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Back when blank CDs cost a whopping $5 each and 4X CD-R drives were the top of the line, it was hard to imagine the compact disc ever taking the place of the floppy disc. But now that blank CDs cost as little as a quarter and burning a CD takes about as long as reading one, the CD burner has become as popular a peripheral as the personal printer.
Macworld Lab recently put ten of the latest crop of FireWire CD-RW drives -- all with CD-writing speeds of at least 40X -- to the test. Three of the drives write to CD-R discs at 48X: the EZQuest Boa CD-RW 48X12X48 FireWire External, FirewireDirect Pro XL 48, and LaCie 48X12X48 d2 CD-RW. Two feature 44X write speeds: the FirewireDirect Pro XL 44 and Yamaha CRW-F1ZDX. And five of the drives we tested claim 40X write speeds: the Formac CD-RW 40, GVP XV FireWire CDR-W 40X/12X/48X, Ikebana 40X12X48 CD Burner, Iomega CD-RW 40X12X48X FireWire Drive, and Other World Computing OWC Mercury CD-RW Teac 40X12X48 External.
Look at any Mac dealer's catalog, and you'll find a dozen companies selling drives with similar specifications and prices. A closer look reveals that, though your brand choices may be many, the mechanisms inside the various cases are few. In fact, the ten drives we tested represent only five mechanisms. The manufacturer, specifications, quality, speed, and software compatibility of the mechanism -- not so much the company selling the drive -- will likely be the basis of your purchasing decision.
For example, four of the companies with CD-RW drives on the market -- GVP, Ikebana, Iomega, and Other World Computing -- house the same Teac CD-W540E mechanism in their own enclosures, include various software, and set different prices. Likewise, the EZQuest and LaCie drives each feature a Lite-On mechanism, the FirewireDirect Pro XL 44 and Yamaha CRW-F1ZDX use the same Yamaha mechanism, the FirewireDirect ProXL 48 uses a Sony mechanism, and the Formac CD-RW 40 uses a Sanyo mechanism.
The three numbers separated by X symbols are the speed at which the drive claims to write to a CD-R disc, to write to a CD-RW disc, and to read data from a CD, as compared with the read speed of first-generation CD drives for the Mac (approximately 150K per second). The 40X12X48X Teac mechanisms, for example, claim to write a CD 40 times faster than first generation drives could read one -- so, according to our calculator, they should burn a 650MB CD-R in about 2 minutes. In our tests, the 40X drives took closer to 4 minutes, which is still very fast.
Taking CD-RWs for a Test-Drive
A CD-RW drive's speed will probably be your main criterion when choosing one to buy. To test each drive's performance, we connected them to a dual-1GHz Power Mac G4 with 256MB of RAM and OS X 10.2 installed, and ran a series of real-world tests. Because half of the drives include Roxio's Toast 5 Lite, we used it to test each drive's write and rewrite speeds. (The drives that ship with other CD-burning applications were subjected to tests for compatibility with those applications.) To measure the CD-RW drives' read speeds, we dragged a CD's worth of files to the Mac's hard drive.
As expected, the 48X drives wrote CD-Rs proportionally faster than the 44X and 40X drives, with the three products that have the fastest-rated write speeds completing our burning tests at the front of the pack. When burning a 650MB folder of data to CD-R, the LaCie finished first with a time of 3 minutes and 16 seconds. The rest finished according to their mechanisms: the Teac mechanisms took about 4 minutes to burn a CD-R, and the Formac finished in last place, at 4 minutes and 58 seconds. (See "Let's Burn" for complete results.)
Burning the same data files to rewritable media also yielded results in accordance with the drives' speed ratings, with the remarkable 24X rewrite speed of the drives with Yamaha mechanisms clocking in at around 4 minutes and 30 seconds to burn a CD-RW, approximately 40 percent faster than the drives with 12X ratings.
