IntroductionThe Compact Disc was invented in 1965 and, although it has evolved relatively slowly, it’s now the most popular storage media on the planet. Billions of megabytes of music, data and video are stored on compact discs, and just about all personal computers are capable of reading CD-ROM contents. More recently, emerging technology letting us write our own CDs has liberated a once highly expensive and time-consuming task. This month, we examine the current batch of CD and DVD writers for both SCSI and USB Macs. It wasn’t long ago that the mere ownership of a CD-R was something that could form the basis for a business. The arcane art of mastering CDs was something of a mystery to the general public. Even making backup archives was thought to require a certain amount of wizardry. In those days, digital duckers and divers would offer to archive office data for a £200 per disc. It must have been a real money-spinner. More recently, the software available has been as much of an influence on the market as the faster and cheaper hardware. Adaptec’s Toast made the arcane art of mastering CDs into a mainstream activity; making CDs is now child’s play. Backup software has also simplified the act of using CDs as an archive media. Dantz’s backup Retrospect now works with all CD-Rs as easily as it used to with floppy disks. When we looked at the range of CD-Rs and CD-RWs, tests were limited to single CD-R units. For more serious duplication, there is a range of multiple-CD-R boxes that can record or duplicate two, four, or more discs at once. Duplication machines can often be set up as stand-alone products, without the need to hook-up to a computer. Simply insert the original in one drive, fill the CD-Rs with blank discs and go off and make a cup of tea. The machine does the rest – so by the time you’ve finished your cuppa, the disc will have been duplicated. Most of the machines we looked at were 4x or faster, with the exception of the USB models. Some of these use a 2x mechanism, because it’s difficult to make USB fast enough for 4x. There are, of course, other storage options. Jaz and Zip drives are popular, as are other optical-disc formats. The closest to the functionality of the CD, though, is the DVD-RAM drive. DVD is essentially a Compact Disc format, and in most ways it represents the next generation of CD. More and more machines are shipping with DVD-ROM drives, though they are not as all-pervasive as the CD-ROM yet. Remember though, CD-ROM took almost five years to catch on, even with a giant multimedia industry pushing it forward. But I have no doubt that DVD will replace CD-ROM sooner rather than later. In storage terms, DVD is a different animal from CD-R. The biggest difference is the cartridge that DVD-RAM uses to protect the disc. This precludes DVD-RAM from being widely compatible even with DVD-ROM drives. In the near future, DVD-RAM drives will be able to record on naked DVD-RAM discs that will be readable by normal DVD drives. This really opens up the possibilities for DVD-RAM, because once the disks are readable by relatively low-spec machines with DVD-ROM drives, it becomes a much more flexible storage system. It took CD-ROM drives as standard to make the format really take-off in PCs. I expect that by next year, all Apple machines will ship with DVD-ROM as standard. Pirates ahoy
Sony has already suffered from the plethora of CD-R machines that are now available. Both the Sony music division and the Sony PlayStation have felt the effects of piracy. So, the company that did so much to promote CDs is now becoming a victim of its own success. For the record, you can use all of the machines tested to reproduce audio and PlayStation games. You’re allowed to make the equivalent of backups of audio discs for your own use, and Toast makes this very simple. This is a similar prospect to making MiniDiscs, and Sony shouldn’t worry about this kind of personal use. PlayStation discs, though, are a different matter: they are both difficult to copy (no, I won’t tell you how), and Sony goes to great lengths to stop you doing so. It is, in theory, still legal to make a backup of your PlayStation software for personal use, but your PlayStation needs to be modified to read the “backup” discs. This puts you in decidedly murky territory and I, for one, wouldn’t wish to take on Sony in court. The price of PlayStation games has come down recently. So you don’t need to “steal” them – just buy them. If you’re looking at buying a CD-R to make music CDs (for your own personal use) you’re making a good choice. The sound quality of a copied CD is exactly the same as the original, whereas the sound quality of MiniDisc is