Top five CD-RW drives reviewed

PC World.com (US)

This month we tested two new 12X/10X/32X drives–the first ones to match the speed rating of the Plextor PlexWriter 12/10/32A, which holds the top spot on the chart for the third consecutive month. Both Ricoh’s $279 MediaMaster MP7120A and Teac’s $299 CDW512E proved excellent performers, but only the Ricoh model made the Top 5.

The new kids on the block did succeed in raising the performance bar. Ricoh’s MP7120A shattered the record for writing our 430MB image file, performing that task in a mere 4 minutes, 43 seconds–13 seconds faster than the previous record-holder, the Plextor PlexWriter 12/4/32A. Meanwhile, Teac’s drive set a record of its own by packet-writing 100MB to CD-Rewritable in 1 minute, 27 seconds–shaving 1 second off the MP7120A’s time and 5 seconds off the PlexWriter 12/10/32A’s time.

Neither the MP7120A nor the CDW512E could hold a candle to the PlexWriter 12/10/32A when it came to digital audio extraction. Both took more than a minute and a half longer to extract our 250MB test audio file.

The MP7120A uses Ricoh’s JustLink technology. Similar to Sanyo Electric’s Burn-Proof–which is found in the PlexWriter 12/10/32A–JustLink promises to eliminate bad discs due to buffer underruns. JustLink allows writing to suspend when a buffer underrun occurs, and then permits writing to continue when the drive’s cache has been filled again. We didn’t have a chance to bang JustLink around to see how well it works, but we did kick Burn-Proof’s tires thoroughly this month, and it works as advertised. We’re happy to report that nothing we’ve tried so far, including playing audio and video files during the burn process, has resulted in a single CD-Recordable write failure due to a buffer underrun.

This month’s other contender for the Top 5 is a more modest 10X/4X/32X model from Acer. The Acer CRW 1032A was a bit slower at writing to CD-R than the other 10X drives we’ve tested, but it was right on target writing to CD-RW and was a good all-around reader. At only $199, it’s an appealing drive for budget users who want CD-R speed faster than 8X. However, you’ll be better served with a less expensive drive that gives you better CD-RW speed, such as the $179 8X/8X/24X Pacific Digital 8824ei.

On the Software Front

Adaptec’s Easy CD Creator mastering software has also found a competitor. The challenger is Prassi’s PrimoCD, which is not marketed in the United States; it’s available here as Veritas’s MyCD Pro, CD Stomper’s Click ‘n Burn, and Sony’s CD Extreme. Whatever its moniker, the program is fast, can record to two drives at once, and is rock-solid during our tests. Its major weakness is a sparse HTML help file that is difficult to navigate. However, the program is intuitive enough for most users to figure out on their own, and its start-up wizard provides hand-holding for beginners until they can learn the ropes. Stay tuned to PCWorld.com for a roundup of mastering and packet-writing software.

To DMA or Not to DMA…

For users writing to CD-R at high speeds, knowing the Direct Memory Access setting is an important detail that’s not always obvious. For example: Ricoh doesn’t specify in the MP7120A’s documentation that DMA should be turned on and that the drive won’t write data on the fly at 12X with DMA disabled.

DMA allows an IDE drive to read data from main memory without involving the CPU. Typically this means you can reduce CPU usage from, say, 50 percent to 5 percent while writing at 12X. Buffer underruns due to Windows housekeeping or reading data from another drive are far less likely when the CPU has more spare cycles to perform those chores. The bottom line: Unless your drive’s documentation specifies that DMA should be off, turn it on. (Open the Control Panel, double-click System, click the Device Manager tab, and then open the CD-ROM tree. Click on the name of your drive, click the Properties button, and then click the Settings tab.)

A Change of Heart

In the past, CD-R discs were less expensive than CD-RW discs, and drives wrote to CD-R much more quickly than they could to CD-RW, prompting many people to stick with CD-R for most uses. But now that CD-RW speeds have reached 10X, it’s time to change your media habits–we have. Sure, CD-RW media is a little more expensive than CD-R, but it’s reusable and will save you money in the long run–and it’s kinder to the environment. We can’t tell you how many CD-R discs containing out-of-date data we’ve had to recycle. Because writing to a CD-RW disc at 10X takes only marginally longer than writing to a CD-R at 12X–7 minutes versus 6 minutes for a full disc–using CD-RW for everything but CD audio makes sense.

