and competing standards make it tough to predict which version of the technology will win out. Meanwhile, CD-RW technology is solid, prices are dropping and performance levels are rising almost by the month.

CD-RW drives can read and replay the software and music on popular CD-ROM disks as well as the data written to CD-R, writable, drives. Unlike CD-R write drives, which allow data to be written only once, CD-RW drives allow users to write and erase data up to 1,000 times. The data capacity of CD-RW disks ranges from 550M, good for 63 minutes of playback time, to 650M (74 minutes of playback) to 700M (80 minutes of playback). The 700M disk is the most widely used.

Speed is the most common measure of a CD-RW drive's performance. Every CD-RW drive lists three numbers'for instance, 16x10x24 or 32x10x40'that are industry measurements of speed listed in the following order: record, rewrite and read. Thus, a CD-RW drive listed at 16x10x24 has a recording speed of 16x, a write/rewrite speed of 10x and a read speed of 24x.

To help you determine your drive's actual speed, the meaning of 'x' also is universal. The first audio CD drives had playback times of 150 Kbps, the base standard of '1x.' So, a 2x designation is 300 Kbps, and so on. A drive such as Sony's CRX1750L/A2 i.Link External, with a speed rating of 24x10x40, represents the high end of the CD-RW performance curve, but they are getting faster all the time.

Older drives can take 40 minutes or more to write data to a 650M disk, but new drives can do it in six minutes or less, depending on the types and format of data being written.

After speed, the next most important consideration when purchasing a portable CD-RW drive is the type of interface it uses. There are four interface options for portable drives'parallel port, PC Card, Universal Serial Bus 2.0 and IEEE 1394 FireWire. Most users favor USB 2.0 and FireWire because of their connection speeds and flexibility.

A few vendors offer drives with combined USB 2.0 and FireWire options, but most have different models offering one or the other.

USB 2.0 builds on the USB 1.0 standard to support daisychained devices from a single host computer, boosting overall connection speeds from 12 Mbps to 480 Mbps. This gives it a significant advantage over competing interface standards, including FireWire. USB 2.0 equipment also is backwards-compatible with USB 1.0 gear, so your investment in older USB technology isn't wasted.

Uncommon interface

PC Card interfaces for CD-RW drives are easy to use, but aren't as fast or quite as dependable as USB 2.0. As for parallel-port connectivity, you'll likely use it only if you have no choice'if for instance, you have an old notebook PC without USB or FireWire. Otherwise, it's not worth considering except as an option, as with Micro Solutions' interesting Backpack Triple Play with parallel-port, PC Card and USB 2.0 connections.

Average access time is another performance indicator for CD-RW drives. It represents the average time, measured in milliseconds, that it takes for the drive to pull data from the disk after your first request for it is conveyed. The type and speed of the unit's interface will affect both the drive's overall speed and its access time. Portable CD-RW drives typically offer average access times of between 100 and 150 milliseconds.

You also can gauge a rewritable CD drive's performance by the size of its data buffer. Buffers are reserved memory segments where data is temporarily stored while processing is taking place. The larger the buffer the better, as temporary storage memory helps speed up the record/write and rewrite/read processes. Most CD-RW drives offer 2M data buffers; Yamaha's CRW70 Spyder and CRW2200FXZ offer impressive 8M buffer sizes.

For operating system support, expect driver support for virtually all versions of Microsoft Windows, except for Windows 95 and NT in the case of USB 2.0 and FireWire devices. Most USB 2.0 and FireWire drives also support Mac OS 7.5.5 and up, and many also support various editions of Linux.

Virtually all CD-RW drives come with some version of easy-installation software in the few cases the device can't be installed as Plug and Play under Windows. Proprietary or third-party CD mastering software, CD recording software for music aficionados and automatic-backup software also comes bundled with most drives.

Drive's out of gas

Like other computer peripherals, the reliability of CD-RW drives is typically measured by a theoretical rating called mean time between failure, or MTBF, which refers to the number of times a user can expect a device to work before it fails. Drive manufacturers don't like to publish MTBF ratings, so don't expect them to show up in many CD-RW drive specifications. Because portable CD-RW drives are by their nature subject to the stresses of motion, dropping, dust, liquid spills, etc., a better measure of a drive's reliability than MTBF might be the warranty it comes with and your own willingness to treat it with care.

Ergonomically speaking, most new portable CD-RW drives come with space-age materials and packaging, but take care that a pretty face isn't all that you're getting. Be sure that disk bay coverings close easily and securely, that hinges are strong enough, and that cables fit snugly and securely. If your drive doesn't come with its own carrying pouch, an inexpensive shaving bag lined with bubble wrap will help keep it looking and performing like new.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers.
E-mail him at jbmiles@hilobay.com.

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