Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    CD-ROM may be just the thing for your office, but make sure you know what you want

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #332  March 5, 1996 High Tech Office  column

    The majority of computers now purchased in Canada include multimedia options--CD-ROM players and sound. In columns past, I've suggested that multimedia computers also had a valid role to play in your business.

    CD-ROM does simplify the task of installing big software packages like Microsoft Office. And it opens up possibilities of accessing large data collections on disc such as postal codes, or all the phone books in Canada. But you'll find buying a CD-ROM--whether as an add-on package or built into a new computer--a confusing process. You'll be faced with a variety of decisions. For instance:

    * Speed. The first CD-ROMs ran at the same speed as the CD player in your audio system, which is too slow for video and multimedia. A couple of years ago, double speed (or 2x) was released: the drive ran twice as fast, slowing down to 1x speed if you inserted an audio CD (yes, you can play standard music discs in your computer CD-ROM).

    Now, 4x (quad speed) is standard, and many models feature 6x and even 8x drives. Unfortunately, the performance increase isn't always as great as you'd hope, for a couple of reasons.

    First, much multimedia software is still optimized for double-speed drives. Running that software, your faster drive won't be able to make use of its potential. As well, CD-ROM drives need fast throughput (the amount of information they can shovel from the disc to your computer), but they also need peppy seek times (the time it takes them to find the information you're looking for).

    That so-called higher-speed model may do a great job showing computer video on screen, but if it has a slow seek time, it will take just as long to find the phone number you're looking for as a slower-speed model.

    * Multi-disc capability. You may want to access more than one CD disc at a time. For this, 650 megs of information may not be enough. For instance, to save hard-drive space, maybe you decide to run a program like Corel Draw right from the CD disc instead of from your hard drive. (It will be slower that way, but if you don't use it frequently, that may be okay.) If you do that, however, you have a problem: you can't access the huge clip-art library that Corel includes on a second disc, because the program disc is hogging your drive.

    Or maybe you simply want to have several CD-based databases on hand at all times so you can easily cross-check between those phone directory address and postal code CD-ROM listings. Or you're a writer wanting access to a multi-volume reference set like Microsoft Office (thesaurus, atlas, book of quotations, and more), and a CD-ROM encyclopedia. And you'd like to play an audio CD at the same time.

    Multi-disc players have been common for home stereos, and in the Asian market for showing videos: now, they're catching on as computer accessories. Both NEC and Nakamichi, for instance, offer an external 7-disc unit, and both have recently marketed similar 4-disc internal models (CDN$399 list) that fit in the same space as a standard built-in CD-ROM drive. Quad-speed only.

    * Recordability. The "ROM" in CD-ROM stands for "read-only memory": unlike a floppy disk or your computer's hard drive, you can read the data on a CD disc, but you can't write to it using your standard CD-ROM drive. You can buy units that allow you to create your own CD discs, which seems a great way to distribute large quantities of data, or even back up your hard drives. It's a nice idea, but not yet ready for the mass market. Recordable drive prices are still hovering over CDN$1,000, and the technology still seems too awkward for general use. Back in 1990, Tandy promised a $500 writable CD, any day now. Maybe next year?

    * New format. Instead of needing several discs, how about fitting more data onto one disc? The various industries--computer, audio, video and more--have recently agreed on a single high-density format, known as DVD or SD-ROM. These will hold up to 4 gigabytes of data--eight times as much as today's discs. You'll need to buy new hardware to use the new discs, but the new drives will continue to read today's discs.

    Confused yet? CD-ROM may be something your business should have today, even though it looks like the market is moving in several different, incompatible directions at once. Maybe in a couple of years, you'll be able to buy a high-speed, multi-disc, recordable DVD drive for $200, but you can't get that now, so assess your needs carefully.

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