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 rare computer 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 units are being added to existing machines at a brisk pace, either as separate components, or as part of a multimedia kit, along with sound card and speakers.

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 among business 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 MultiSession.

Decisions between SCSI and proprietary adapters, drivers requiring disk caddies or without, and complicated installations (at least for PC models).

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 reasonable 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 written 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 has become established as the somewhat pricier standard (triple speed models are rare); prices for these faster models are approaching the last year's 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 price quad speed drives test out as barely faster than some of the better double speed models.

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 denominator-- 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 with 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 adapter. If there is already a SCSI adapter in the computer, these CD players are easier to install, but they have been priced a little higher than comparable non-SCSI units. And adding a SCSI adapter isn't as simple as it could be. (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 proprietary AT-adapter models, but the bulk of the lower-priced models have used proprietary adapters. These require opening the computer case, and plugging in a card, and attaching cables to the CD drive. As well, because of the obscure and obsolete architecture of the PC expansion bus, users with sound cards, network cards, or other add-ins may have to play with often obscure IRQ (interrupt), DMA, and IO/memory settings.

Since most people's eyes (justifiably) glaze over when these things are mentioned, many people have problems adding CD drives to their machines-- 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 sound cards will accept all CD players... check your sound card's documentation 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 cd players, others that work with Panasonic, some that work with either; some Pro Audio Spectrum cards work with SCSI players, others with AT-adapter models).

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 installation problems.

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 stop working, slowing hard drive performance. They can get the speed boost back by putting the CD-ROM player on its own adapter, but this sort of to defeat 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 frequently 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, caddyless units can only be mounted horizontally-- if you're using caddies, the drive 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 year. Even at this, they are still too expensive for most home or business users. When prices drop further, these should become more common, providing triple duty producing hard disk back ups and duplicating audio CDs as well. Unlike 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 pack more data on to a disk. What? 650 megs isn't enough? No-- even now, a number of games are shipping on multiple disks. And even with MPEG video compression, a single CD can't hold an entire feature length movie.

Unfortunately, higher capacity disks will require new drives. While the new generation of drives should be backwards compatible to older disks, don't expect your current hardware to be able to play new varieties of disks.

-- multiple disk players. These are relatively common in home stereo systems, and a few models are currently available for computer use. Because 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 players need to be able to skip around almost continuously... to access random data. This requires more robust drive mechanisms, and result in a higher price. At least that's what the manufacturers claim.

Despite that, CD players are dropping and price, and becoming increasingly the standard on which software is being distributed. Software manufacturers 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 software 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 were in the past decade.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan