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Head to Head: CD-ROM Drives
Four CD-ROM Drives Go Portable
-- by Marc Spiwak
Although Most new notebooks come standard with a CD-ROM drive, many older models don't have one. That's not necessarily a bad thing-many users don't want to tote an accessory they need only for installing software, playing games or accessing databases.
That's what makes portable CD-ROM drives so appealing. Models with a PCMCIA interface are even better, offering greater speed and convenience than older units that tie up your system's parallel port. I collected four new PCMCIA units from Altec Lansing, Axonix, Panasonic and Sony to see how they stack up in terms of speed, convenience and usability. I tested them with a Samsung 120MHz Pentium notebook running Windows 95. And I soon found that not all PCMCIA drives are created equal.
Altec Lansing AMC2800
Altec Lansing's AMC2800 Notebook Multimedia Center is about the same size as a notebook computer, measuring 2 by 12 by 9 inches and weighing 4.5 pounds. Not portable in the usual sense, it can't be powered by batteries and must be plugged into an AC outlet. But it also offers more than the typical PCMCIA CD-ROM drive-it includes an 8X CD-ROM drive, a 16-bit sound card, four speakers, a 4.5-watt audio amplifier and a microphone.
The AMC2800 has a proprietary Type II PCMCIA interface, with the card permanently secured. The CD-ROM drive has the usual headphone jack, busy light, and volume and CD controls in front. You'll see volume and tone controls for the built-in speakers as well. On the back of the AMC2800 you'll find a line-in jack, subwoofer output, a headphone jack that disables the speakers, an external-microphone jack, a line-out jack, a MIDI/game port, a power switch and a DC input for the power adapter.
Installation of the AMC2800 is a very easy Plug-and-Play affair. You have a choice of installing just the CD-ROM drive, the drive and game port, the drive and sound, or the option I chose-all three at once. Everything worked properly right away.
Sound quality is good, but the amplifier doesn't pack much punch. Altec Lansing specifies an access time of 250 milliseconds and a data-transfer rate of 1.2MB per second for the 8X drive. However, Quarterdeck's CD Certify Pro clocked the transfer rate at approximately 467KB per second-only about 3X-and the access time at 176ms, with a 70 percent CPU load. I also timed how long it took to copy a 30MB file from CD to hard disk: 51 seconds. That's a transfer rate of 588KBps-almost 4X, but hardly 8X. The AMC2800 is slick and very useful, but I wish it had a bit more audio oomph and true 8X performance.
Axonix ProMedia 10XR
The Axonix ProMedia 10XR turned out to be a big disappointment. It's a stylish unit that measures 1.8 by 7 by 6 inches and weighs 19.7 ounces. However, its construction quality just isn't as good as the other drives in this group. Also, the 10XR can't use batteries, and it doesn't come with an AC power adapter. Its Phantom Cable draws power from the host system's PS/2 keyboard port, which will decrease the notebook battery's run time. Several notebook computers listed in the manual can't supply enough power from the PS/2 port; what's worse, some might even be damaged in the process. Axonix does offer an optional AC power adapter in case you can't use your notebook's PS/2 port, but the adapter really should ship with the system.
The Axonix drive has an IDE interface. But you're not just adding the drive, you're also adding another IDE controller at the PCMCIA slot. I tried the Axonix first on my Samsung 120 notebook, which already had two IDE controllers set up internally. I couldn't disable them or change their settings. As a result, the Axonix drive just wouldn't work with the Samsung notebook, and the conflicts made the entire system unusable.
Next I tried a 133MHz Dell notebook that didn't have a secondary IDE controller installed. Unfortunately, the power drain at the Dell's PS/2 port kept shutting down the whole system, even with AC power. I ended up pulling power from the Samsung notebook while running the drive on the Dell. But I could not get CD Certify to work at all, and Explorer kept freezing up. During a brief period of stability, I was able to copy the 30MB file off the Axonix drive in 26 seconds-almost 8X, but not 10X.
As a last resort, I tried using an older 75MHz Dell notebook, but the results were even worse. Again, CD Certify wouldn't run, and the best transfer time for the 30MB file was 105 seconds-below a 2X rate! The Axonix drive promises 10X performance but just doesn't deliver.
The Panasonic KXL-783A is an 8X portable CD-ROM drive with a SCSI-2 interface. This unit has a standard 50-pin high-density SCSI connector, so it will work with most desktop SCSI adapters without needing a custom cable. SCSI ID and termination are set by means of DIP switches. The drive has tiny built-in speakers for audio CDs. Considering their size, these speakers sound good. A two-step spatializer effect adds depth to music according to your personal taste. Every control you'd want on a CD player is located across the front of the drive, including a lock to keep the drive cover from opening.
