Recordable CDs increasingly attractive

by Alan Zisman (c) 1998. First published in Toronto Computes, April 1998

How do you store and transport files? For many of us, the 1987 1.44 meg floppy disk standard is just too small. A wide range of alternatives have been proposed?from 100 meg drives, to removable drives offering several gigabytes of capacity, but none have really achieved mass acceptance. There are too many competing sizes and formats, and while some of the drives themselves have been affordable, the disks?the removable media, have simply been too expensive.

Quietly, however, an old alternative reborn has been gaining popularity. Recordable CD (CD-R) has been around for years, but never quite taken off. CD-R units were expensive and unreliable. It was all to easy to ruin a $25 blank CD disk. And besides, aren?t CDs themselves about to become obsolete?

The CD-replacement, DVD is taking longer than predicted to catch on in popularity, and the industry hasn?t been able to unite around a single recordable DVD standard. At the same time, the price of recordable CD-drives and blank disks has been plummeting, while their convenience and reliability have been rising. And since virtually all PCs now come equipped with a CD-ROM player, home-made CDs can be read on far more computers than other alternative removable media.

One example of the new generation is Hewlett-Packard?s 7100 CD-Rewritable drive. It comes in two models?an internal IDE model (under $600) and an external parallel port model (under $800). Either are compatible with most PCs, unlike earlier models, which required a SCSI adapter?built-into Macs, but unusual on PCs.

The 7100 is a 6x read unit, recording at slower 2x. (More expensive models from other companies may feature 4x recording), and can use either write-once CD-R disks, or re-writable CD-RW blanks. 650 meg CD-R disks selling for as little as $2 each, are more popular than the $30 CD-RW disks. (By comparison, a 100 meg Zip disk costs $15-20, while 1 gig disks for Iomega?s Jaz drive cost around $100 each).

HP includes software from Adaptec with the drive? this software allows users to create computer or audio-format disks, or to copy existing disks. Individual files can be copied directly from Win95?s Explorer onto a CD-R or CD-RW disk, and a CD-R disk can be written to over multiple sessions. You can even create a sort-of ?Greatest Hits? audio CD, copying tracks from a variety of different CDs onto a single disk, which can then be played on any standard audio CD player.

(Music-lovers may consider purchasing additional software such as Adaptec?s Easy CD-Creator Pro (US$99?I haven?t found a source for this in Canada, but it can be ordered over the Web from This adds extra capabilities such the ability to create audio CDs from cassette tape or LP sources, and even to automatically filter out the pops and scratches from those old LPs.)

The CD-copying utility comes with a warning about copyright, but gives users the ability to copy computer software (PC and Mac) and audio CDs almost as easily as copying a floppy disk. It takes about 35 minutes at 2x speed to copy the 650 megs on a full CD? double that if (as I recommend) you run a trial run first. Sony PlayStation games typically won?t copy?and I suspect as CD writers become more popular, we may see copy protection become popular with computer software disks as well.

Not all self-recorded disks are playable on all systems, however. CD-R disks are not readable on first-generation CD-ROM drives, nor on first-generation DVD drives. CD-RW (re-writable) disks have even more compatibility problems. Second-generation DVD drives, and virtually all modern CD-ROM drives should not have these problems, however.

As well, there are a wide range of CD-ROM formats; disks created using the ISO9600-version 1 standard can be read under DOS and Windows 3.1, as well as later operating systems. While software allowing users to write to CD from Win95?s Explorer is convenient, the disks it creates don?t meet that standard however?as a result, they are only readable under Windows 95/NT 4.0. And depending on the options chosen, some disks may not be readable on a CD-ROM drive at all?only with another CD-R drive. It?s important to read the fine print!

CD recorders and especially blank CD-R disks are becoming increasingly affordable and reliable. Add in the ability to read the disks on millions of CD-ROM and audio CD players, and they should prove a popular alternative for many home and small business users.

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