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
counters. A few triple-speed models appeared, but were quickly replaced
by the next generation. Now, quad-speed is the current standard, with
manufacturers pushing it a bit, offering 4.4 speed for a modest
Six-speed and even eight-speed models have started to
appear, but with
current software still mostly optimized for double-speed, users don?t
the full performance benefit. By the end of this year, most newer
in particular, or other software including video clips will be
for quad-speed, letting users of quad and faster drives see improved
(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
and often involved cumbersome set-up for PC users. (It?s standard on
Low-cost units such as the widely-distributed Panasonics and Mitsumis
with their own cards, that only worked with their single model. Many
attached their CD-ROMs to their sound cards, but again had problems...
unless they bought them together as a multimedia upgrade kit, it was
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
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
(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
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,
and other multimedia products have quickly found a way to need more.
children?s encyclopedia, Explorapedia, for example, at first planned
a single disc, ended up as a four disc set. Games started replacing
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
solution has only started to catch on in the CD-ROM market. Now,
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
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
using blue lasers have become available. Because blue light has a
frequency (and shorter wave length) than red light, blue lasers can
more information onto the same sized disc. Finally, a mutually
standard has been set amongst the various factions in the computer,
and video industries... the new format is variously known as DVD, when
used for audio and video, and SD-ROM for discs with predominantly
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
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
all on the same disc. Of course, you?ll need new hardware to make use
these enhancements-- at least new players, both for your computer and
home audio/video setup... these may start being available as early as
Fall, and will be able to read the current generation of audio and data
-- Recordability. Even though consumer-level videotape
offers a much
lower picture quality than laserdiscs, it is much more popular. Why?
like being able to tape off their TV, and are willing to live with
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
fast hard drive, with lots of free space, before even being able to
mastering their own CDs. Hard drive prices have dropped, but CD-R
too pricy an option for most users (I?d love to be able to use it for
and backing up hard drives). Other manufacturers are offering more
solutions; Panasonic?s LF-1000AB PowerDrive-2, for example, offers a
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
will end up confused, and postponing purchases, at least for the
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
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
upgrades of existing machines sprung up. But it?s almost become a
of its own success... over half of the computers sold for the home
now include multimedia features, with some predicting that by the end
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
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
drives were replaced by double-speed, and then, after a few
models appeared, quad-speed drives have become the new industry
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
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
(everything is relative-- my first hard drive was a $400 40-megger I
in 1988), to eliminate constant floppy swapping. Now with many popular
games requiring multiple CD discs, users are starting to feel limited
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,
and CD-ROM data. Of course, you?ll need all new hardware to run that
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.
CD-ROM requires more precise and robust mechanisms to handle random
of data, and multi-CD-ROM machines have been rare and pricy, with a
market appealing mostly, it would seem, to BBS operators, wanting to
multi-gigs of files for dial-up access.
NEC?s MultiSpin 4x4 is aiming to change all that. It?s
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
elevator switches between discs. The result is a sleek package that
neatly into the space taken by a standard single disc player. Four
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
treat all four discs as a single drive, often drive D: In
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
easier to switch between discs in a multi-disc game, or to work with
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
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
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
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
same card, but you?ll probably get better performance running it off
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
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
double the price of a single-disc unit... but offers the capabilities
four single units. If you want multi-disc capabilities, in a small,
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
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
estimated retail price of $399).