USB CD-RW Drives

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When you think about it, it's amazing that CD-rewritable (CD-RW) drives work at all with USB. Although the bus offers a respectable throughput of 12 Mbps, various devices share that bandwidth. A printer may not care if another device is using the bus and causing a delay, but CD-RW drives must burn all the information at a steady rate; if they run out of information before completing the session, the disk becomes useless.

To see if CD-RW drives could function in the world of USB, Macworld Lab tested QPS's Que, Sony's Spressa USB CRX100E/X, and LaCie's 226 CDRW-USB. We found that all three drives delivered consistently, differing primarily in price, speed, and backup ability.

All three drives can record on CD-R (write-once) media and CD-RW (rewritable) media and can read from both CD-R and CD-RW. Using the standard notation–CD-R recording speed, followed by CD-RW recording speed, then reading speed–the QPS is rated at 4 x 2 x 8 x , the Sony at 4 x 2 x 6 x , and the LaCie at 2 x 2 x 6 x .

The Sony and QPS drives burned 600MB onto a CD-R in 18 minutes, while the LaCie took 37 minutes. (By comparison, the fastest SCSI recorders can burn the same data in 9 minutes.) All three recorders burned the same data onto a CD-RW in 37 minutes. To increase the odds of a successful recording, the QPS stores information in a 2MB buffer; the Sony and LaCie use a 1MB buffer, standard for SCSI recorders. In our tests, buffer size didn't affect performance.

Copying a 600MB CD to the iMac's hard disk took 14 minutes (the fastest you can transfer data over USB) for the Sony, 15 minutes for the LaCie, and 18 minutes for the QPS. Read speed isn't as critical as write speed, however, since most people will use the iMac's faster (24 x ) internal CD-ROM drive.

The QPS and LaCie drives ship with Adaptec's Toast 3.8 for recording, while the Sony comes with the significantly less intuitive Discribe 2.4.1 from CharisMac. You can't simply drop data on Discribe and record, as you can with Toast; you must first decide whether this is a new recording or one you've already saved, specify a format (HFS, ISO, or audio), choose your files, confirm your selection, and then finally begin recording.

On the other hand, Dantz Development's Retrospect backup software supports only the Sony Spressa. Dantz says the next version of Retrospect (due later this year) should support the LaCie, while support for the QPS is pending based on further testing.

Apple recommends that iMac users update their firmware to version 1.2 to ensure proper operation of USB devices. Conveniently, both the QPS and LaCie drives provide this update on CD; Sony plans to include the update with recorders that ship in August.

You can tell from a distance what the QPS drive is up to–the large LED on the front is green when the drive is attached and ready to go, orange when the drive is reading, and red when it's writing. The LaCie's small LED simply turns red to signal recording, while the Sony Spressa is even less informative–whether the drive is reading or writing, the light is always amber and always blinking. All three drives have audio-out and headphone jacks with volume controls, but those features work only on PCs–not on Macs.

If you can live without backup for the moment, choose the QPS Que; it's the least expensive of the three and by far the most colorful. If backup is a priority, go with the Sony Spressa CRX100E/X (the only drive Retrospect supports at press time) and get a copy of Toast 4.0 for more-intuitive recording. Both drives are a better deal than the LaCie 226 CDRW-USB–it's almost as expensive as the Sony drive, yet its writable speed is only half that of the other two.

See the table: ""CD-RW Drives Compared""

September 1999 page: 38

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