It's impossible to beat CD-R media in terms of cost or compatibility for backing up important files; freeing up hard drive space; and burning all your favorite tunes to a perfect mixed CD for a friend. To use this magic media and its rewriteable cousin, the CD-RW, you need a CD-RW drive. CD-RW drives with USB connectors are remarkably affordable, and they work with all USB-equipped Macintoshes.
We looked at four USB CD-RW drives: the CD Cyclone USB CD Revo 4x4x32x, the EZQuest Boa CDR/W 4x4x32x USB Ext. PM, the Iomega CD-RW Predator USB Drive, and the LaCie USB CD-RW 4x4x24x. Owing to the speed limits of USB, none of these drives is particularly fast, but all are affordable and easy to set up.
Taking the Slow Route
USB is a relatively slow interface, especially when compared to 24x SCSI and FireWire CD-RW drives. In contrast, the maximum speed you can clock with USB is 4x. But while USB is slow, it's also the only option for many iMac, iBook, and pre-blue-and-white G3 owners. If you can wait 20 minutes to write a full CD, as opposed to six minutes with a current FireWire CD-RW drive, a USB CD-RW drive will do a great job.
If you use other USB devices such as a printer or a scanner while burning a CD-R, you may experience a delay in data delivery from the computer to the CD-RW drive. This can cause a buffer underrun where your drive writes blank space instead of data. The hole in the data makes the CD-R unreadable in a CD-ROM drive. One way to safeguard against ruined CD-R discs is to buy a drive with a good-size cache, at least 2MB. The drive temporarily stores data from the computer in the cache before transferring it to CD-R. If there's a pause in data the drive can use the data stored in the cache. As long as the computer catches up before the drive empties the cache, there won't be a problem. The LaCie and Iomega CD-RW drives both have 2MB caches, while the EZQuest and CD Cyclone drives have only 1.2MB caches.
On the Outside
With a case the size of a portable CD player, the Iomega CD-RW drive features the most interesting design. Attached to the back of the drive, an adapter the size of a pack of cards converts the signal from ATA to USB. Unfortunately, the connectors on our adapter weren't tight and we occasionally lost power to the drive, ruining the CD disc. Beyond looking good, the Iomega CD-RW Predator USB Drive allows you to purchase the ATA to FireWire adapter for an additional $70. With the FireWire adapter, the drive's speed is 8x.
The Boa and LaCie cases are large but solid, and slightly curved on top. Both include an internal power supply, so they are free of an external power brick. You can stack a drive with feet on top of either. The Revo's casing is similar to that of both the Boa and the LaCie, with the exception of its built-in handle, which makes the Revo too large (12 by 7 by 2.5 inches compared to the Boa's 11 by 8.5 by 2.5 inches) to be truly portable. The Revo's external power brick is an extra piece to carry around and potentially lose.
All of these USB CD-RW drives come with Toast 4.1 or 4.2, and all but the Iomega drive work with iTunes.