What's new on CD-ROM players

by Alan Zisman (c) 1996. First published in Computer Player, March 1996

Even though they?re not getting the hot media attention, CD-ROM players have been rapidly evolving over the past year-- with a sense that even bigger changes are on the horizon. Some of the areas to watch:

-- Speed. Single-speed drives have totally vanished from the shelves, and double-speed drives have disappeared from all but the mark-down sell-out counters. A few triple-speed models appeared, but were quickly replaced by the next generation. Now, quad-speed is the current standard, with some manufacturers pushing it a bit, offering 4.4 speed for a modest performance boost.

Six-speed and even eight-speed models have started to appear, but with current software still mostly optimized for double-speed, users don?t get the full performance benefit. By the end of this year, most newer games, in particular, or other software including video clips will be optimized for quad-speed, letting users of quad and faster drives see improved performance (while users with slower drives will suffer from dropped frames).

-- Attachment. Initially, users had a choice between SCSI and proprietary cards. SCSI was standard, and offered better performance, but cost more, and often involved cumbersome set-up for PC users. (It?s standard on Macs). Low-cost units such as the widely-distributed Panasonics and Mitsumis came with their own cards, that only worked with their single model. Many users attached their CD-ROMs to their sound cards, but again had problems... unless they bought them together as a multimedia upgrade kit, it was easy to get units that wouldn?t plug together.

Instead, a third alternative has arisen-- sometimes referred to as ATAPI, it plugs the CD-ROM into the standard AT-bus using an enhanced IDE (EIDE) card-- just like most PC hard drives. This is a low-cost alternative to SCSI, which while not providing as high performance as SCSI (especially in multitasking environments) will be acceptable for most stand-alone systems (network servers should probably stick to the more industrial-strength SCSI). One thing to watch out for-- users can connect their hard drive and CD-ROM to a single EIDE card, but Windows for Workgroups will shut off performance-enhancing 32-bit File Access for the harddrive. The answer is a separate card and cable for each device.

-- Multi-platters. At first, the 650 megs of a typical CD-ROM disc seemed like an almost-infinite amount of storage. Perhaps not surprisingly, games and other multimedia products have quickly found a way to need more. Microsoft?s children?s encyclopedia, Explorapedia, for example, at first planned for a single disc, ended up as a four disc set. Games started replacing animated sequences with more and more filmed video-- and expanded to two, four, and even seven disc sets. Sort of like playing off multiple floppies in the late ?80s.

Audio CD fans have been able to buy affordable multi-disc players for years now, and three-disc video CD players are popular in Asia, but this solution has only started to catch on in the CD-ROM market. Now, suddenly, a number of models are available, loading between four and seven discs. Some require the discs to be pre-loaded into a cartridge, while some of the newer units, like the NEC MultiSpin four and seven disc units, or the comparable Nakamichi models allow users more spontaneity.

(On the high-end, GMS Datalink is showing off a 500 disc changer, for the computer user with a large collection, and a budget to match!)

-- Capacity. If 650 megs is just too little, what about new formats? Conventional CDs are produced and read using red lasers... newer technologies using blue lasers have become available. Because blue light has a higher frequency (and shorter wave length) than red light, blue lasers can pack more information onto the same sized disc. Finally, a mutually agreeable standard has been set amongst the various factions in the computer, audio, and video industries... the new format is variously known as DVD, when used for audio and video, and SD-ROM for discs with predominantly computer data. SD-ROM discs will store multi-gigabytes of data, using blue-laser light and storing data in several layers on both sides of a standard-sized disc.

This standard will allow a feature length movie to be stored on a single disc, or to allow more flexibility mixing video, audio, and computer data all on the same disc. Of course, you?ll need new hardware to make use of these enhancements-- at least new players, both for your computer and your home audio/video setup... these may start being available as early as this Fall, and will be able to read the current generation of audio and data CDs.

-- Recordability. Even though consumer-level videotape offers a much lower picture quality than laserdiscs, it is much more popular. Why? Users like being able to tape off their TV, and are willing to live with lower quality to have that flexibility.

CD-R (for recordable) has been available for a few years, but units have been too high-priced for wide acceptance. As well, users need a large, fast hard drive, with lots of free space, before even being able to consider mastering their own CDs. Hard drive prices have dropped, but CD-R remains too pricy an option for most users (I?d love to be able to use it for archiving and backing up hard drives). Other manufacturers are offering more exotic solutions; Panasonic?s LF-1000AB PowerDrive-2, for example, offers a combination standard read-only CD-ROM with a writeable optical drive, at under the magic $1000 price point, but the optical cartridges are expensive, and can?t be read on standard CD-ROM drives.

Putting it all together-- several of these trends seem to be going off in different directions. Faster single-disc drives? Multi-disc drives? CD-R? SD-ROM? I suspect that in the next six months to a year, many consumers will end up confused, and postponing purchases, at least for the higher-end units.

For those potential consumers, a low-priced quad-speed model may be fine for now, while it may be a good time to put off a large investment in a technology that may change dramatically over the next year or so. Distributors may want to watch technology trends carefully, and avoid carrying too much inventory in this potentially unstable market.