Why not CD audio? Many commercial CD audio players won’t read CD-RW discs. Likewise, many PC music-recording software packages don’t support CD-RW (whether it does depends on the driver the software uses).

How We Test

We test CD-RW drives on a Micron Millennia Celeron-400 system with a Western Digital Caviar 13GB hard drive and 64MB of RAM. We install an IDE CD-RW drive as the master on the secondary channel. If a vendor doesn’t provide its own SCSI card, we install an Adaptec 2906 SCSI adapter for use in our tests. Each CD-RW kit is installed according to the vendor’s instructions in the quick-start section of the manual.

To return the test PC to its original condition before each test, we restore an image created with PowerQuest’s Drive Image software. We then install the CD-RW drive to be evaluated, noting any difficulties, and then load the bundled software for CD-R and CD-RW writing.

We gauge CD-ROM read performance by using Testa Labs’ CD Tach 98 2.0 software, and by installing Microsoft’s Office 2000 suite in its default configuration. To determine CD-R write performance, we burn 430MB of data to CD-R both from an image file and on the fly. We test CD-R read performance by reading the 430MB back to the hard drive.

We test digital audio extraction speed by extracting a 250MB audio track from an audio CD (Beethoven’s Eroica Variations Opus 35) to the hard drive. We also write the track back to a fresh CD-R, and listen to determine whether noise or other sonic artifacts have been introduced.

To test CD-RW packet-writing performance, we copy a folder containing 100MB of files to a CD-RW disc twice. First we copy the folder to the newly formatted blank disc, and then we overwrite the folder by copying it a second time to the disc without deleting the original copy.

#1 Plextor PlexWriter 12/10/32A

Reviewed: September 27, 2000

WHAT’S HOT

The 12/10/32A’s 10X CD-RW write speed let it write our 100MB test folder in a mere 1 minute, 32 seconds. The drive also extracted our 250MB audio file in 1 minute, 52 seconds–more than a minute and a half faster than its nearest competitors. The drive uses Sanyo Electric’s Burn-Proof technology, which helps reduce buffer underruns and ruined discs.

WHAT’S NOT

This drive doesn’t ship with the CD Res-Q disaster-recovery software that Plextor ships with its SCSI drives (though the software is available separately for $34.95).

WHAT ELSE

The otherwise adequate software bundle includes Adaptec’s Easy CD Creator 4.02 and DirectCD 3.01 for mastering and packet-writing, plus Plextor’s exclusive AudioFS drivers, which let you copy audio tracks using the standard Windows interface. The 12/10/32A’s documentation is thorough and concise. Plextor offers a one-year warranty and tech support for 11 hours on weekdays.

BEST USE

If you burn a lot of CD-R discs, frequently back up files to CD-RW, or extract music from audio CDs, this is your drive.

Buying Information

Plextor PlexWriter 12/10/32A

$260; IDE, internal, 12X/10X/32X, 2MB buffer, CD-mastering and packet-writing software, multimedia software; one-year warranty, toll-free support for 11 hours on weekdays.

Plextor can be reached at 888/675-3986 or at http://www.plextor.com.

#2 Sony Spressa Professional CRX140E/CH2

Reviewed: September 27, 2000

WHAT’S HOT

The 8X/4X/32X Spressa Professional CRX140E/CH2 can still lay claim to the fastest 8X CD-R and 4X CD-RW writes we’ve seen to date (though some faster drives cost less); plus, it garnered a top-notch CD Tach rating of 20.9X. Some of the credit for the drive’s performance should undoubtedly go to Sony’s CD Extreme and Prassi’s abCD 1.3, the excellent mastering and packet-writing packages included in the Spressa Professional software bundle; each program performed flawlessly. Sony’s round-the-clock, toll-free tech support is a refreshing change from the weekday-only offerings of most other vendors.