If you're interested in using your CD-RW drive to burn music directly from iTunes, it's important to know that three of the drives -- the Yamaha and the two FireWire Direct drives -- are not compatible with iTunes 3 or Apple's Disc Burner feature, through OS X 10.2.1, although they work just fine with their included disc-burning applications. We expect that a future update to OS X will add support for these devices.
All of the CD-RW drives we tested are rated to read a CD at 44X or faster, and all of them transferred the contents of a CD to the Mac's hard drive in much less time than it took the internal SuperDrive, our reference drive, which was rated at a 24X read speed, to do so. The GVP drive edged out the competition by completing the task in 2 minutes and 46 seconds; the SuperDrive took 5 minutes and 40 seconds.
One drawback to these fast drive write speeds is the increased likelihood of buffer-underrun errors, which occur when the drive writes so fast that its data buffer briefly runs out of information to burn to the CD. This causes write errors that make the CD unusable. All of the drives we tested offer some sort of buffer-underrun protection. The drives with Yamaha mechanisms start the burning process by filling 8MB of cache memory to keep the burner fed with data even if the flow stops temporarily. The other drives use smaller caches (2MB), but to compensate, the drives can slow down or stop
the burning process when the buffer runs dry and then restart burning once the data stream is again flowing to the cache. Neither method burned higher-quality CDs, and we did not experience any buffer underruns. Therefore, both solutions are perfectly acceptable.
Another factor to consider in choosing a CD-RW drive is the bundled software. Five of the drives we tested come with Toast 5 Lite, which lets you burn data to CD-R and CD-RW discs. However, if you want more-advanced capabilities, you'll need to upgrade to Toast 5 Titanium (mmmm; Reviews, June 2002).
In addition to Toast, LaCie includes its SilverKeeper 1.0 software (for OS 9 and OS X), which allows you to schedule backups to your CD-RW drive.
The EZQuest and FirewireDirect drives ship with Charismac's Discribe 5.0 software (mmmh; Reviews, May 2002). Discribe's interface is a little clunky, but it does much of what Toast does, and you get the full version instead of a pared-down version.
Other drives bundle lesser-known or proprietary software. The Ikebana drive ships with BHA's B's Recorder Gold 1.7, which is compatible with OS 9 but not OS X. (Ikebana says an upcoming OS X version will be free via download from its Web site.) The Iomega drive includes Iomega's own Iomega HotBurn software for OS 9.1, but the company says that it's not planning to update the software for OS X or OS 9.2.2. Though OS X software is lacking in the Iomega and Ikebana drives, both work fine with iTunes and Apple's Disc Burner capability in OS X.
The Yamaha CRW-F1ZDX's bundle is comprehensive. Along with Adobe Photoshop LE 5.0 (for OS 9), MusicMatch Jukebox, and Dantz's Retrospect Express 5.0 backup software, there is a version of Toast 5 Lite that supports an odd feature called DiscT@2, which allows the CRW-F1ZDX's laser to draw text and graphics onto the unused portion of the data side of a CD. However, the FirewireDirect Pro XL 44, which uses the same Yamaha mechanism, does not ship with software to support this feature.
Silver: It's the New Beige
The hot look this season for CD-RW drives is silver. Eight of the ten drives we reviewed sported metallic silver cases. But when you open the drive doors to see inside, most are still the standard beige. The best designs belong to LaCie and Yamaha. LaCie's new d2 design is thin, sleek, and stackable. The Yamaha drive has a finished design with thought-ful details.
Macworld's Buying Advice
All of these drives worked as advertised, combining speed and quality. There are no bums in the bunch, but some are faster than others, and three stand out. The LaCie 48X12X48 d2 CD-RW drive emerges as the winner for its good looks, great performance, and competitive price ($199). Burners on budgets will be happy with the $169 GVP XV FireWire CD-RW 40X/12X/48X drive, which features the Teac mechanism's solid performance and OS X-compatible software. And the Yamaha CRW-F1ZDX's innovative features -- such as its 24X rewrite speed, generous software bundle, and attractive design -- would make it our favorite, if only it also supported iTunes 3.