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The Cutting Edge: Focus on Technology | PC FOCUS

CD 'Burners' May Get Many More Than Music Fans Fired Up

September 25, 2000|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

These days, you don't have to be a rock star to "burn" your own compact discs. In fact, you don't even need to be a music fan to benefit from attaching a CD writer, or "burner," to your home computer.

CD writers can be used to back up data and software as well as to copy music CDs. They can also be used to create custom mixes of your favorite tracks from your own CD collection or from music downloaded from the Internet.

Audio CDs that you burn can--with some exceptions--be played on home, car or portable CD players, and PC discs can be used on almost any PC. CDs can store as much as 700 megabytes of data--the equivalent of 480 floppy disks--or as much as 80 minutes of audio.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that trying to create your own CDs can be a frustrating experience.

One of the two drives I tested--a $249 Hewlett-Packard 8200e--was easy to install, but it was slow and wound up faltering on occasion, causing me to waste blank CDs. The other--a $249 Plextor 12/10/32A--was fast and reliable, but installation was a hassle because it required taking the PC apart, securing the drive to rails inside the machine and fumbling with data and power cables. Unless you're adventurous or experienced, you're better off paying a tech to do it.

The HP drive was easy to install because it plugs into the universal serial bus port on the back of a desktop or laptop PC. But that USB port is a bottleneck. USB is a fine way to connect a mouse, keyboard or a digital camera, but it's too slow for a CD writer.

The Plextor drive, which connects to the same internal socket as the PC's hard drive, runs four times as fast. To be fair, Hewlett-Packard also makes fast drives, which, like the Plextor, require you to disassemble your PC.

Despite the installation hassles, the internal Plextor drive is a better choice for anyone with a desktop PC. It's faster and more reliable, which is critical because the time and money you waste creating defective CDs can be significant.

Both drives are designed for Windows-based machines. The QPS Que, which is similar to the HP 8200e, works with both Mac and Windows.

All CD writers can also play back CDs, so it's possible to have a CD writer as your only CD drive. In fact, some new PCs now come with a single built-in CD reader and writer.

If you're one of the lucky few with a Mac or PC with a FireWire port, you can have the best of both worlds. FireWire CD writers are as fast as internal drives and as easy to install as USB drives.

When you shop for a CD writer, make sure it's designated as CD-RW, which means it can handle both the erasable (CD-RW) and non-erasable (CD-R) CDs. High-quality CD-RW discs, which typically cost about $1.50 each in quantities of 25, can be erased and updated just like floppy disks.

Good CD-R discs cost about $1 a piece in bulk, but they can be used only once. Still, they're great for audio CDs and for PC backup when you want a permanent archive of your files. I avoided using super cheap, no-name discs because they tend to have a much higher failure rate than major brands.

Also, look for the speed rating on CD writers. There are three speeds you need to worry about--all of them specified by an "x," with x equal to 150 kilobits per second. The first number is the speed for writing to a disc. The second is for rewriting to a CD-RW disc and the third is the speed that the drive reads from a CD-ROM. The HP 8200e, for instance, writes at 4x, rewrites at 4x and reads at 6x. The Plextor is rated at 12x, 10x and 32x. In theory, a 4x drive can copy an entire CD in about 18 minutes, while a 12x does the job in six.

That assumes everything works perfectly, which is rarely the case.

There could be a defect on the CD--even a speck of dust--that causes a problem. If you're copying a CD-ROM, the CD-ROM drive might not be fast enough to keep up with the CD writer. It can take twice as long to copy a disc if the software has to first copy the source CD to the hard drive before it copies it to the new CD. Or the PC may be running software in the background that slows down or even aborts the writing process.

One reason the Plextor drive is so reliable is a technology called "BURN Proof" that prevents a common problem known as "under-burning" that occurs when the PC can't deliver data fast enough to the CD writer.

And there is a wrinkle in the technology that can limit where you can play a homemade audio CD. Home DVD players can play standard audio CDs, but they don't usually work with CD-R discs. DVD players do work with CD-RW discs, but most audio CD players require CD-R discs. So, unless you plan to play your CDs on a DVD player, you're better off using the CD-R format.

The cool thing about these drives--at least the ones that work correctly--is that they are genuinely useful. I used the Plextor drive to create backup copies of several of my audio CDs so that I can listen to them in the car--which, by the way, is legal as long as you use them for personal use and don't share them with others.

Even if you're not a music fan, these drives are a good way to protect your PC data files. Unlike other backup systems, you can access your CDs from virtually any computer so you don't have to go through a lot of extra hassle to restore your data, even if your PC is broken or stolen.

Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached at larry.magid@latimes.com. His Web site is at http://www.larrysworld.com. Recent PC Focus columns are available at http://www.latimes.com/pcfocus.

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