WHAT’S NOT

To achieve the $200 price point, Sony dropped its handy backup utility from the software bundle. Also, we aren’t particularly fond of CD Extreme’s HTML-based help file, which lacks an index.

WHAT ELSE

In addition to 24-hour support, the Spressa Professional carries a one-year warranty.

BEST USE

If you want a quick drive with top-flight support, the Spressa Professional CRX140E/CH2 is a solid bet.

Buying Information

Sony Spressa Professional CRX140E/CH2

$200; IDE, internal, 8X/4X/32X, 4MB buffer, CD-mastering and packet-writing software; one-year warranty, 24-hour toll-free support.

Sony can be reached at 800/352-7669 or at http://www.ita.sel.sony.com/jump/storage/spressa.

#3 Plextor PlexWriter 8/4/32A

Reviewed: September 27, 2000

WHAT’S HOT

For the budget-minded, the $185 PlexWriter 8/4/32A offers a great balance of price, design, and features. This solidly constructed drive also offers performance fast enough to satisfy most buyers. Plus, it’s one of the faster drives we’ve seen at executing digital audio extraction.

WHAT’S NOT

This drive ships without the CD Res-Q disaster-recovery software that Plextor includes with its SCSI drives (but the software is available separately for $34.95).

WHAT ELSE

The company bundles Adaptec’s Easy CD Creator 3.5 and DirectCD 2.5; an enhanced media player; and AudioFS drivers that allow drag-and-drop extraction of CD audio tracks. Plextor’s documentation is thorough and concise. The 8/4/32A carries a one-year warranty, and Plextor maintains toll-free tech support lines for 11 hours on weekdays.

BEST USE

This model should hit the sweet spot for people who want quick 8X CD-R recording at a low price.

Buying Information

Plextor PlexWriter 8/4/32A

$185; IDE, internal, 8X/4X/32X, 4MB buffer, CD-mastering and packet-writing software, multimedia software; one-year warranty, toll-free support for 11 hours on weekdays.

Plextor can be reached at 888/675-3986 or at http://www.plextor.com.

#4 Ricoh MediaMaster MP7120A

Reviewed: September 27, 2000

WHAT’S HOT

With some help from its Prassi PrimoCD mastering software, the MediaMaster MP7120A wrote our 430MB test image to CD-R in only 4 minutes, 43 seconds–shattering the previous record by a whopping 13 seconds. The drive was also a whiz at packet-writing, burning 100MB of data to CD-RW in a mere 1 minute, 28 seconds, only one tick slower than the fastest drive, the Teac CDW512E. It overwrote the 100MB much faster than most drives did, thanks to the efficient Prassi abCD packet-writing software. Plus, Ricoh’s new JustLink technology promises to end bad discs due to buffer underruns by allowing the drive to suspend writing and wait for the cache to refill before continuing. The MP7120A is solidly built, and our experience with Ricoh drives gives us the utmost confidence in their reliability.

WHAT’S NOT

Ricoh’s documentation omits the vital fact that Direct Memory Access must be enabled to ensure top performance and successful 12X writing (but Ricoh reps told us that it should be turned on). Annoyingly, the installation program must be launched twice to install the PrimoCD and abCD packages.

WHAT ELSE

Ricoh backs the MP7120A with a one-year warranty, plus 10-hour weekday and 9-hour weekend toll-free technical support.

BEST USE

This is a fast, all-purpose 12X/10X/32X drive, but it lacks the PlexWriter 12/10/32A’s digital audio extraction speed.

Buying Information

Ricoh MediaMaster MP7120A

$279; IDE, internal, 12X/10X/32X, 4MB buffer, CD-mastering and packet-writing software; one-year warranty, toll-free support for 10 hours on weekdays and 9 hours on weekends.

Ricoh can be reached at 877/742-6479 or http://www.ricoh-usa.com.

