CD Drives Today: 1995
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1995. First
appeared in Our Computer Player, May 1995
What's about five inches wide, flat and silver, costs
a dollar or so
to manufacturer, and holds as more data than most hard drives?
The answer, of course, is a CD-ROM disk.
The past year has seen CD-ROM's move from a relatively
accessory to something that's increasingly being taken for granted-- at
least on home machines. Currently, about half the computers being sold
in Canada for home use are coming with CD-ROM players built-in. And
are being added to existing machines at a brisk pace, either as
components, or as part of a multimedia kit, along with sound card and
Increasingly, games are being sold in CD form-- some
games have achieved
best-seller status, despite being only available in this format.
CD-ROM technology has had a slower rate of acceptance
users, but even here, the increasing size of software operating systems
and suites makes them a valuable add-on for program installation.
A year ago, double speed drives were the standard,
with a few slower,
single speed models still available, and pricier triple and quad speed
drives just starting to become available. At that time, users could get
barraged by codes and specifications: XA compatible, PhotoCD
Decisions between SCSI and proprietary adapters,
drivers requiring disk
caddies or without, and complicated installations (at least for PC
Some of these issues have become simpler, but
inevitably, perhaps, others
have gotten more complex.
Single-speed drives have pretty much disappeared, at
least from the
retail market. A very inexpensive single-speed drive could still be a
upgrade for an older machine, but don't expect it to be very usable for
computer-video. Many games and reference disks, however, have been
with single-speed drives in mind, and will perform adequately.
At the same time, pretty much everything sold, whether
for PCs or Macs,
is now XA and PhotoCD compatible-- it never hurts to ask, but virtually
everything available will run all currently available software.
Double speed drives have dropped below $200, becoming
the low-end standard
packaged with most home-computer models and upgrade kits. Quad speed
become established as the somewhat pricier standard (triple speed
are rare); prices for these faster models are approaching the last
prices for double speed models.
Still, users are finding quad speed less of a
performance boost than
they may have hoped-- there are several reasons for this. Some lower
quad speed drives test out as barely faster than some of the better
As well, software has to be optimized for the speed of
the CD-ROM player.
Currently, much software is still be written for the lowest common
double speed or even single speed drives. Faster drives will find data
quicker in large databases or reference texts, but video playback won't
see a dramatic improvement until the actual video clips are created
quad drives in mind.
In the past, PC users could choose between units
requiring a proprietary,
AT-style connector (usually included in the package), or a SCSI
If there is already a SCSI adapter in the computer, these CD players
easier to install, but they have been priced a little higher than
non-SCSI units. And adding a SCSI adapter isn't as simple as it could
(Macintosh computers have SCSI built in, giving them fewer choices and
higher prices than PC users, but also much easier installation).
SCSI models offer somewhat better performance than
models, but the bulk of the lower-priced models have used proprietary
These require opening the computer case, and plugging in a card, and
cables to the CD drive. As well, because of the obscure and obsolete
of the PC expansion bus, users with sound cards, network cards, or
add-ins may have to play with often obscure IRQ (interrupt), DMA, and
Since most people's eyes (justifiably) glaze over when
are mentioned, many people have problems adding CD drives to their
some retailers have commented on the high return rate on these units.
Some of these problems can be minimized by purchasing
a player that
plugs onto an already-installed sound card-- but be careful-- not all
cards will accept all CD players... check your sound card's
first! (Even knowing your sound card's model isn't good enough-- there
have been versions of the popular Sound Blaster that worked with Sony
players, others that work with Panasonic, some that work with either;
Pro Audio Spectrum cards work with SCSI players, others with AT-adapter
If you need both a sound card and a cd player, getting
a package with
both should simplify installation. And of course, buying a new computer
with sound card and CD-ROM pre-installed should eliminate the
As if this wasn't confusing enough, a new option has
appeared this year--
attaching the CD player to the same EIDE connector as your (newer) hard
drive. In some ways, this promises to give lower cost units many
of the same advantages as SCSI.
However, Windows quickly discovered that putting a
CD-ROM player onto
the same adapter as their IDE hard drive caused 32-bit Disk Access to
working, slowing hard drive performance. They can get the speed boost
by putting the CD-ROM player on its own adapter, but this sort of to
the whole idea of an EIDE CD drive.
Whether to get a model requiring disk caddies or not
is a matter of
opinion-- caddies are an extra cost item, but they do protect
used disks from dirt and scratches. Are your kids going to be using the
drive? Are their fingers sticky? Caddies may be worthwhile. As well,
units can only be mounted horizontally-- if you're using caddies, the
will usually work even standing on end.
Coming up in the near future:
-- writable CD. CD-R (for 'recordable') units are
slowly coming down
in price, dropping from over $8,000 to around $2,000 (US) in the past
Even at this, they are still too expensive for most home or business
When prices drop further, these should become more common, providing
duty producing hard disk back ups and duplicating audio CDs as well.
tape, however, note that you can still only record a CD one time.
-- higher capacity. Don't expect drives to get much
faster than quad
speed, at least in the short term. Instead, research is going on to
more data on to a disk. What? 650 megs isn't enough? No-- even now, a
of games are shipping on multiple disks. And even with MPEG video
a single CD can't hold an entire feature length movie.
Unfortunately, higher capacity disks will require new
the new generation of drives should be backwards compatible to older
don't expect your current hardware to be able to play new varieties of
-- multiple disk players. These are relatively common
in home stereo
systems, and a few models are currently available for computer use.
of their high price, they're relatively rare with home systems, but are
more likely to be found at libraries or business networks.
Why are CD-ROM drives pricier than home stereo units,
by the way? Music
CDs are played linearly, from beginning to end... at most, being asked
to find a new track every few minutes or so. By contrast, data CD
need to be able to skip around almost continuously... to access random
data. This requires more robust drive mechanisms, and result in a
price. At least that's what the manufacturers claim.
Despite that, CD players are dropping and price, and
the standard on which software is being distributed. Software
love it as they can produce software much cheaper on a CD disk than on
a dozen or more floppy disks, achieving even more savings if they ship
the previously printed manual on the disk as well. And CD-based
is harder to pirate (at least until writable CDs become common).
For these reasons, we can expect CD-ROM to continue to
grow in popularity
over the next year, becoming the kind of standard that floppy disks
in the past decade.