If any medium can supplant the venerable floppy disc, it’s the compact disc. Cheap, easy to use and store, and with drives supported by many manufacturers as boot devices, these 650 or 700 MB discs hold enough data for most purposes. In fact, the CD drives in most computers get more exercise today

than the poor old floppy with its paltry 1.44 MB capacity — it can’t even hold the average spreadsheet.

Once considered luxury items, CD writers and rewriters have come down in price to the point where they’re practical for almost any user. And they’ve gotten fast enough that you don’t need to go to lunch while a disc is recording. As long as the computer host is fast enough, correctly configured, and the data is locally resident, you can output a full disc in just a few minutes.

That said, configuration is important. Most Pentium-class computers can handle a CD-RW. While the writers we looked at asked for at least a 400 MHz processor, a slower CD-RW is quite happy with less.

You need to make sure the interface the drive is plugged into on the motherboard is DMA enabled. Why? Well, look at it this way — I tested one of the 52X drives without DMA enabled and it puttered along at an average of 11X. Enable DMA, and the same set of files zipped onto the disc at 26X.

The 52X speed is the maximum the drive can provide. During a write, the speed fluctuates, so the average speed is actually lower than the impressive numbers quoted on the box. I did, however, see some of the drives hit their rated speeds, usually at the end of the disc.

Drives often quote three speeds, such as 52X–24X–52X. The first number is the maximum write speed on a CD-R (write once) disc, the second is the best it can do on a CD-RW (rewriteable) disc and the third is the maximum reading speed.

In our tests, we found that the disc you’re writing on is important. Read the label — each disc has a rating for the highest recording speed it can reliably handle. CD writing software will test for the best speed.

Another CD writing issue is what’s called buffer underrun. Data must be written to the disc in a continuous stream. It can’t come in fits and starts, or the disc will be ruined. Because of this, drives have onboard memory they can use to store enough data to feed the drive while more is coming from the PC’s hard disc. Buffer underrun occurs when the onboard memory is emptied, perhaps because someone is using the computer for another disc-intensive task while writing the CD, or perhaps because the data is coming from a network drive (not recommended). Today’s CD writers all offer technology to help prevent this.

Here’s how a selection of the fastest-rated drives performed. All but one were internal drives, mounted in a PC and connected as master to the secondary disk controller.

Each has a one-year warranty.

BenQ CRW5224P

BenQ’s drive comes with an audio cable and mounting screws. It is rated at 52X-24X-52X, and actually did hit 52X

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