#5 Pacific Digital 8824ei

Reviewed: September 27, 2000

WHAT’S HOT

Pacific Digital’s 8824ei, a solidly constructed drive that offers 8X write and rewrite speeds, comes with NTI’s CD-Maker 2000 mastering software and FileCD packet-writing software–all for a paltry $179. Based on Yamaha’s CRW8824EZ drive mechanism, the 8824ei wrote our 100MB test folder to CD-RW in a mere 1 minute, 56 seconds. It installed Microsoft Office 2000 in only 5 minutes, 50 seconds–a faster time than that turned in by the number one drive, the PlexWriter 12/10/32A. Pacific Digital also bundles Sonic Foundry’s highly regarded Acid Express and Sound Forge XP music software.

WHAT’S NOT

You must first run the FileCD application and work within its interface to packet-write to CD-RW–an approach that’s less convenient than the transparent Windows Explorer drag-and-drop procedure offered by Adaptec’s DirectCD and Prassi’s abCD.

WHAT ELSE

Pacific Digital offers toll-free support for 10 hours on weekdays and 5 hours on Saturdays to supplement the unit’s one-year warranty. A trial version of NTI’s BackupNow is included in the package.

BEST USE

This drive is a great value for those who write often to CD-RW.

Buying Information

Pacific Digital 8824ei

$179; IDE, internal, 8X/8X/24X, 4MB buffer, CD-mastering and packet-writing software, backup utility; one-year warranty, toll-free support for 10 hours on weekdays and 5 hours on Saturdays.

Pacific Digitial can be reached at 888/333-6732 or http://www.1pdc.com.

Acer CRW 1032A

Reviewed: September 27, 2000

WHAT’S HOT

The 10X/4X/32X Acer CRW 1032A is a solid performer and a step up from its 8X/4X/32X predecessor, the CRW 8432A–even if it is a bit slower at writing to CD-R than the other 10X-rated drives we’ve tested. However, it wrote our 430MB test image to CD-R in only 6 minutes, 8 seconds–about 45 seconds faster than most 8X-rated drives. Its CD-RW performance was right on target for a 4X-rated drive. The CRW 1032A comes bundled with Adaptec’s Easy CD Creator 4.02 to handle CD mastering and DirectCD 3.01 for packet-writing. Acer’s round-the-clock toll-free technical support is a welcome change from the weekday-only variety provided by most vendors.

WHAT’S NOT

Nothing of significance.

WHAT ELSE

Acer’s multilingual documentation is clear, if not copious.

BEST USE

Budget users looking for something faster than 8X CD-R should give this drive a look.

Buying Information

Acer CRW 1032A

$199; IDE, internal, 10X/4X/32X, 4MB buffer, CD-mastering and packet-writing software; one-year warranty, 24-hour toll-free support.

Acer can be reached at 888/723-2238 or at http://www.acerperipherals.com.

Teac CDW512E

Reviewed: September 27, 2000

WHAT’S HOT

The CDW512E set a new record in packet-writing 100MB to CD-RW in 1 minute, 27 seconds. It also wrote our 430MB test image to CD-R 7 seconds faster than did the PlexWriter 12/10/32A, the previous record-holder in that test. The drive is sturdily built and is a good all-around reader. CD Tach rates the CDW512E among the top three drives we’ve tested for both random (76 ms) and full-stroke (142 ms) access. Adaptec’s Easy CD Creator 4.02 and DirectCD 3.01 are provided to handle the mastering and packet-writing chores. Teac’s clear, concise documentation makes the installation process easy for anyone.

WHAT’S NOT

A street price of $299 makes the CDW512E the most expensive of the three 12X/10X/32X drives we’ve tested so far. Tech support, a toll call, is only available for 9 hours on weekdays. The drive was slower than the Plextor PlexWriter 12/10/32A at audio extraction, by 1 minute, 35 seconds.

WHAT ELSE

The CDW512E carries an industry-standard one-year warranty.

BEST USE

This is a fast 12X/10X/32X drive whose high performance is offset by comparatively limited tech support.

Buying Information

Teac CDW512E

$299; IDE, internal, 12X/10X/32X, 4MB buffer, CD-mastering and packet-writing software; one-year warranty, support (not toll-free) for 9 hours on weekdays.

TEAC can be reached at 323/726-0303 or at http://www.teac.com

Prices listed are in US currency.