The KXL-783A measures 1.4 by 5.5 by 8.2 inches and weighs 1.1 pounds without batteries installed. Six AA batteries will play your music CDs for approximately 3.5 hours or give you about 2.5 hours of CD-ROM use. Panasonic offers an optional rechargeable battery pack that takes about 3 hours to charge, and it provides about 1.5 hours of music or CD-ROM playback.
To install the Panasonic drive, you simply power it up, insert the PCMCIA SCSI adapter card into the notebook's slot and insert a driver floppy disk when requested.
Panasonic claims an average access time between 180ms and 280ms, and a maximum data-transfer rate of 1200KBps (approximately 1.2MBps). CD Certify confirmed those 8X numbers with an access time of 197ms and a transfer rate of 1242KBps with a heavy 95 percent CPU load. I was able to copy the 30MB file off the Panasonic drive in 32 seconds, for a real-world data-transfer rate of 938KBps. The Panasonic drive reverts to 4X under battery power. CD Certify showed an average access time of 333ms and a transfer rate of 612KBps with the drive powered by six AA cells, and the 30MB file transfer took 68 seconds (441KBps)
In typical Sony fashion, the PRD-650WN CD-ROM Discman is sleekly designed, lightweight and very compact. It measures only 1.1 by 5.3 by 6.9 inches-making it the smallest drive in this group-and weighs only 10 ounces without batteries installed. It doubles as a portable music CD player, and Sony throws in a good pair of headphones with the drive.
The Sony PRD-650WN drive comes with an AC adapter for use when you're near an outlet, and the same adapter will charge an optional lithium ion battery pack ($59 extra) if one's installed. That battery will power the drive for 2 hours when it's reading CD-ROMs or 8 hours when it's playing music CDs. A full charge takes about 3.5 hours. The Discman also comes with a battery holder that mounts on the bottom of the drive and holds four AA cells. A fresh set of alkaline batteries will play CD-ROMs for 2 hours or music CDs for 12 hours. While the Sony drive operates in 6X mode under AC power, it reverts to 4X when powered by the rechargeable pack or AA batteries.
The Discman has all of the controls you'd expect on a portable music CD player, and then some.
A small LCD window displays the operational status. A Resume button lets you stop a CD and restart it later where you left off.
The Discman has a SCSI-2 interface, so you can use it with almost any SCSI controller, even desktop systems. Unfortunately, the connector on the back of the drive is not standard for SCSI-2, so you need a special $79 cable from Sony to mate the drive to a desktop SCSI controller. You set the SCSI ID (you can only choose 3 or 5) and termination via switches on the bottom of the drive.
As I expected, the PnP installation was a breeze. Windows was able to use its own drivers, so I didn't even need the driver floppy disk. Once the drivers are in place, you automatically get a CD-ROM drive icon in My Computer every time you slip the card into the socket.
Sony specifies an average access time of 280ms and a data-transfer rate of 900KBps for the 6X drive. CD Certify confirmed those numbers with an access time of 229ms and a transfer rate of 928KBps with a 36 percent CPU load. I also copied a 30MB file from the Sony drive to hard disk in 34 seconds, for a transfer rate of 882KBps. I performed the same tests with the drive powered by batteries to verify the drop to 4X speed. CD Certify posted an access time of 335ms and a transfer rate of 616KBps under battery power. The same 30MB file took 51 seconds to transfer under battery power, for a transfer rate of 588 KBps.
One Clear Winner
The Altec Lansing unit is a complete multimedia solution, but it doesn't deliver 8X performance, and it isn't truly portable-it must be plugged into an outlet. The Panasonic drive offers true 8X speed and has a standard SCSI-2 connector. But it's only slightly faster than the 6X Sony when both drives are using AC power (32 seconds vs. 34 seconds for the 30MB file transfer). And the Sony is actually a bit faster than the Panasonic when both are powered by batteries (51 seconds vs. 68). The Sony is also smaller and lighter, uses less CPU power and is $50 cheaper. The Axonix is simply too difficult to use, and it may not work at all with many systems.
The Sony PRD-650WN CD-ROM Discman is the best unit reviewed here. Its features, portability and usability make it the first portable CD-ROM drive to earn a spot on our Recommended List.