lower. This is because MiniDisc uses a higher compression algorithm – to squeeze the music on to a smaller disc. If you really want to shoehorn more music onto a CD, then record in MP3 format. You will be able to get ten or more CDs of music on to a single CD. You won’t be able to play the songs through your conventional CD player, but you can always hook up your computer to your stereo. The other optical formats fill a rather different role for computer users. Both the 3.5-inch and the 5.25-inch optical disk formats use discs in cartridges. These are not CDs or DVDs, they are rewritable and they are usually fast. People who need fast, large format storage will continue to use optical discs – such as those in the video-production industry – because it can offer the same capacity as DVD-RAM, only faster. The smaller, slower optical disks still have a role as cheap rewritable storage, suitable for archiving. They do now have competition from CD-RW, so are not as relevant as they once were – but the cartridge format means they are protected from the elements and, because of this, are a safer bet. Another widely used format for archiving is the tape drive. Tape drives come in various types, with capacities of up to 25MB per tape. This makes them economical for large amounts of data. The drawback of tapes is that they don’t act like normal media. You can’t mount a tape on your desktop to see what is there, and must choose files to be restored. This makes it difficult to restore, say, an XPress page and its contributing files without merely restoring the whole volume. This is also a time-consuming process, normally done by an IT person, because it’s most often performed as a server backup. I’m not saying this mode is unsatisfactory, just that it’s cumbersome and very un-Mac-like. But if backing up your whole network is what you want, tape is the way to do it. The models we tested fall into three categories: CD-Rs, CD-RWs and DVD-RAM. CD-RWs have all the features of a normal CD-R, plus the ability to use re-writable CD media. This means that if you need to go back to an archive of your work and make a change, you can do it without burning a fresh CD. The usual drawback is that the CD-RW machines are often comparatively slow. Until now, it’s been case of trading-off between the flexibility of CD-RW and the speed of a simple CD-R. There are many reasons for buying a CD-R: archiving, sharing files, multimedia-mastering, music – and, of course, piracy. The most important characteristic of any machine is speed – something that’s easy to measure. Speed is measured in multiples of a single-speed CD-R. It takes 74 minutes to record a full 650MB CD on a single-speed machine. A 2x machine takes 37 minutes to record the same amount of data; 4x machines can do it in 18.5 minutes; and an 8x can manage it in just over nine minutes. At present, 8x is the fastest a CD-R will go – but watch this space. Remember, CD-ROMs were reported to have topped the speed stakes at 24x – but shortly afterwards, 32x and 48x models were released. The problem with making CD-Rs faster is increasing the accuracy of the laser. CD-Rs will get steadily faster, but for now, just get the fastest one you can afford. DVD-RAM is not just a method of archiving data, though it does this very well. It can also read just about every available format of CD, including CD-RW and DVD-Video disks. This makes it an ideal addition to companies that need wide compatibility with optical standards. Testing times
To test the CD-Rs, we took a full disc and measured the time it took to reproduce it from a disc image. This takes slightly longer than you may expect, because data- recording is not all that happens. When a CD is recorded, a constant stream of data is laid onto the disc but when the end of the data is reached the CD needs to be finished. This can take a few minutes extra, while the CD records items such as the desktop database, so the time taken to finish a CD varies. In the table, the speeds of the models are shown in x speeds. This represents how much faster than a single speed CD the machines are. For example, if a drive has a speed of 6x4x16x, the 6x is the speed for recording CDs, 4x is the speed of recording on CD-RW media and the 16x is the speed of reading either. The software included with a CD-R is easily as important as the hardware. The current cream of the crop is Toast 3.8 from Adaptec, which has brought unparalleled ease-of-use to CD-mastering. For a while, it was without competition, but now there is a new player from Anubis, called Discribe. You will find it bundled with the Sony Spressa, and it shares much of the features of Toast. The interface