Apple has finally started putting internal CD-RW drives in its new systems, but that's of little comfort to those who own earlier Macs. If you long for the unlimited capacity, quick file sharing, and handy backup a CD-RW drive offers, you're in luck: you can add a speedy external drive to your system for about $300.
We evaluated ten of the fastest new drives on the market. They all use FireWire technology, which is 30 times faster than USB, and they're all rated at 16x10x40x, so they can burn a full CD-R in about six minutes. (See our roundup of USB CD-RW drives.) Five of the drives we tested--those from Acomdata, CD CyClone, Formac, LaCie, and MadLogix--use the same Sanyo mechanism. The ClubMac and EZQuest models rely on a TEAC mechanism, while the QPS drive contains a Plextor mechanism. The remaining drives--from Yamaha and FireWireDirect.com--use a Yamaha mechanism.
No More Coasters
For years, the most serious problem with CD-R drives has been buffer underruns: if the computer doesn't supply a steady stream of data, the drive intermittently runs out of data and writes blank space, which CD-ROM drives can't interpret. The result is a disc that's useful only as a coaster.
Eight of the drives we tested--those with Sanyo, Plextor, or TEAC mechanisms--use Sanyo's BURN-Proof technology to avoid buffer underruns. These drives stop recording when the 2MB buffer is less than 10 percent full; when the flow of data resumes and fills the buffer, the drive returns to the previous stopping point, compares the burned data with what's in the buffer, and continues recording.
The Yamaha and FireWireDirect.com drives don't include BURN-Proof, but their 8MB buffers give them time to recover from a data glitch. Because these drives never pause, they're always burning at maximum speed. If you want to take data directly off a network or the Internet and burn it onto a CD, you're safer with a BURN-Proof drive; otherwise, any of the drives will give you speedy reads and writes with few wasted discs.
The Numbers Game
In a 16x10x40x drive, the first number refers to CD-R burn speed, the second to CD-RW write speed, and the last to CD-ROM read speed. We tested the drives with 16x-rated CD-R media and 10x-rated CD-RW discs, using a Power Mac G4/500 running Mac OS 9.1 (all the drives appeared on the desktop in OS X). The drives worked as advertised--all claim the same speeds, and in each test their times fell within a minute of each other. They also bested our baseline QPS Que Fire 12x10x32x in CD-R burning, and all but the MadLogix drive beat the older Que Fire in the Install Quake test, which indicates CD-ROM read speed.
iTunes and Disc Burner (both downloadable for free from Apple's site) work with all the drives. However, iTunes burns only audio CDs, and Disc Burner burns only Macintosh single-session CDs; to create multiple sessions or use any other format, you need an application such as Roxio's Toast. All the drives include Toast 4.1.1 or 4.1.2, though FireWireDirect.com bundles the application only if you purchase it from the company's Web site for an additional $1 when you order the drive. (The latest version, Toast 5.0, isn't available bundled with drives as of this writing.)
CD-RW drives are great backup devices. Unfortunately, Dantz's Retrospect backup software hasn't yet been updated to support these drives, though it should support the Yamaha, TEAC, and Plextor mechanisms by the time you read this; check Dantz's Web site ( www.dantz.com ) to see if the program supports the Sanyo mechanism.
Built Like a Brick
An ideal drive has an internal power supply rather than an external power brick; its case is sturdy, with a flat top for stackability. The drives from Acomdata, ClubMac, FireWireDirect.com, MadLogix, and Yamaha all fit this description. The CD CyClone and Formac drives' metallic cases, though eye-catching, are too curved to allow stacking. And both drives come with external power bricks, although you can power the Formac via the FireWire bus.
The LaCie drive includes a USB port in addition to the two FireWire ports. You can attach the drive either way--handy if you're using it with both an older iMac and a newer Mac.
While FireWire drives are extremely easy to set up, you should get a manual for your $300. QPS and Yamaha provide thorough documentation, including a section on using Toast. ClubMac, Formac, and LaCie also include decent manuals. The manuals from Acomdata, CD CyClone, FireWireDirect.com, and MadLogix consist simply of a few pages of quick-start instructions.
Macworld's Buying Advice
All ten drives are easy to set up and fast, and most cost about $300. You can't go wrong with any of them, but we preferred the ClubMac and LaCie drives. The ClubMac FireWire 16x/10x/40x has a good price, toll-free tech support, and a simple case, and it comes with five iMac-colored faceplates. The LaCie 16x10x40x U&I's additional USB port allows you to use it with a USB Mac (although USB supports only 4x speed).