Sidebar: Four, four, four CDs in One
-- review of NEC?s MultiSpin 4x4

NEC MultiSpin 4x4 CD-ROM Changer
NEC Technologies Canada
6225 Kenway Drive
Mississauga, Ontario L5T 2L3
1-905-795-3600; 1-905-795-3583 (fax)
Estimated Canadian Selling Price: $399

What can you do with last year?s buzz-word?

A year or two ago, the buzz-word was ?multimedia?. Upgrade your computer, add CD-ROM and sound. And it worked-- a whole industry devoted to multimedia upgrades of existing machines sprung up. But it?s almost become a victim of its own success... over half of the computers sold for the home market now include multimedia features, with some predicting that by the end of 1996, this will be true of virtually all home computers.

Instead, this year?s buzz-word, ?Internet? receives the bulk of the media hype (at least whatever wasn?t directed at Windows 95)... and multimedia gets taken for granted.

So if you?re a respected producer of CD-ROMs, such as NEC, what can you bring to market? You can make machines that are faster-- single speed drives were replaced by double-speed, and then, after a few triple-speed models appeared, quad-speed drives have become the new industry standard. Some companies are marketing six- and eight-speed drives.

But multiplying the speed of the drive doesn?t really produce the benefits that you might think-- while games optimized for quad-speed drives are now beginning to appear, most software is still optimized for double-speed drives, and running that software on a faster drive, users will see at best, a more modest increase in performance than they expected.

For many computer users, however, CD discs are becoming the floppies of the nineties. A decade ago, users welcomed reasonably priced hard drives (everything is relative-- my first hard drive was a $400 40-megger I bought in 1988), to eliminate constant floppy swapping. Now with many popular games requiring multiple CD discs, users are starting to feel limited by the ?mere? 650 megs available on each disc.

Sometime in the future, today?s CDs will be replaced by tomorrow?s standard-- the multi-gigabyte DVD disc (also known as SD-ROM), holding music, video, and CD-ROM data. Of course, you?ll need all new hardware to run that (sparking a glow in hardware vendors? eyes). But that?s not yet... maybe 1997.

Instead, computer users have cast an envious eye at home stereo systems-- multi-disc audio CD carousels are increasingly common and affordable. But CD-ROM requires more precise and robust mechanisms to handle random access of data, and multi-CD-ROM machines have been rare and pricy, with a small market appealing mostly, it would seem, to BBS operators, wanting to provide multi-gigs of files for dial-up access.

NEC?s MultiSpin 4x4 is aiming to change all that. It?s a standard-sized internal CD-ROM unit that?s affordable and easy to add to your current computer-- while working as a four-speed, four-disc changer.

Like some car CD-units, it sucks your discs in, storing them internally-- unlike older units, there are no caddies or cartridges to load. An internal elevator switches between discs. The result is a sleek package that fits neatly into the space taken by a standard single disc player. Four buttons and LEDs on the front let the user select which disc will be accessed.

Unlike other NEC models, which used SCSI, the 4x4 uses the more common and affordable EIDE interface... a card and cable are included. It can be set up in your choice of two modes. Single-drive letter mode lets you treat all four discs as a single drive, often drive D: In Multiple-drive mode, each disc gets a separate drive letter-- perhaps D:, E:, F:, and G:. Each mode has its advantages-- the single drive letter could make it easier to switch between discs in a multi-disc game, or to work with discs that have been installed with using an older, single-disc unit.

The multiple-drive mode could be nice if you always want to keep a reference disc, say an encyclopedia or Microsoft Bookshelf in one of the discs-- it could always be accessed on drive G: regardless of what was being used in the other drives. If you?re a Win95 user, you get no choice-- those drivers only support multi-drive mode, though NEC promises that future upgrades will offer the same features that DOS/Win 3.1 users already have.

Hardware and software installation are about as expected for any upgrade that requires opening the case... it went smoothly. NEC packs a poster detailing the installation process, and even includes an installation videotape to help reassure those who are uneasy cracking open the case. Note that if you already have an EIDE hard drive, you can install this drive on the same card, but you?ll probably get better performance running it off its own adapter (which is included).

Once it?s up and running, you?ll find it in the middle of the pack of quad-speed CDs... no speed demon, but no slouch, either. Switching between discs is a smooth process, taking a couple of seconds to eject a disc, or four or five seconds to access a disc after loading.

With single-disc quad-speed drives hovering around $200 in the stores, you may ask yourself whether this unit?s $399 price is worthwhile. It is double the price of a single-disc unit... but offers the capabilities of four single units. If you want multi-disc capabilities, in a small, internal unit, you may find this well-packaged product good value. BBS operators with a large tower system could consider buying three or four of these, for quick and easy access to 12-16 discs at a time. NEC is also marketing a seven-disc external model.

(Alternatively, Vancouver?s GMS Datalink (1-604-327-4335) is marketing the Nakamichi MJ-44, featuring virtually identical hardware, for a similar estimated retail price of $399).

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