Cheap recordable CD technology could make

the competition fade into a memory - Oct 28 1997

If you've bought software in the last year or two, you may have noticed it came on CD disks. For operating systems such as Win95 or OS 8 or for big (some might say bloated) office suites, the 650-meg- capacity silver disks make sense. But, in many cases, even programs requiring just five to 10 megs are being shipped on CD.

The reason? Simple. CDs are cheap to make. This is especially true in big quantities. One shiny CD is cheaper than the handful of floppy diskettes which even a small program may require. That CD is significantly cheaper than the couple of dozen diskettes needed by one of those big packages. (The last big program I got on floppies was IBM's 1994 OS/2 Warp Version 3. It came with a total of 23 disks in the box, making "diskette wrist" the computer equivalent of tennis elbow. Needless to say, it was much more conveniently installed using the CD version, which was by far the bigger seller.)

Since most programs, even the big office suites, only require a fraction of the space on a CD, companies can fill the empty space with other things such as the product documentation, thus saving even more money compared to the cost of printing and shipping manuals. Or it could be promotional material for the company's other products. Mass-produced CDs have become cheap enough to be included as freebies with magazines.

While most new computers come with a CD-ROM player, it's a one-way street. You can read, but you can't write; drives allowing computer users to write their own CDs have, until recently, been rare and expensive.

If a small business wanted to produce a run of CD disks, it would and could contract a number of companies specializing in the service. It would also pay. A run of 1,000 disks, professionally packaged, costs about $2,000. (Locally, check with Cd-man: 261-8314,

Drives to write a single CD-ROM (so-called CD-R for "re-
cordable") cost more than $1,000 and were often difficult to use. It was easy to ruin a blank disk that cost $25.

However, recent drops in the cost of both CD-R drives and blank recordable disks (to around $7 per disk) have make this a potentially useful technology for smaller businesses and even home-office users.

As your humble guinea pig, I've been experimenting with a Hewlett-Packard 6020 SureWriter. (The internal version is widely available locally for about $550; the external version is a bit more expensive.) At that price, it's competitive with the popular Iomega Jaz drive. (The Jaz uses proprietary cartridges which hold a full gigabyte of data -- more than a CD -- but at about $100 each, are much more expensive.) Although CD-R disks can only be written once, they can be read on any computer with a CD-ROM.

Like virtually all CD-R products (and the Jaz drive), the HP SureWriter requires an SCSI adapter; these are built into all Macs, but are rare on PCs. If you need to add one to your system, budget in another $100 to $200. (The SureWriter also comes in a version which attaches to the PC's parallel printer port, but for the added cost, I'd recommend getting an SCSI card instead.)

Attaching the unit to my PC's SCSI adapter was simple and in keeping with the effortless plug-and-play which Mac users take for granted but which still seems semi-miraculous when it occurs on a PC.

(Unfortunately, HP doesn't seem to care about the Mac market. Although other CD-R manufacturers are much more Mac-friendly and although the SureWriter ought to work with a Mac, it ships with only PC software; the company suggests that some third-party Mac software may work with it, but wouldn't recommend specific products.)

While you can't write to a CD as easily as to your hard drive or a floppy, CD-R can be useful to make permanent archives of important data, to back up entire systems, or to move less frequently used programs onto a disk. Technicians will find it useful to create a portable disk of system and diagnostic tools. Because it supports so-called multi-session standards, you don't need to try to fill a blank disk all at once. In my tests, the SureWriter was very reliable, never ruining a blank disk.

CD-R can even be used to make copies of existing data and audio CDs. My kids loved making a compilation of their favourite music tracks onto a single disk. (However, as it takes 30 minutes to copy a CD, if you need to make more than a few copies, you're best off checking with one of the commercial disk-duplication services.)

Meanwhile, CD technology skips blithely along with rewritable CD drives the next step forward; HP has just released a CD-RW SureWriter Plus 7100 model, listing for about $700.

Unlike CD-R drives which can produce standard read-only CDs, a CD-RW disk can be erased and rewritten just like a floppy diskette. However, unlike CD-R disks, the resulting CD-RW disks can't always be played on a standard CD-ROM drive.*

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