Hands on with MCE's CDRW/DVD drive for PowerBook G3s

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Xcaret combo drive
I've had a pretty good relationship with my PowerBook G3/333MHz over the years. Since I got it in 1999 it's traveled everywhere with me, on road trips, to countless trade shows, even on vacation. I'm a tad envious of my friends who have sleek new iBooks and titanium-clad Power Mac G4s, but for the most part, my PowerBook still does the job I need it to. Mac Components Engineered has a product to help give these laptops and their brethren some additional life, too -- the Xcaret Pro 2000 CD-RW/DVD Combo Drive. Now my black PowerBook can burn CD-RWs like a champ and it can play DVD movies, too -- two functions up until now I've been unable to accomplish on my mobile Mac.

Don't judge a PowerBook by its cover

The US$449 Xcaret Pro 2000 CD-RW/DVD drive is an expansion bay drive -- it fits in the right-hand bay that was the home of the stock 24x CD-ROM drive that shipped with this PowerBook. This particular model is designed to fit in PowerBook G3s equipped with bronze keyboards. These models include the so-called "Lombard" and "Pismo" model PowerBook G3s built in 1999 and 2000. MCE also builds a similar model for users of "Wall Street" era PowerBook G3s.

The Xcaret Pro 2000 fits in the right-hand expansion bay just like the CD-ROM drive does. The Toshiba-manufactured mechanism adds some heft compared with the stock CD-ROM module, but they're of essentially similar design -- a tray-loading apparatus that pops out on that the user must fully extend to insert and retrieve optical discs. The drive features a release button, an access light, and an emergency release hole that's activated using a paper clip or other small-gauge implement.

Installing the Xcaret Pro 2000 CD-RW/DVD drive is a plug and play operation. The drive is recognized by the Mac without the installation of any additional software. MCE strongly recommends having Mac OS 9.0.4 or later installed to help the Mac recognize the drive easily. The PowerBook can even boot off the mechanism if necessary. The Xcaret Pro drive offers 4x CD burning speed and 4x CD rewriting speed. It can also read DVD-ROMs at 6x and rip CDs at up to 24x.

The drive is as quiet as the CD-ROM it replaced. You can hear it spin up when a disc is first inserted, but otherwise it's quite quiet. It doesn't generate any excess heat, near as I can tell. MCE said that the drive draws a bit more juice than a stock Apple 24x CD-ROM drive -- about 9 watts. Of course, if you're planning on watching DVDs or burning CDs continuously while you're on the road, you're going to see a deleterious effect on battery life. My experience was that the PowerBook's batteries discharged faster with the MCE drive, but that's because of the added utility. I was doing a lot more with the MCE drive than with my stock PowerBook drive, and that's clearly no fault of the drive itself. PowerBook G3 users don't see the longer battery life experienced by users of newer Mac laptops, so you may want to have either a spare charged battery on hand or be plugged into an electrical adapter if you're going to be on a long trip.

Disc Burner

I tested the drive both with Apple's own iTunes and Disc Burner software in Mac OS 9.2.1 and Mac OS X 10.1, and I can report that the Xcaret Pro 2000 CD-RW/DVD worked without incident -- it was equally capable of mastering backup and archive discs and burning audio CDs, as well. And the Xcaret Pro drive performed equally well with Roxio's popular Toast CD mastering software, as well. The drive comes with Toast Lite 5.0.

Take your movies with you

If you have files on DVD-ROM, you'll be happy to know that the Xcaret Pro 2000 CD-RW/DVD can mount them in both Mac OS 9 and X without any trouble. If you have a PowerBook that came with a DVD-ROM, you'll find it similar to your stock drive, albeit a bit faster.

PowerBook G3s like my 333MHz model lack the MPEG2 decoding capabilities in later models. This means they can't play DVD movies without the help of a CardBus expansion card that decodes MPEG2. MCE offers an optional $129 CardBus MPEG2 decoder card (also available in a bundle with the drive) that provides this functionality. Now, bear in mind that the card is only necessary if your PowerBook didn't already have the ability to play DVD movies before -- it also isn't necessary if all you'll be doing is mounting DVD-ROM data discs.

The card and drive could play every movie I threw at them, although I did find one that had some hideous menuing problems (The Mummy Returns). Playback quality is great. It may not be quite as good as Apple's newest PowerBooks and iBooks -- scan lines are sometimes noticeable during scenes with a lot of motion and fancy camerawork, especially when playing in full screen mode.

Because the DVD drive is dependent on Apple's own DVD Player software to play back movies, users will be depending on -- as of this writing -- the most recent version of Apple's hardware-based DVD Player software, version 1.3. Later versions have been specifically designed for latter-day PowerBooks that can decode MPEG2 video without needing a separate PC card. It also means that DVD movies can't be played back in Mac OS X, at least for now. Will that change? It's largely up to Apple.

Solid performer, solid value

Xcaret and case
If you need to pull your Xcaret Pro 2000 CD-RW/DVD drive from your PowerBook's expansion bay for any extended duration, or if you're looking for a new home for your now-defunct stock PowerBook optical drive, MCE provides a nice little zippered nylon carrying case specifically for that purpose. The case has padding and reinforcements to help protect the drive from being banged around. The Xcaret Pro 2000 CD-RW/DVD ships with a sample CD-R disc and a CD-RW disc as well. Roxio's Toast 5.0 Lite version is also included with the drive.

Apple's own DVD-ROM drive for this generation of PowerBooks only reads DVD-ROMs at 2x, so there's a performance boost over your stock drive, if you're replacing a DVD-ROM unit. In fact, the MCE drive's performance specifications are the same as the iBook's Combo drive - 4x4x6x24x. The MCE system's CD-RW capabilities are certainly convenient, especially since it's all in one package that lives inside the PowerBook -- having an external USB-based CD burner, no matter how compact, defeats the whole point of carrying a laptop computer.

The only real downside is something that's not MCE's fault: the lack of support for hardware decoding-based DVD playback in Mac OS X. That's the one thing that kept me from using Mac OS X 10.1 exclusively on my laptop during my most recent trip. Judging from the feedback on Apple's own message boards and other public discussion areas, this is something a lot of PowerBook G3 and blue and white Power Mac G3 owners are clamoring for, not just me. It's also worth noting that MCE's competitors sell separate Expansion Bay CD-RW drives and DVD-ROM drives, but MCE's offering combines everything in a single drive and costs less money than those separate solutions do added up.

MCE offers the Xcaret Pro 2000 CD-RW/DVD expansion bay drive bundled with the MPEG2 Decoder Card for $549. They're available for $449 and $129 separately. Is it worth it? It certainly is to me. The drive and the card work great, and they even give elderly PowerBooks a leg up on the slim, trim whippersnapper that replaced them -- the titanium-clad PowerBook G4 users have to decide between a CD-RW or a DVD-ROM drive.

MCE's solution provides tremendous utility for users who are hoping to maximize an existing investment in PowerBook hardware.

This story, "Hands on with MCE's CDRW/DVD drive for PowerBook G3s" was originally published by PCWorld.

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