is not as simple to use, however, and offers nothing that Toast doesn’t. If you’re not already familiar with Toast, it’s simplicity itself to use. Simply drag-&-drop files, folders, or volumes onto the open document and write the CD. It will default to a Mac volume, but it is just as capable writing hybrid Mac/PC discs, audio discs or any of the other CD formats that are used. To make audio CDs you simply drag each track to the application. If you’re making a compilation CD you can extract the audio files from a CD to your hard drive. If you can’t afford the space this demands, it’ll prompt you to change the audio CD at the appropriate moment. Toast 3.8 is the first version of the software to support USB, so it is supplied with the Que! and the La Cie CD-Rs. Adaptec recently announced Toast 4 Deluxe with a host of new features. Check out the review in next month’s Macworld. The new features include great new audio capabilities, such as MP3-to-CD, and disk at-once recording. It also includes CD Spin Doctor, an application that helps transfer old vinyl records, but without the scratches and hissing. If you like, though, you can leave some of this noise in for that “authentic” vinyl sound. Users will also have access to CDDB’s unique Disc Recognition Service, where artist, album and song title information are automatically available for use, eliminating the need for users to manually type in titles. If you’re a professional musician, Adaptec has another application designed to make mastering original audio CDs as simple as copying one. Making master CDs for mass duplication is a little more structured than making a CD for your own amusement. Strict guidelines must be adhered to, ensuring that the end-product will play on everybody’s CD player. The product is called Jam, and after a quick butcher’s at the manual, you’ll be cranking out your own CD masters, and saving yourself a fortune. Choosing a solution DVD-RAM is set to take off, despite a slow start. Now there are more vendors with DVD offerings, the competition is driving prices down a little. At present, Panasonic is the only company to offer the mechanisms for resellers. Unsurprisingly, the performance of all the models tested was identical. This gives you the opportunity to shop around for the best price. Currently, La Cie offers the least expensive DVD-RAM drive, but the Box Clever ReMix DVD-RAM/CDR offers a CD-R in the same box – for just £100 more. On the value-for-money stakes, this scores highly. Selecting the best solution for your CD-R needs should be straightforward. First of all, if you own an iMac, you have three choices: La Cie, Que! or the Sony Spressa. The Sony Spressa is a perfectly good drive, but it doesn’t come with Toast. The software that it does use, Sony Discribe, isn’t bad, but it lacks the elegance of Toast. Maybe Sony chose not to use Toast, because you can use Toast to duplicate Sony PlayStation discs. However, unless you’re offered the Sony Spressa at a great price, Toast would sway me towards another machine. The La Cie and Que! Drive CD-Rs do come with Toast, but the Que! drive has the edge in a couple of ways. First, it’s translucent blue and curvaceous, making it an ideal partner for the iMac or the G3 Power Mac. More importantly, under the hood is a CD-RW, boasting 4x CD recording. This is twice the speed of the La Cie or Sony – and it’s cheaper too. Wrap that up with a smart carry case and we have a winner for the USB section. For SCSI-based CD-Rs you need either an older machine that has SCSI, or a new G3 with a SCSI card. SCSI-based CD-Rs are considerably more stable than their USB counterparts, and higher speeds can be achieved. If speed is the name of the game for you, and money is no object, the 8x is the fastest CD-R currently available. There are 8x CDRs available from Mac and More, La Cie and Image store. All the 8x models perform the same, so it’s safe to choose the best-value model. Currently, Mac & More is offering the best deals for 8x models. The Panasonic-based 8x is £239, and the Teac 8x – with a faster reading speed – is £249 for a limited period at Mac & More. If you would trade speed for a better price and added functionality, then the Yamaha CD-RW has a 4x speed CD-R function and writes CD-RW discs at the same speed. Current prices for the Yamaha CD-RW are around £200, which is incredible value. If just being able to write CDs is not enough for you, the ReMix from Box Clever combines a DVD-RAM drive with a fast CD-R in the same box. This makes it incredibly versatile, and ideal for archiving data in either format. If you need both CD-R and DVD-RAM, getting them in the same box will also save you money.